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During Hanukkah, Let’s Remember Those Suffering from Infertililty

Couple With Heads Down

“What do you want for Hanukkah?” my mom asked me, knowing that she hadn’t been able to buy me clothes since I was 9 because I was so particular.

More than three decades later, however, I couldn’t answer her question. Because there was only one thing I wanted for Hanukkah: a baby. Clearly, she couldn’t give me that.

Up until that year, I had always loved Hanukkah. When I was single, it was primo time for meeting guys — especially  during “matzah ball” parties — and when I was with my boyfriend, then husband, it was eight nights to celebrate with all our families and friends, singing Hebrew songs to his guitar under the melting menorah lights.

But once I started trying to conceive — and subsequently endured three years of miscarriages and expensive fertility treatments — the holidays transformed from a period of celebration into a time to hide. I wanted to avoid people asking me what was going on (nothing! I was either trying to get pregnant or getting over a lost pregnancy), to steer clear of other pregnant women (I was jealous!), and to dodge triggering sights (basically everything).

The only thing worse than infertility during the holidays is probably infertility during the holidays during a pandemic. While it’s true that, thanks to the necessity of social distancing, people finally have an excuse to beg out of in-person celebrations. However, online candle lighting and other virtual community and family events can make people suffering from infertility feel even more alone.

The truth is, one in eight American couples suffers from infertility. And while Hanukkah is not fun for anyone during the pandemic (I’m currently in quarantine, so I know!), we can also take time to think of those we know who are suffering – from loneliness, joblessness, food insecurity, illness, and infertility – and try to help them have a brighter year.

In honor of the eight nights of Hanukkah, here are eight different groups of people who may be suffering in silence — and how we can help them.

1. Those experiencing secondary infertility 

A family might have a child and want another, or might even have several kids but can’t get pregnant with another. (Secondary infertility refers to someone who already has a child, as opposed to primary infertility.) “Every woman has one less kid than she wants,” a friend with three once told me, when I looked upon her family enviously. The takeaway here? Never assume the person you’re talking to had an easy journey.

2. Men

“Infertility feels like it’s the women’s burden to bear,” Rebecca Ruberg, an educator, tells me.  ”In Judaism, one is questioning why Sara took so long to conceive, but there’s no one is questioning what Abraham was working with there.” Ruberg had more than three-year journey to have a child, due to both her and her husband’s infertility.

“Fertility is one-third male factor, one-third female factor, and one-third both,” says Ruberg, who, along with her  husband, a pulpit rabbi, told their story on a mobile app called Story Aperture, a collaborative effort between Hadassah, the Jewish Women’s Archive, and Uprooted: A Jewish Response to Fertility Journeys.  “He wanted to talk about it to change the narrative. If we don’t talk about it, men don’t get tested, and women bear it alone.”

In short: Don’t just ask a woman how she is doing, ask the male half of a straight couple how he is too.

3. LGBTQIA people

Many in the LGBTQIA community know from the outset they will need assistance to conceive, because of biology. But even with the help of science, some have additional fertility issues. Rachel Spekman thought she would just “get some sperm from a friend” in order to have a baby with her wife — but it wasn’t so easy. Instead, it took her two-and-a-half years and countless fertility treatments with a sperm donor to have their son.

While she found community life “comforting,” Spekman says she wishes the Jewish community at large would know more about infertility and offer more support. “My dream is that there’s exposure to this taboo topic,” she says. “By not talking about it, you’re exacerbating the shame of it.”

In short, don’t assume a gay couple always adopts (Spekman didn’t!), and let people talk about how they are going to build their family.

4. Miscarriage and pregnancy loss sufferers

I didn’t tell my family when I’d just suffered a miscarriage, not wanting to ruin a party. I was afraid of judgment (“you’re too old!”) or that their sympathy would derail me. With a whopping one-in-four pregnancies ending in miscarriage (I myself am above average, with four miscarriages), many families are suffering in silence,even after they have children.

If you know someone went through a loss (see: Meghan Markle) don’t say, “It wasn’t meant to be,” or “You’re young, you can try again.” Just say: “Sorry for your loss.”

5. Single women who freeze their eggs 

During the pandemic, Shari, 44, discovered she doesn’t miss large holiday celebrations or Shabbat gatherings. “Most singles don’t want pity — we want to be seen as a whole person, not someone incomplete,” she says. At 39, she froze her eggs, “to keep my options open” and told many in her community about it. “We have to normalize it, bring it up in casual conversation, the way a nose job would have been in the 1960s.”  Still, Please don’t ask any single woman if they’ve thought of freezing their eggs. Trust me, they have — and they don’t need others to bring it up.

6. Couples that are childless but not by choice

My friends were married for 20 years and just announced they were pregnant. I always assumed they were “childfree by choice” — the word “childfree” only applies to those who don’t want children — but they were actually childless not by choice. It’s hard to know what people are going through, especially if they don’t talk about it. I wish I’d known my friends had been trying, I might have been more sensitive.

7. Parents and grandparents

We rarely think about parents and grandparents who suffer the consequences of infertility, but they do. They are sad for their children and grandchildren who are struggling to conceive, and they may also be sad for themselves, for not experiencing the joys of being grandparents and great-grandparents, especially when their friends are always kvelling over their offspring.  I have a second cousin who is embarrassed to go to holiday celebrations because she has no grandchildren to bring with her or talk about. “The Jewish community has close families, and the struggles of their children are important to them,” says Janice Weinman, CEO of Hadassah, which has launched reConceiving Infertility to end the stigma of infertility and advocates for legislative change. “Infertility is an intergenerational issue, not just about one generation per se.”

8. Those experiencing circumstantial infertility 

Some people haven’t had the children they yearned for due to circumstance — they don’t have a partner or hadn’t found a partner in time for parenthood, says Melanie Notkin, Founder of Savvy Auntie, who coined the term “circumstantial infertility” to describe those like herself. For some, this holiday season may be a relief, without large Hanukkah gatherings with family and friends and their children which can be painful reminders of another year gone without a baby of their own.

“On the other hand,” Notkin says, “Hanukkah is also an opportunity for childless aunts and uncles to revel in spoiling their nieces and nephews with gifts, watching little ones light candles for the first time, and singing familiar songs and baking cookies together, creating lasting memories.” Notkin hopes parents will offer ways to include these aunts and uncles in Hanukkah celebrations this year.

This article was made possible with the generous support of UJA-Federation of New York.

Header image via CSA Images / Karniewska / Getty Images

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