Ever since I was a little girl, I dreamt of having children. After my husband and I were married, I spent years consulting with naturopaths and acupuncturists to clean up my diet and my home, preparing for pregnancy. When friends shared how quickly they had conceived, I anticipated a similar journey for us, considering all the advance preparation I thought I had already done.
But that’s not what happened.
I’ve spent a lot of time contemplating if I would ever publicly share details about my fertility journey and, if so, how much to share. On the one hand, I worry about my future children — who are not yet here — to consent to my telling of their story. On the other hand, while infertility is extremely common, it remains shrouded in stigma. So many suffer in silence because it’s not publicly talked about. I’ve come to an agreement with myself that, for now, sharing that we’re currently doing IVF is enough.
Holding intersecting identities as an Asian Jewish woman adds additional layers to my journey. When a colleague shared infertility warrior Anna Wang’s Instagram handle with me, I sob-scrolled through her entire feed in an hour. I inhaled each post, frantically breathing in a new kind of air I didn’t know I so desperately needed. After realizing I had been starved for representation, I found an NBC article by another East Asian woman, Annie Kuo, who cited a study by Dr. Victor Fujimoto of UCSF Center for Reproductive Health, stating that 40% of East Asian women wait longer than their white peers to seek medical help — at least two years after discovering their infertility. Some of this is due to societal and cultural factors, as well as access to fertility care. Both the Asian and Jewish communities are very family-oriented, so there can also be added pressure to reproduce, with a lack of sensitivity around infertility.
After years of struggling to get pregnant, I spoke with friends who had graciously been open with me about their own fertility journeys. With their encouragement, I researched fertility clinics in my area, pored over pages of Yelp reviews, and spent many hours on the phone with my insurance company. Finally, I mustered up the courage to call a fertility clinic. It was the height of the first wave of Covid, and I was told they were only seeing patients in active IVF cycles or those who had suffered a miscarriage. While I understand the need to prioritize patients during a pandemic, what I internalized was that my situation was not traumatic enough to be prioritized.
And yet, I felt traumatized. I was on a strict fertility diet, went to acupuncture twice a week, and I was taking so many supplements that I ran out of room to write them in the fertility clinic’s digital intake form. I tracked my cycle religiously, took ovulation predictor kits every few hours during ovulation, listened to fertility meditations, and tried my best to manifest becoming pregnant every month — only to be completely crushed when my period inevitably came each month. I had already spent thousands of dollars — and this was before trying more invasive and expensive procedures, like IUI and IVF — plus I had poured so much time, energy, and hope into starting a family. (Months later, I felt vindicated when my fertility therapist told me that, for women experiencing involuntary childlessness, every month you get a period is also a trauma.)
In pre-Covid times, I regularly attended Shabbat services. Something about praying in community in a holy place helped to soothe my soul. During the pandemic, my temple swiftly switched to virtual and still managed to hold meaningful services, but it simply was not the same. What’s more, during Covid, we moved to a different city, and a fellow Jew of color had warned me about the racism she and her family experienced in local Jewish spaces. Another friend shared stories she had heard about women struggling with infertility who were ostracized in those same spaces. During such a tender time, I knew navigating through all of this would be much more than I could manage.
Instead, I decided to cobble together a virtual healing ritual in order to pray in community. Rabbi Mira Rivera of Ammud: The Jews of Color Torah Academy, facilitated the space and offered a Jewish lens. Together, we hosted a virtual Red Tent ritual, named for the Anita Diamant novel centered on women in biblical times, who temporarily inhabited a red tent while menstruating or giving birth. (During that time, they received encouragement, support, and mutual care from other women. While the name is from a fictional book, similar spaces have existed for millennia for women in nature-based and Indigenous societies.) I invited several close friends and family members — including my mother and my mother-in-law — and each woman shared a special blessing for me.
During the ceremony, Rabbi Mira sang songs and read stories of intergenerational Jewish women caring for one another. My sister and sister-in-law guided us in a visualization meditation from Fertility Journeys: A Jewish Healing Guide from Mayyim Hayyim. It was the day after the 2020 presidential election, and a couple of people shared with me that they experienced a sense of community so needed that day. For some, it was the most connection they had experienced since the start of Covid.
As I began sharing my story, I experienced the amazing network of TTC (trying to conceive) sisters who shared their own rituals with me. A colleague at 18 Doors connected me with Rabbi Malka Packer-Monroe, who shared some of her treasured rituals, including how she and her wife lit three candles every Friday evening— two for Shabbat and one as a light of hope for those trying to conceive. She even shared blessings for the needles for the nightly IVF injections.
The other day, I got the dreaded call that our most recent round of IVF was not successful. I’m disappointed, but I don’t feel that same crushing feeling I felt earlier on in our journey. For better or worse, I’ve learned to build walls of protection around my heart. If I’m being honest, I’ve forgotten what hope feels like. I don’t know if I can survive being disappointed by hope again.
The one thing I wish people understood about involuntary childlessness is the profound grief that we in the TTC community experience. While we grieve the loss of something imagined, it is very real. In a Judaism 101 class years ago, I remember feeling a sense of awe and gratitude for the many healing and supportive Jewish rituals for the bereaved. And yet, when it comes to fertility challenges, I’ve heard and read countless stories of people who have felt excluded by the place they long to belong in most: their Jewish communities. Resolve, the National Infertility Association, states that 1 in 8 “women of reproductive age have received help for infertility in their lifetime.” I believe this is a vast undercount — many people don’t have access to fertility care, which is another devastating systemic issue. It’s time for our tradition to invent new rituals and ways to support people and couples experiencing infertility. It’s so desperately needed by so many of us.
Today, during Infertility Awareness week, I am sharing my story publicly for the first time. I hope it will inspire Jewish communities to create more awareness and systems of support for people facing infertility, today. And, I pray that my own dreams of having children will come to fruition one day. Every single pill, injection, blood draw, egg retrieval, and tear will have been worth it.
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