A few weeks ago, I attended the brit milah (ritual circumcision ceremony) of a new baby in our community. Of course, my attendance was virtual, as was the attendance of about 100 other people, all determined to celebrate this new life together while quarantined apart.
We are all being forced to stretch ourselves in untold ways to maintain some semblance of normalcy in this new era of Covid-19. We try to do all those things we were doing before — work, school, meetings, communal celebrations or communal mourning — but they all look and feel so different than they used to be.
And yet, so much is the same, or more accurately, amplified. Any problems that existed pre-coronavirus are still here. You might think they’ve been overshadowed by the fears and anxieties surrounding the pandemic, and maybe that was true at first. But now, after weeks of lockdown in the U.S. (and throughout most of the world), Covid-19 has become a magnifying glass on any issues with which someone might have been struggling before.
If someone had an underlying issue with depression before, isolation is a powerful and frightening way to bring those dark feelings to the surface. For people who were living hand-to-mouth before, the economic crash hurts even more than for those of us who are privileged to have some savings to fall back on. Many people had trouble getting access to the medical care they needed long before coronavirus, a problem that’s swelled unbelievably as the system has become increasingly overloaded.
Personally, my pre-Covid struggles feel bigger and more insurmountable in this time of uncertainty. Before Covid, infertility was a struggle that plagued me and my husband, Tzvi. Now, we feel even more uncertain than ever about whether we’ll ever be parents — something that really hit home when I virtually attended that brit the other week, and found myself in tears.
We didn’t always plan to be parents. I know, that’s unusual (to put it lightly) in the Orthodox world, where the family is the focal point of how we live our lives. But when we got married nearly 10 years ago, we knew with certainty that parenthood was not in the cards for us. This wasn’t something we talked about much with anyone other than our closest friends, and though we were secure in our positions, being childless-by-choice as committed Orthodox Jews was a difficult cross to bear (for lack of a more Jewified version of that term).
Our process from childless-by-choice to childless-through-infertility was long, painful, and often lonely. It was never something we forced; it took us time to come to the decision that we wanted a child, that we wanted to build a family together. Our feelings about not wanting children back then were very real and true, but as happens with many views we have when we’re younger, our feelings changed over time. Simple as that. After six years of marriage, we finally decided we were ready and started planning for a baby. You know what they say about planning… it’s the best way to make God laugh.
But we weren’t laughing when we got confirmation in the summer of 2018 that Tzvi has a relatively rare form of male infertility called nonobstructive azoospermia, which means there is zero sperm in his semen. (Not low count or low motility — literally zero). This is likely a condition he was born with, and there’s no way we could have known without running the appropriate tests.
The past 2-plus years have involved dozens of invasive tests; countless doctor appointments; two surgeries (Tzvi); lots of hormones and injections and a painful egg retrieval procedure (me); and more than $30,000 out of pocket… with nothing to show for it.
On February 14, we found out that our first IVF cycle had failed. Considering everything that’s happened in the world since, that day feels like a lifetime ago. And yet… it’s still a fresh wound for us. With all this time that social distancing has given us to think about things, we don’t have those usual distractions that would help us process this loss. Instead, we sit with the wound. It festers.
The pandemic also put a halt on all fertility treatments. I’ve read countless accounts from couples who were just days away from an embryo transfer, only to be told they cannot proceed. I’ve read essays from women whose fertility windows are closing — and may close all together before this situation has passed — and from couples like us, who just don’t know when they’ll be able to try again.
Infertility is a long and painful journey of getting your hopes up followed by crushing disappointment. It’s good news that turns into bad news (and often, bad news that turns into worse news). We are incredibly lucky to have the most wonderful support system, so every time we get bad news, we know there are many other people who are crying with us and for us, and that’s a weight we have to carry, too — the weight of disappointing the people who are rooting for us. Now, when everyone is hurting in their own ways, it’s just another layer of pain on top of what’s going on in the world.
Infertility is trying your hardest not to get your hopes up, trying to detach yourself from the situation, and talk about things in purely clinical terms… only to discover just how much hope you’d been subconsciously bearing when you get the bad news you knew on some level was coming.
Infertility is watching all of your friends have their last babies when you don’t even have a glimmer of your first.
Infertility is putting up with endless insensitive comments made by well-meaning people who don’t realize for a moment that their comments could be hurtful. “Oh, you’re so lucky you get to travel so much— get it in while you can!” and “You’re so lucky you’re not stuck at home with kids during this quarantine!” It’s being told to “just relax” or “be positive” or “don’t give up!”— all with the best of intentions by some of the people who love us the most.
Because, here’s the thing, until you’ve gone through infertility, you don’t know. I certainly didn’t. I’m sure I made so many insensitive comments before starting this journey, and if I made those comments to you and you’re reading this, I apologize. I had no idea the pain my thoughtless comment could cause you.
Infertility is planning a home renovation to make space for the pitter-patter of little feet, while knowing that little feet may never be in your future.
Infertility, for me, is wishing we’d never started wanting a child. Things would be so much easier if we just didn’t want this, if yearning to be a mother had never entered my realm of consciousness. But it did. And there’s no turning back. Even in the midst of a global pandemic, when the prospect of pursuing motherhood is even more tenuous than before.
Infertility is mourning the loss of something I never had, and never even knew I wanted.
This article was made possible with the generous support of UJA-Federation of New York.
Image by Matt Anderson Photography/Getty Images