I’m 29, it’s Rosh Hashanah and I’m sitting in my grandmother’s shul with my family, listening to the story of Abraham’s wife Sarah—still named Sarai at this point—who cannot conceive a child with her husband. I sit next to my beloved grandmother, surrounded by parents, siblings, uncles and cousins. They are fidgeting, whispering, bored—adults and kids alike.
Amidst their fidgeting, I am still: breathless, riveted, listening intently to Sarai’s story of barrenness, struggling to hold back my tears. That word—barren—hits me with a thud, a kick that takes my breath away. Barren— vastness and hopelessness of what that word evokes. I feel hopeless.
Barren: That’s what I am.
Unable to bear a child. Or am I? They—doctors, friends, family—say I’m young, there’s no reason they can see that I cannot conceive. I should give it more time. Relax. Go on vacation. Chill out; there are things we can try. And we do. All of them.
I swing wildly between hope—as each intervention is a fresh start. Maybe it’ll finally be my turn. But there is still despair, signaling nope, not your turn. Many days I want to add that “yet”—not my turn yet. And then there are days that I just don’t think I’ll ever have my turn.
So I understand Sarai’s frustration and anger, and her jealousy of Hagar, alongside her deep longing and yearning for a child. The intense longing, the dream of a family that I will create with the person I love most in the world, resonates with me so deeply.
There is still a hope I pull from deep within, after the disappointment every month—but that same hope gets dashed as the months go by and I am still not pregnant. But how do I keep going without it?
I don’t know how. I just know that I am in such pain. I am quite sure I’m being punished, that I don’t deserve a child. It’s a deep-seated certainty that I am not worthy or lovable, that only when I finally become worthy, God will give me a child.
It’s crazy, really. That’s never been my personal theology—at least in my intellectual self. Yet suddenly, while in shul, with this “barrenness” surrounding me, I surprised myself by thinking that must be it.
As others were praying, I was bargaining with God: “I’ll try to be better. If only you will give me this, I will be a better person, more loving and compassionate and generous.” And I pray some more. For courage. For strength. To find more kindness and less envy.
I alternate between shame at all my failings and being angry at God–why me? Or really, why not me? Why her? And her? And her? Are they better? More deserving? I am deeply, truly joyful for my sister-in-law as she became pregnant, then for my sister, then one friend after another.
And I am ashamed of the envy I feel right alongside that joy. I haven’t yet learned to hold myself with compassion. Now, though, I am mostly just angry at myself—for wanting this so much. For putting everything on hold–my career, friendships, travel, family—to pursue the treatments, the never-ending needles, pills, procedures. I am angry for feeling so alone. For holding this burden in private, in silence.
And yet—even as I hurt, I find comfort in sitting in the sanctuary, surrounded by the traditions and ritual, the stirring melodies, the chance to return to God with a clean slate, with a yearning for finding that unconditional love we’re promised as Jews.
After nine years of struggle, from ages 29 to 38, starting with the pill Clomid, to stimulate ovulation, then going through in-vitro fertilization with a donor egg—all without success—my husband and I finally realized our dream, forming our family through adoption. We have a daughter by open domestic adoption and a son through international adoption.
And I am 100 percent sure we have the children we are meant to have.
In the very moment of becoming parents, the long struggle fades into the background. The pain and heartache, the longing and isolation—all these recede, as the daily work takes over.
Yet for nine years, I sat in shul during the Yamim Noraim—the Days of Awe—with pain in my heart, feeling so alone as I listened to Sarai’s struggles; her pain was my pain. Each year was more fraught, filled with that much more loss. Even now, in my own synagogue, after so many years, I sit and remember and weep again—with compassion and love for that former self who struggled in silence and alone, and for others who do so now, both those I know and those I don’t know.
At my time of struggle, I did not belong to a synagogue and didn’t have a rabbi. But I do now, and I wonder each year at this time how I might have been comforted during that painful time by being acknowledged, surrounded by my community. Acknowledgement would have eased the pain and brought some comfort.
And that thought is front and center in my mind: How might we shine a light on fertility journeys in our synagogues, and in the Jewish community more broadly? How can we hold each individual who struggles to find comfort and compassion during this journey?
I look forward to the day when those who are on fertility journeys are held in compassion, and feel the loving support and embrace of Jewish community.
Shanah Tovah U’metukah.