Our daughter was just a few months shy of turning 2 when we decided we were ready to expand our family. I had taken for granted that it would be as easy for us the second time around as it was for the first. But after a series of false starts, closed doors and heartbreaking losses, I realized it would be anything but that. One by one, everyone around me started announcing their pregnancies while I found myself on a crash course in embracing disappointment, envy and surrender.
Throughout the many months that followed, I have constantly been pulled toward the stories of the biblical matriarchs, so many of whom faced years and years of infertility and struggle. They yearned and pleaded and poured out their souls to God. They offered anything and everything they could think of to the Divine, if only they might be granted a child in return.
On the one hand, it was comforting to see my own experience reflected in these women’s stories in the Torah, to know that this is an issue that women have been struggling with for thousands of years. But the more I thought about the messages of these stories, that comfort began to turn into something else.
We need only read a few chapters into the Book of Genesis before we meet Sarah (then known as Sarai), whose infertility goes on for so long that she allows her husband to have a child with her maidservant, Hagar. She does this to make up for her own perceived failure and inability to give him a son of her own. Despite being one of the few things in life over which we have almost no control, fertility was understood to be the measure of a woman’s worth. For Sarah, and later Rachel, her inability to give her husband a child was likely not only a source of immense heartbreak, but of shame. They go to unthinkable lengths to try to expand their families despite the toll it takes on their own hearts and minds — a relatable predicament for anyone who’s banished all plastic Tupperware, toxic chemicals, alcohol and caffeine with the hopes that it might help lead toward a successful pregnancy.
“When [Sarah] knew [Hagar] was pregnant, she began to despise her maidservant,” the story goes. A few chapters later, Rachel is described as furiously jealous of her sister, Leah, who was able to give their husband, Jacob, children when Rachel herself could not. The text portrays Sarah, Rachel and the many women who follow them as jealous and cruel. There is no compassion for the pain they were in or the struggles they endured. They are labeled as barren and judged for their childlessness. In the book of Samuel, we are introduced to Hannah, whose infertility is the first piece of information we learn about her, as if to suggest that it not only consumes her, but defines her.
I think of my own experience in modern times — how, even with the help of LH strips to determine ovulatory patterns and reproductive endocrinologists to identify the problem, it is still so overwhelming, so defeating. The women of the Bible had none of this. They had only their deep and unfulfilled yearnings, so human and relatable, all the while characterized with a striking lack of empathy.
The truth is, then and now, the experience of infertility can be reverberatingly lonely. During my first round of IVF, I was so struck by the silence in the waiting rooms. All of us were there for some kind of similar purpose so I could not understand why the rooms were so quiet. There was no idle chit chat. Everyone sat staring into their laps or their phones, waiting to be called in for bloodwork or an ultrasound. I craved comradery and connection, but all I heard was silence.
On the morning of my first egg retrieval, I remarked about the quiet waiting room to the nurse inserting my IV. With kindness, she explained, “It’s probably because for so many people, this is not their first try. They may be in rounds one or two or 10. They may have suffered losses or disappointments or hardships along the way.” I understood. We turn inward to protect ourselves from what is coming. Or not coming, as the case may be.
Like Sarah and Rachel, we too sometimes feel jealous and embittered. We look around us at a world full of babies and pregnant bellies — sisters, cousins, friends and coworkers who seem to get pregnant simply by breathing. The feelings that bubble up can feel not only painful but ugly as we struggle to hold the simultaneous truth that we are both happy for them and heartbroken for ourselves.
This is all compounded by the tactless questions so many people ask: When will we be ready to have another baby? or why we have not yet given our child a sibling. They offer well intentioned advice and anecdotal stories of hope. They encourage us to “just relax,” (my personal favorite) and so much of the time, have no sense of the piercing impact of their words.
Even our partners grow weary of the all-consuming nature of this dynamic. Our relationships bend under the strain and pressure of infertility. Jacob becomes “incensed” at Rachel and defensively asks, “Can I take the place of God who has denied you the fruit of the womb!?” Elkanah grows frustrated with Hannah and asks why his love is not enough for her. So often, we, like the matriarchs before us, find ourselves consumed by our yearning for a child, all the while feeling heartbroken, less-than and invisible. For them and for us, this experience can be enough to harden our hearts.
Maybe the way the matriarchs are portrayed as jealous and cruel didn’t bother me for its lack of empathy — but for its painful reality.
The text tells us that “Rachel said to Jacob, Give me children, or I shall die.’”
I relate to this sentiment so deeply. At times, I have been so consumed by this yearning that I have felt like I can’t breathe. Then I imagine myself in the company of so many before me: Sarah, Rachel, Hannah and all who are on this complicated path of fertility, yearning and hope. I imagine us all breaking out of our quiet silos of expectancy, commiserating with one another, sharing our pain and our struggle. Admitting our complicated feelings toward our sisters, friends, coworkers and even ourselves. Owning our humanity and forgiving ourselves for all of it.