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Silence is not always golden: Talking about infertility and how to support loved ones

Mar 21, 2023

This week, March 25th is Yesh Tikvah’s infertility awareness shabbat. Yesh Tikvah is an organization whose mission is to create awareness and offer education about infertility and to offer support for those who are struggling. Resources include support groups, educational guides and events as well as platforms to share personal stories to help people feel less alone. They offer services to couples, men and women separately, those dealing with primary infertility (no children), secondary infertility (have a child or children but cannot conceive again) as well as single women and third party reproduction (surrogacy).

Every year, communities around the world join together in an effort to raise awareness, teach sensitivity and break the stigma around the struggles of infertility. Rabbis, clergy and community leaders dedicate this weekend to speaking about the struggle of infertility either by speaking themselves or inviting someone to share their story. The aim is to bring the conversation to the forefront of our minds, increase sensitivity in our communities, promote more active support and help those in the midst of infertility to feel seen, heard and valued. There are many ways you and your community can participate in this initiative. Talk to your Rabbi and or shul events committee and visit to sign up for the Infertility Awareness Shabbat synagogue experience. You can also host a panel event, plan a challah bake, share a personal story, among other beautiful ideas. Making infertility support and awareness a priority in your community is one hugely impactful way to support those who are struggling.

This time of year, in particular can be very painful for those who want to build families and cannot. Purim and Pesach are two holidays, almost back-to-back that are very family and child centered. It can feel very lonely and painful to not have children when everyone is dressing up, taking cute family pictures, heading to Purim carnivals and bringing packages with their kids to friends. Then just 4 weeks later, we are all sitting at the seder table with pregnant family members, siblings with kids, parents who are trying to contain their pained faces, comments or inquiries about your family planning status. Plus, a very specific commandment to teach our children about the miracle of leaving Egypt, have the youngest stand up and recite the Ma Nishtana etc. It is a lot of inescapable pain in a very short time. Sensitivity is always important but even more so when pain may be heightened by feelings of isolation, hopelessness and shame.

Talking about infertility can be difficult for everyone, including friends and family members. It is getting easier due to the open conversations that are happening and social media pages like I Was Supposed To Have A Baby (@iwassupposedtohaveababy) who are creating open and shame free conversations about everything infertility related but it is still difficult and awkward to figure out how to support those going through it. Learning how to show up can be the greatest thing you can do for a loved one.

Let's start with some of the things we don’t want to do and end with what we should do:

Don't try to take away or ease pain and don't problem solve. Instead, be a supportive presence by listening and following their lead. Remember that it is unlikely that you will suggest anything, either medically or otherwise, that they have not already considered.

Don't search for a silver lining. "Everything is for the best, " " God has a plan," "At least you know you can get pregnant," "Now you have more time together!" "It'll be good to have a bigger age gap".

These statements can feel dismissive and condescending. They minimize the intensity of their pain, cause more pain and can make them feel unsafe to share their feelings with you.
If they want to find the silver lining, that is okay for them. But don't paint one on someone else's cloud.

Don't focus on what you can say to make them feel better. Instead, actively listen, acknowledge and validate their thoughts and feelings. Sit quietly if appropriate. You can ask what they need from you when they are sharing. You can ask something like, "Do you want me to just listen or do you want a pep talk? I want to be helpful right now."

Don't push them to feel better or tell them to be strong/ that they are strong. Allow them to be whatever they need to be. Sad, falling apart, angry, despairing. You can say "It makes sense that you feel like this. I'll be strong for you/I'll hold on to hope for you."
Pain is a part of the process of feeling better and needs to be felt in order to heal.

Don't force socializing. Understand that they may need space especially when there are kids and family involved. Invite them regardless and let them know that you accept their decisions wholeheartedly.

Don't ask for causes of infertility. That is intensely personal and private.

Don't offer advice. Don't suggest medical procedures, adoption, IVF, surrogacy. Don't offer to give them your kids. Don't tell them to go organic or take up yoga.

Don’t promise them anything. “You guys will have a baby, I just know it.” No, actually you don’t. The intentions are good, the impact is not. Instead, “I’m thinking of you guys always.”

While I believe that initiatives like nishmat and perek shira and challah baking can be nice, they are not a magic pill. When they are prescribed to those who are suffering there can be an element of blame or "you are not doing enough as a Jew."
It can also create shame and anxiety when it doesn't work. "Does God hate me? Why didn't he listen?" Please remember that none of us are God's spokesperson. We don't know what his plans are or what he wants and it's not helpful to speculate.
If you want to do these things on their behalf, you can do them discreetly on your own and not talk about it with them. (If they've been open with you, you can ask if they would want you to organize a challah baking or Tehillim (psalms) in their merit. Discuss their preference for any anonymity.)

So, what CAN we do? It is actually much simpler than what we shouldn't do.

If they have not shared with you about their infertility there is not much you can do other than just treat them exactly the same as you always have. The steadiness of your presence and being treated "normally" can be the greatest kindness.
You don't have to say anything. Just being there is enough. Pray for them and don't tell them.

Read up about how to support those with infertility so that you can show up better, whether they tell you or not.

If they DO share with you, it's important to just be there with their sadness and honor it. "This isn't fair," "I don't know why this is happening," "I wish this wasn't happening to you."
Say things like: I want to help, I'm sorry you are suffering, I am here if you want to talk, You are not alone.

If you are pregnant and want to share with them, DO NOT WAIT. Text them before you tell any other friends or family (if they are family) so that they can take in the news in private without pressure to feel happy or hold back their emotion.
Recognize that it might be hard for them to be around you and take care of yourself. You can feel sad that they find it hard to be around you and honor their pain.

Send short texts to check in. Don't ask for updates about treatments or if they were doing a procedure, don't ask what happened. Instead, just say "No need to respond, just want you to know I'm thinking of you."

Send food, flowers, or drop off a good book. You can even leave it at the door.

Respect their privacy. Don't share their story with people. It's for them to decide to share.

Don't ignore pain. When we feel heard and seen, we can heal. The power of support and validation is real.

Remember never to make comments about when to start a family (even if they are older and you are worried if they wait), how childrens' ages are spaced or opinions about family size.

Lastly, you can consider changing some of your family traditions at the table in order to be sensitive to a struggling family member. I have seen people say the ma nishtana together rather than having a youngest child do it among other more neutral vs child centered traditions.

I love Brene Brown's explanation of empathy where she says "If sympathy is shouting down at someone while they are stuck in a hole, empathy is getting in to the hole with them."
Be willing to sit in the darkness with your fellow Jew. That can be everything they need from you.

Thankfully, there are many wonderful organizations in the Jewish community that offer support and resources such as: Bonei Olam (financial support, medical referrals, loans, counselor support), Nechama Comfort (infant and pregnancy loss), ATIME (support groups, education, resources), ATIME hug (pregnancy loss and stillbirth), Fruitful (based in Phoenix, Arizona provides community, education and resources), Hasidah (based in Berkley, California provides financial support for IVF, support resources), Puah ( free counseling and guidance re: men’s health, women’s health, genetics, ) With Love (based in Crown Heights, pregnancy loss support), I Was Supposed To Have A Baby (on social media @iwassupposedtohaveababy, utilizing social platforms to support all Jewish individuals and families and making connections to resources in the greater Jewish community). There are many, many more and if you are currently struggling, please know you are not alone and there is support available.

I wrote this piece when I was struggling with unexplained secondary infertility.

This was at a time where there was no social media and infertility was still a shameful secret. Thankfully, things have changed tremendously, in a positive way, since then.

May we continue to learn how to show up better for each other and may this year bring all of us the personal and communal redemption we are longing for. Chag Sameach!

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