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October 9, 2015 / 26 Tishri, 5776
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From The Greatest Heights (Part III)

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While I certainly don’t speak for all infertile couples, I feel a brief introduction to some of the challenges that couples face would be worthwhile before I describe our treatment protocols.

It can be hard for people to understand how drastically infertility changes a couple’s lives. Suddenly the most intimate and private part of your life transforms so completely that it is almost unrecognizable. The spontaneous and carefree suddenly become frustrating and clinical. Hopes and prayers overtake love and affection. Failure and futility are confirmed every month at the very time that the physical comforting that could help soothe some of the pain is strictly forbidden.

The first feeling is of being alone.  Everyone else seems to have no problems as you watch friends and neighbors welcome yearly additions. Smiling and wishing a hearty mazal tov becomes second nature, as deep down you shudder in fear that you may never have the chance to enjoy those same blessings. 

I don’t recall who made the recommendation, but fortunately, someone pointed us to the resources of ATIME—an Orthodox organization that assists families dealing with infertility.  ATIME opened the door to a community of peers facing the same challenges and dreading the same fears. 

One of the most important lessons I learned from ATIME was one that I least expected.  While I found their discussion boards very empowering, providing a much needed outlet for my thoughts and feelings, my wife did not share my passion for written expression. Couples are forced to deal with infertility together, but people are individuals who may deal with their frustrations in very different ways.  It was an important insight that became a very integral part of our family dynamic over the challenging times ahead.

While I was fortunate to receive some good advice about ATIME, the vast majority of advice we received was anything but helpful.  Let me preface this by saying that most people mean very well, and I believe that they think that they are trying to help, but they don’t understand how hurtful their comments and suggestions can be.

I once heard a comedian say that the only time it is EVER appropriate to ask a woman if she is expecting is if the baby’s head is crowning and you need to assist in the delivery.  He was right.  Nothing good can ever come out of that question.  In the best case, you have revealed what a couple had wanted to keep secret or deprived them of the chance to make the announcement as they see fit.  In the worst case, you insulted a woman about her weight and reminded her of her daily suffering.  Simple advice: NEVER do it.

Purportedly trying to be helpful, some folks liked to ask who was at “fault” for the infertility.  Don’t be shocked that people asked that.  I fielded that question more times than I can count.  Aside from prying into the most personal parts of a person’s life, could anyone think it is actually helpful to remind either a husband or a wife that they are the cause of their suffering? 

I always answered that question by exclaiming that I believe my wife and I are bashert, and Hashem chose to give us this challenge together, so the physical means of the problem are completely irrelevant. 

Then there are the folk remedies, sure-fire segulos and ideas that worked for someone’s cousin’s best friend’s sister-in-law.  It doesn’t matter if it is to give tzeddakah to this cause, say that kapital of tehillim, get a red bracelet or dance around the room on your heads every Saturday night.   Desperate people may be willing to try many things, but none of them actually work, irrespective of the stories you may have heard.  Even worse, it can change the focus and imply that the real issue is that the couple isn’t doing something right.

Life goes on, infertility or not, and there are always social obligations with other couples with children.  People don’t seem to realize that normal conversations among young parents about diapers, colds, pediatricians and babysitters can isolate and even hurt.

I believe people try this to alleviate their own discomfort, but it is important to say, unless it is an accurate familial description, calling a childless couple “uncle” or “aunt” can be very hurtful and insulting.

One of the most delicate areas we faced were the requests to serve as the kvatter at Brissim. Kvatter was a frequent topic of conversation on the ATIME boards when I was active on them a decade ago.  It is wonderful that at the time of their incredible simcha, people think of others who may benefit from the kvatter segulah, but try to think of it from the couple’s perspective.

There is no starker reminder of what is missing from a couple’s life than at a Bris.  Everyone is there to celebrate an occasion that is the focus of that couple’s dreams.  All of the smiling faces and mazal tovs echo around their broken hearts, as they can’t help but wonder if they will ever be able to host such a celebration.

It can be a very trying and painful moment.  Often, your biggest desire is to blend in with the walls and hope no one is reading your thoughts as you brave a smile.  As an integral part of the Bris, however, that is not an option. The kvatter is called and you have nowhere to hide.  Suddenly you are face to face with everything you have ever wished for: a beautiful little child. Your heart breaks, but you haven’t even started yet!

Kvatter is a very public role. With all those thoughts swirling in your head, you have to walk through the shul as the center of attention, holding the baby. Deep down you know that your fertility issues are now the public thoughts or even discussion of everyone in the shul. 

It’s not that the people are ill intentioned (although there are always those obscene yentas), but no one wants their personal challenges to be made public. Nobody wants to be seen as a nebach.  Nobody wants to be the subject of people’s pity as they discuss how many years you have been married without children. 

As a huge sports fan, I used to joke that my wife and I were the DKs (Designated Kvatters), who were often called by people we barely knew.  I firmly believe that all of those people were well intentioned, but it’s hard to describe the dread after the news of the birth of a boy, waiting for that call to be asked to jump in as the DKs. 

There were even times that we did not get the call, where we were regular guests or I was davening in shul, when the father would come running up to me at the last minute and ask me if I wanted to be kvatter.  Well intentioned gestures, I am sure, but to understand our discomfort, just to try imagine the conversation that took place immediately before that offer was made (Chaim is here.  He REALLY needs this segulah!)

Even without the added dimension of infertility, I found kvatter to be a rather intimidating process.  The baby is on a pillow, and even under the best circumstances it can be hard to tell whether the baby is secure or ready to tumble right off.  The baby is held in front, and it can be very hard to navigate a crowded shul, through doors and especially up and down steps. 

My biggest fear was the baby rolling off of the pillow and falling to the ground.  Based on that fear, and to make the process less intimidating, my wife and I had this running joke when we do the “handoff” (she hands me the baby to carry in) that if I drop one, we can be sure we would never get another request to be kvatter

More effectively, I always used any legitimate excuse, such a small cough, a cold or pink eye to get out of DK duty for “the health of the baby.”

There is no question that infertility is a daunting challenge.  There is no need, however, for couples to suffer alone and in silence.  I am the first to advise a couple to contact ATIME or other similar organizations that offer a wealth of support and resources; there is no comparison between the empathetic support offered by people facing the same challenges and the pity, no matter how well intentioned, from the outside.

We certainly had no plans to become infertility experts as we prepared to start fertility testing.  We were being proactive and working to end our misery, but our expectations were woefully inaccurate and neither of us really knew what to expect when we took the next major step in our journey.

About the Author: Chaim Shapiro, M.Ed is a freelance writer, public speaker and social media consultant. He is currently working on a book about his collegiate experience. He welcomes comments and feedback at chaimshapiro@aol.com or on his website: http://chaimshapiro.com/

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