The first commandment Gd gave to Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden was, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth.” Very soon after in the book of Beresheet we encounter the issue of infertility, a real impediment to fulfilling Gd’s directive. Sarah our Matriarch did not become a mother until the age of 90. After years of infertility Rivka gave birth for Yaakov and Esau. And Rachel endured years of suffering as her sister (who she shared a secret signal with that enabled her to marry Yaakov first) and their handmaidens all bore children. The grief she experienced was most profoundly expressed when she beseeched Yaakov to pray for her saying: “Give me children – otherwise I am dead” (Beresheet 30:1). The Torah relates that Yaakov’s response was uttered in anger. (He replied, “Am I instead of Gd Who has withheld from you fruit of the womb?”) And although there are many explanations for Yaakov’s response, our sages tell us that Hashem took Yaakov to task for his insensitivity to Rachel.
Fast forward to the year 2020 – a time when many women still suffer from the grief of infertility as did Rachel, which is compounded by coping with the emotionally charged fertility treatments that are now available. And still, many of us are unsure of how to speak to these women, comfort them, and encourage them. There are many wonderful organizations, such as ATime, The Puah Institute, and Boneh Olam, that connect women to the vital medical services they require to manage infertility. But, until recently, there was no organization specifically addressing the emotional aspects of coping with infertility and with the medical treatments involved.
SBH Steps Up
Enter the SBH Fertility Support Program, which was created about a year and a half ago. with the mission of providing support to women undergoing fertility treatments and to their family members. Audrey Grazi, LCSW, Director of Mental Health Resource elaborates: “It was brought to our attention by women in our community that this population was not being served. Our goal is to focus on the emotional needs of the women with support groups, both in Brooklyn and Deal, workshops, one-on-one peer support, and yoga classes . Our support group leaders were professionally trained, using the model of the Gefen Fertility Center in Israel, and we have trained about 50 women as peer mentors.”
As the facilitator of the support group in Deal, NJ, I can attest to the necessity and effectiveness of the groups. The first benefit to the women is the peer support the women receive in these groups, which is vital to their wellbeing. One woman shared: “It helps me feel like I am not the only one going through this, which takes away the feeling that there is something wrong with me because I can’t have a baby. I feel less embarrassed and ashamed about my situation.” Secondly, the women provide reassurance and hope to one another. They discuss strategies for dealing with misguided statements and for coping with their feelings of disappointment. And, last but not least, the women receive education and tools to cope with the anxiety inherent in this challenging life experience.
Sensitivity to Families Experiencing Infertility
On January 8, the Fertility Support Program sponsored a sensitivity event entitled “How to approach, respond to, and support your loved one through infertility and pregnancy loss.” The speaker, Aimee Baron, MD, was formerly the Director of Innovation and Growth at Nechama Comfort as well as serving as an attending pediatrician in the newborn nursery and neo-natal intensive care unit at St. Luke’s Roosevelt Hospital. Dr. Baron shared some staggering statistics about infertility and pregnancy loss. “Approximately one in eight couples are experiencing some form of infertility, and one in four pregnancies end in loss or miscarriage. One out of one hundred pregnancies end in stillbirth, which is a miscarriage that occurs after 20 or more weeks of pregnancy. Infertility is a universal struggle to have a child – whether you’ve never had a child before or are having difficulty conceiving after you have a child already, whether you have experienced pregnancy loss, or you are considering adoption, or surrogacy.” With the statistics this high, there’s a good chance we know someone who is or has been affected by infertility, and we need a clearer understanding of how to properly support someone who is struggling to have a child.
Dr. Baron shared her personal story to help the audience understand the emotional upheaval infertility wreaks on a couple. She explained that there is a constant cycle of hope and disappointment in the life of a couple trying to conceive. Doctors’ appointments, treatments, and the waiting to see if their treatment took. When, in many cases, the pregnancy is lost, the disappointment can be crushing. “Losing a pregnancy is an intangible loss,” Dr Baron explains. “There are no real concrete memories of the baby that was lost, making it very hard to move on.” But the couple must move on to the next cycle, to the next chance, to the next hope.
After her third miscarriage, Dr. Baron took a leave of absence and became an “ambassador” and support to other women facing the same challenges. “I recognized that there were many wonderful organizations that helped couples with referrals and the medical issues associated with infertility. But what happens when you are home alone, or in the middle of the night when you are crying because the last cycle didn’t work, or you just lost a baby?” Dr. Baron chose Instagram as the social media platform through which she could reach the most women and founded “I was supposed to have a baby” in August 2019. “This platform supports Jewish families who are going through infertility, pregnancy loss, infant loss, surrogacy, and adoption. It allows couples to tell their stories and share resources with one another at any time of the day or night.”