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Sunday, December 10, 2006

Lip Service

I went to see a film about motherhood at the Washington Jewish Film Festival called Be Fruitful and Multiply. Afterwards, they had a panel discussion with the filmmaker, a woman from the film, and two researchers. This film, by the way, has nothing to do with infertility and everything to do with hyperfertility. There were four women in the film--the first had 16 children (woman A), the second had 14 children (woman B), the third had 5 children and wanted more but her husband thought they should limit their family size (woman C), and the fourth had been part of a large family and had decided to limit her family to 4 children (woman D).

You would think, statistically, that out of 16 children, one would be infertile. Just based on statistics. But all of the siblings were popping out babies left and right. My husband raised an interesting point--some fertility issues are present immediately and some (like diminished ovarian reserves) develop over time. Are some women, who may be infertile if they waited until this mid-twenties to start, leaping over infertility just because they're cranking out babies by 18? Are they facing infertility at 30 after they've already had 10 children so it's not as obvious to the outsider that there's a problem?

But I digress.

The woman who sat on the panel discussion was the first-born child of woman A. You see her in the film. She's the one sitting around the dining room table, holding her baby while she tells a story about a woman she met in the zoo who chose to live child-free. Her sisters are discussing this woman with their mother (woman A), and they essentially decide that this woman must be mentally ill if she has chosen not to have children.


As this woman sat on the panel discussion, she paid lip service to living child-free or limiting family size, saying that it was every woman's choice. People are entitled to change their minds, but it felt like she realized the audience didn't share her wildly fertile uterus and she was changing her tune in order to appease the crowd.

But again, I digress.

I raised my hand and asked a question: "how are infertile women viewed in ultra-orthodox society? Are they more supported because everyone is sympathetic to their yearning to have a child or are they living on the fringes of society as an outcast?"

Without actually addressing my question, the child of woman A spoke about the organization A T.I.M.E., which is a Jewish infertility support group. She talked about the financing of fertility treatments and how there is so much support for the infertile orthodox person.

Up until this point, every time an audience member asked a question, it was answered by one person on the panel. But this time, one of the researchers grabbed the microphone and added her own point of view in an incredulous tone.

She told the story of a woman she knew in the ultra-orthodox community who was so consumed by the pressure to conceive and so distraught over her inability to conceive that she made herself physically ill. She became bulimic in an attempt to gain some control over her life. It was a sad story.

The other researcher, who turned out to be a fellow stirrup queen, also grabbed the microphone and added her two cents. Jewish women have the highest rate of infertility out of any other ethnic group. And the rate of infertility increases based on education level (damn, why did I go for that MFA? Thank G-d that I dropped out of the PhD program or my eggs would have shriveled up all together). She pointed out that certain RESOLVE chapters have overwhelming numbers of Jewish members. The point being not only is infertility prevalent in the Jewish community, but if the support is so fantastic, why are the Jews flocking to an outside source--RESOLVE?


And I have to agree with her. I think the Jewish community has many great points (and I'm obviously still part of the community regardless of my "but"), but one of the places it fails is in regards to infertility. Like the name of the film, the highest commandment in Judaism is to "be fruitful and multiply." At the minimum, you are supposed to have a boy and a girl to replace yourselves. But what if you can't fulfill this commandment? When that question was posed last night, one woman said, "so you don't fulfill it. It's not a big deal. Not everyone was put on this earth to be a mother." But in the next breath, she pointed out how multiplying is the highest commandment. So which is it?

In Israel, army service is mandatory with a few exceptions. If someone has an illness that precludes them for serving, they would be released from the draft. But just because there was a reason to why they weren't fulfilling this governmental commandment wouldn't mean that it wasn't a big deal. Not serving is a big deal emotionally. And it's a big deal socially. At the end of the day, it's a fucking big deal.

And I'm trying to figure out how to explain this to an outsider. It's not just a disappointment. It's not on the same level as "I wanted to...but." Becoming a mother can be a need and it's a need that blossoms when a person is a child and playing house and becomes louder and louder until the time comes to fulfill it. And then you discover the need can't be fulfilled. And while the outsider, like the woman on the panel, may say, "okay, so you can't fill it--there must be another reason you're on earth. You just have to move on and stop obsessing" it merely reveals the lack of understanding between the non-infertile and the infertile communities. What is the analogy?

Her response was just the outsider paying lip service--of course we support! Of course it isn't a big deal if you can't conceive! No one is judging you!

But you know full well that you are being judged. You're being pitied. Which is almost worse than being judged. And the saddest part was that this woman on the panel probably considers herself to be supportive to those going through infertility. But it was obvious from her answers that she had no clue.

At the end of the researcher's remarks on RESOLVE, my husband leaned into the microphone and said in front of the whole audience, "thank you, and as a card-carrying member of RESOLVE, I couldn't agree more." Announcing your infertility in front of your entire community--priceless. And that, my friends, is strength and conviction--the opposite of lip service.

P.S. The film was excellent. If you get a chance, you should see it.
Updated at 7:49 p.m.

Just to clarify, I believe the statistic of infertility rates rising with education levels applies only to the Jewish community. I could be wrong, but that's how I understood the comment. Which obviously makes my graduate degree look a little less appealing right now. I'm not sure if the reason behind this is that people are delaying family building (though I certainly knew people in grad school who were married and trying to conceive) or if it's just an interesting little coincidence. Either way...

Googling "Judaism and fertility" brought this little nugget: "Because proportionally more Jewish than U.S. women have attained higher education, the connection between education and fertility disproportionately affects the Jewish population."

So I guess it's not exactly tied to religion, but instead tied to education. But it's perhaps more apparent in this population because many Jewish women continue their education past college. Strangely, googling education and infertilty did not bring up similar studies that are focused solely on education levels and not education levels within a specific group. Anyone out there in the fertility world who knows of such a study?

And even if I had known about this study before I ever applied to gradute programs, would it have impacted my choice?


Cibele said...

"the rate of infertility increases based on education level"
It hurts to hear that...If I could I would give back my PhD title but I guess it is too late now...

nice post!

~r said...

I was fertility-challenged when I started trying (at 22).. and lo and behold was still fertility-challenged when I conceived my son (at 27). And dammit, I don't even have a college degree to show for it.

I was raised in one of those "birth control is evil" religions, though fortunately, modern interpretation does not demand I have children. I can only imagine how much more difficult it is (emotionally) when there is religious pressure added to the already painful mix of pressures.

... and a big fat kudo to your husband for outing himself so publicly!!!

Anonymous said...

I believe the education/infertility thing is, sadly, not restricted to the Jewish faith. I'm sure it's got a lot to do with delays in TTC (correlative, not causative).


Anonymous said...

My comment worked! goes along with your husband's idea where some women (or men) may become infertile at 30, but they've already completed their families or they have enough children that they decide they've completed their families when faced with the choice (and expense) of ART - and either way, no-one really notices.

I can't imagine what it's like to be infertile in a community where childbearing/rearing is that important. Persephone talked about this a bit on her blog, and the conclusion was that like military service, if you can't do it, G-d understands. You're not obliged to do ART, and you're certainly not obliged to succeed. But that doesn't address the social pressure of being part of such a family-driven community.

Almost as if, instead of having a few homemaker friends you'd rather avoid at certain times under certain circumstances, you were living in a whole community of homemaker friends, too many to be able to avoid them all in times of need.


Ellen K. said...

That sounds like a very interesting film; I hope it will come to a film festival in my area. If not, there's always Netflix.

Kudos to you and your husband for your questions and especially to your husband for his public acknowledging of Resolve membership!

"Mentally ill" for choosing to be childless... I'm banging my head against my keyboard! I do find it surprising that the panel member would be so biased against childless families because I've noticed that many of the women from my hometown Catholic parish, who were members of the "most traditional" (read sarcastically: very large) families, have chosen to not marry or to be childless in their own marriages. Across the board, these women were the older sisters who had to take care of their siblings while mom was on bedrest yet again.

Anonymous said...

wow - the jewish community sounds so close to the irish catholic community whoa re just as screwed on family definitions. there are times i feel like i had to have a baby to prove i was female - some of the things said to me throughout our first infertility phase (many many many years) and nwo our 2nd lot of nfertility - coming up on 2 year - makes me sad, cringe and angry all at one.

Anonymous said...

I have a friend who is a dr. and she struggled w/ IF for 6 years. Ultimately they found a rare medical condition that was cleared up and they were successful right away. Anyway she says that studies that look at "stress" and "education" are really misogynistic and unreliable because they focus on older women. She feels that most of the studies focus on stress in high stress professions that women have to work long and hard to attain. They don't focus on other stressful jobs such as stay at home mom, where maybe the women are younger. Therefore it is imposible to determine if age or stress or education is the factor. When she told me this I was so happy. Who wants to hear that their education, something that they worked hard to earn, that will benefit their child ultimately is the problem! Waiting is probably my problem, not getting an education!

As always, a thougthful post. BTW I will email you soon!

Anonymous said...

My overwhelming emotion is anger at that woman. I cannot BELIEVE that someone would call someone else "mentally ill" for choosing to be child-free. Like Ellen, I am banging my head against the keyboard here. Ugh.

As for age - in my particular situation, age isn't the issue- so even if J and I started trying at 18, we still would have had fertility issues. My Ute is a birth defect, and his varicocele and low testosterone have been issues since he was a teenager.

I wonder, though, because we both have advanced degrees, that we by default end up in the "higher education" statistic?

Good for your husband for speaking up about Resolve! SO not something J would do. :)

DD said...

I won't have time to come back to this topic later, but reading it reminded me of how differently I perceive our IF as opposed to a couple that I'm acquainted with who are "strict" Catholics. Because of PCOS they are not able to have children w/o seeking the assistance of a doctor (their case is that severe). They have opted out of seeing any doctor because it is God that has determined this for them and seeing a doctor goes against what they believe their path to be.

On the other hand, if I am to not take BC and accept children as "Gifts from God" I perceive that God has tried to determine our path as well, but I refuse to accept that.

I think the main differences between the couple we know and ourselves is Education, and not necessarily the education one gets that grants little letters that follow your name. I spend hours researching info and weighing options in research. They won't because of their devotion.

It would then be interesting to see the correlation between being a devout [insert religion/race here] and education. In other words, the more education one becomes, do they then become more or less devout?

I'm sorry again if my train of thought completely derailed, but I couldn't help but think of how this may impact the statement "the rate of infertility incrases based on education level" because once we're more education, aren't we also more willing to seek help, which then gets us reported under the statistic of being IF?

For the couple I know, they are not an IF stat; they are following God's Will, and I think it has to do with how much (or how little) education they were willing to get.

Bobby and Ivy said...

Wow. I have to say I found this to be true in the Christian community as well. I went to a church that flaunted fertility like mad. I know a couple who is pregnant with their sixth, one who "accidentally" got pregnant with their fourth, etc. It was everywhere while I was trying. And of course, as soon as they found out that I was infertile, people stopped talking to me. They didn't know "what to say." In other words, I had nothing in common with them. Someone even told me "you need to have kids so that we have more in common and can hang out."

Gee, I so want to be your friend now.

So many communities out there have no idea that they are treating the infertile like an outcast. They think they're being nice. They say things like "We're praying for you." But then they say something like, "I don't believe you're infertile. I think you just need to pray through. You're not praying hard enough."

People suck sometimes.

That's one of the reasons why I'm so glad we have the internet now. I was able to connect with people just like me. People who understood and were truely supportive. And I didn't feel as alone. I felt a part of something. LIke I was a part of a growing community of men and women who stand up and say, "I'm infertile, and dammit there's nothing wrong with it!"

Thank you internet.

ms. c said...

Like Cibele, I would hand back my Master's degree if it meant that I would not be struggling now. The reality is that had I started trying to conceive at 25 (before I embarked on 4 years of higher education) I would still have been faced with the same medical problem.
The film sounds very interesting, as does the ensuing discussion. I made me sick to read the "mentally ill" comment, though I have to say that I am not surprised by it. Nor am I surprised by the woman trying to backtrack on the comment during the discussion period.
Being an (how can I put this...) "unreligious" Jew, I still hear the "be fruitful and multiply" mantra playing in my head. And it hurts. I am often asked by members of the community why, if I have been married for three years already, I do not have any children. Even though were are not orthodox, the pressure to multiply is always there. I have yet to come across one organization or group or anything that is devouted to Jewish infertility in my city which has a huge and active Jewish population.
I want to give you a huge round of applause for speaking up at the discussion. Thank you.

Ellen K. said...

This discussion reminds me of a post on published several years ago. Reading this today, I recognize a lot of it from Ali Domar's book "Conquering Infertility" (and indeed she is a primary source). Here's the link; you may have to watch a short advertisement to access the story.

This article discusses a Jewish infertility group in Boston. Another author, Jennifer Saake, is mentioned here. I've read her book "Hannah's Hope," which has a very decidedly fundamentalist Christian approach. Not being a fundamentalist, I was rather put off by most of the book, but I thought it was unusual in its appeal to pastors and church elders to LAY OFF the "pregnancy = God's best blessing" talk.

Anonymous said...

Well, the education and infertility thing has been linked, but more along the lines of, delaying childbearing, then waiting to get married, yadda, yadda.
In my case, endometriosis is definitely a disease that gets worse over time, as does the effect of my gene PAI-1 4G/4G. (Gene stays the same, but the scar tissue it causes mounts over time)

At 27, I could get pregnant with my first, and was still ovulating afterwards, etc. to get pregnant again, but over time, it had damaged my ovaries, and my FSH started to rise. If I had gotten pregnant immediately again, maybe life would be different, but I'll never know. I would still have POF, but I would've completed my family, and it may not have been so hard on me.
I've written many times about the BS that our generation was told. That we could have it all, do whatever we wanted, and have kids no problem when we were 40 or 45.
Which leads to another issue, not mentioned in the post, but Orthodox or highly religious couples are less likely to catch an STD before marriage, and STDs are a huge cause of infertility. (Yes, I know this isn't a hard and fast rule, but still...) Few like to talk about it, but PID, and herpes, and HPV, are very damaging, especially over time. Many of the women at my RE's clinic are dealing with this.
I'm hoping the next generation of women who have grown up knowing more about condoms, etc. will be spared, but again, who knows?

Anonymous said...

I was raised in the orthodox jewish community and am now secular. Infertility among orthodox jews is actually rare because they marry young and ttc young. (Most girls marry between 20 and 25 and begin ttc immediately.) Even in cases of infertility, the woman is usually young enough for treatment to be effective. Outside of orthodoxy, the reverse is true, no doubt because secular jews are more educated, open minded and these social philosophies are associated with delayed childbearing which impacts fertility. I myself am a case study of all of the above. I had two dd very easily in my 20's and I would have laughed if anyone had suggested that I could be "infertile". Now late 30s and trying for #3 with a new dh and lo and behold, I am reproductively challenged after six months of no success.

While being infertile in the orthodox community may be especially painful, it is a direct side effect of a heavy emphasis on fertility at a young age, which leads to less overall infertility. That is rather ironic, don't you think?

TeamWinks said...

Fertility challenged my entire life, due to a birth defect.

I love your husband!