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?