Why We Need to Talk About Circumstantial Infertility
She looked around at a room filled with women; diverse in dress—some in skirts and high necks, others in jeans. Her audience was the unaddressed minority in the Jewish world: the unmarried, childless, traditionally Jewishly observant and/or somewhat Orthodox, 30-something female. While there were some women in their 20s and 40s present, the age trend was unmistakable.
We were all too young to be physically infertile, please Goddess…
But none of us had found our partners yet
So began the theme of the evening, “Taking Charge of Our Own Fertility,” hosted by JOFA (Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance), Yesh Tikva (A Jewish Fertility Community) and co-sponsored by the UJA Federation – Fertility Task Force. Moderated by Patricia Mendell, LCSW, who is a founding member of the American Fertility Association and a member of the American Society of Reproductive Medicine, three speakers presented their personal journeys, exploring the fertility options they undertook within the framework of traditionally observant Jewish lifestyles to reclaim and own their personal fertility.
One speaker was an outspoken, charmingly funny Upper West Side professional who froze her eggs in her mid-30s. Another was a New Jersey-based preschool director who adopted a child at 40. The final warrior woman of the night was a doctor and mother of four children who undertook artificial insemination several times over to give birth. You can see a recording of the event here.
While the Orthodox feminist world has become increasingly outspoken about the injustices facing women under Halacha (Jewish law) with regard to divorce and the agunah crisis, the Shidduch (matchmaking) crisis goes relatively unaddressed from a feminist perspective. Men in traditional Orthodox contexts usually prefer to marry women younger than themselves. Coupled with a rising birth rate, this results in more and more women left behind in favor of younger females. While this is only a contributing factor, and properly discussing the entire Shidduch crisis requires more time than the scope of this piece allows, suffice to say that the overall sociological concern has left thousands of religious (or formerly observant) women without the only traditional outlet wherein which they can actualize themselves in an Orthodox community—through marriage and children.
In truth, the Shidduch crisis is also an exacerbation of the general American struggle to find a partner, heightened in a community where life is so much more geared towards the family. In certain neighborhoods–– like the Upper West Side, Washington Heights in Manhattan, and in Brooklyn’s Crown Heights––where many of these attendees reside‚ new communities have formed that center around single life. But still, while any mid-30s career woman has to deal with prodding questions from insistent relatives at holiday time, the Orthodox Jewish woman faces the question at every Shabbat meal. Which is why it was particularly striking to me that in a community that is so child and family-focused, where so many women exhibit deep desires to have children and raise families—whether due to social conditioning, personal preference, or communal pressure—there are few non-traditional avenues to do so.
Early on, our panelists reminded us that circumstantial infertility is particularly awkward when we know our bodies are just fine, thank you very much, and capable of producing children—we just haven’t met the right partner yet. It reminded me of the frustrating comments I’ve received over the years by those in the Orthodox community who assume that being childless is a choice, a career focus, or a modern feminist phenomenon. If only people knew the true frustrations, heartbreaks, challenges and social isolation of being single, being childless, or simply choosing to forge your own path in a community so focused on the normative.
Having these strong, confident examples of single mothers by choice was like a soothing balm for some, myself included. But the event wasn’t just about the knowing nods and the shared camaraderie through being surrounded by women who deal with the same racing thoughts at 2:00 AM in the morning. As I scribbled notes and listened carefully, waiting for the pieces of information amid the personal tales, I discovered two surprising themes that arose through the evening.
One was money. The woman who froze her eggs had asked for parental support, the doctor using artificial insemination had her own means, and the woman who adopted had gotten lucky—supremely so—with a state adoption rather than a costly private adoption. “I’m not supposed to tell this to people, because they say I got lucky. But who says I’m the last lucky person? Maybe you’ll get lucky too,” she told the group. But overall, for those of us who had arrived prepared to perhaps take matters into our own hands, or at least consider the options, it seemed many would be locked out because of financial constraints. Jewish community organizations, for now, support infertility options for married couples, but not singles. Despite the knowledge that many Orthodox Jews are marrying later and therefore struggle with fertility once they marry, there seems to be little incentive to work on the problem in a preventative manner by supporting egg freezing in the United States. (In Israel, apparently, the story is different). During the Q&A, some shared the same concerns that I had on how these options are achievable without significant financial resources. As a freelancer with minimal health insurance, I could barely wrap my head around ever being able to afford the possibilities described by the panelists. Some shared their personal sources for loans in the Jewish community, but overall the question was left unanswered.
The heartwarming factor came in hearing about the panelists interactions with their community. It made me consider that I’d possibly underestimated Orthodoxy. While the conversations on Halacha were limited, having the event focus on the emotional elements instead was helpful and surprising. Panelists spoke of the support from their surrounding Jewish communities because of specific choices they made, and general lack of weirdness with their single-parented-by-choice children. In fact, one rabbi of a panelist’s congregation greeted her newly adopted child with joy and congratulations. The children are content with their single mother;and while the mothers struggle with the usual concerns of single parents, they all seem well supported by their communities.
While I no longer categorize myself as Orthodox, it was fascinating to note the difference between the actual Halacha and communal standards that are frequently more of a concern than the law itself. Because let’s face it, even with the aforementioned community support, the shadows are still there. For instance, adoption was selected as a choice by one mother so as to avoid facing judgment for being pregnant and unmarried in her tight-knit community. Another mentioned her first pregnancy was easier because she’d been living far from home in a residency program, and in subsequent pregnancies hadn’t felt stigmatized because she was the already the mother of children. The conversion process for the adoptive mother was made more challenging by rabbis because she was single, and the woman who chose to freeze her eggs was offered support by a Jewish organization with rabbinic supervision (for those who want to ensure the eggs won’t be mislabeled and result in Halachic concerns), but not financial or emotional support.
I left the evening needing to process my feelings in order to understand what we’d uncovered and what lessons I should take with me going forward. Should I focus on the sad state of a community that funds everything they believe will promote the future of their nation, but not the women begging to parent the next generation? Is a wish for children caused by the social status attained in a community that values parenting beyond career, or is it about the internal needs of women who want to be parents despite successful careers? Through writing, processing, and calibrating all I experienced, I realized it’s not about any of that. It’s about having a shift in mindset and recognizing that things might not be as you once imagined. One panelist expressed it perfectly when she talked of mourning. She spoke of bidding farewell to the fantasy of marriage and children, in that order. Her realization came suddenly: “If I was going to have children, it’s going to be this way.” So she did it.
I’m wondering how many others might make the same choice, if given the opportunity. With this shift, our communities can see the unseen, recognize the unrecognized, and support the unsupported. Our world can empower mothers and would-be mothers to feel okay acknowledging the unmet need.
In the name of the co-sponsoring organization, “Yesh Tikvah”—there is hope.
Correction: An earlier version of this piece mistakenly said there was no recording available. You can see the recording here.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of Lilith Magazine.