I was quite young when I first became aware of women who had struggled with infertility. It doesn’t matter that I had little understanding of the intricacies involved or that I, V and F were no more than letters in a recently mastered alphabet. Back then, my Hebrew teacher emphasized Sarah’s laugh in response to the suggestion that she would finally give birth to a child and that her laughter was a sign of disbelief. Over the years I discovered that Sarah was not the only Biblical character who faced infertility and that there were numerous responses: surrogacy, competition, depression, despair and prayer. Today, as I deal with my own infertility I can relate to each of these reactions, but Sarah’s laughter is the one with which I can most identify and find it to be surprisingly prevalent.
My own laughter probably arises from a sense of doubt and this is likely a defense mechanism. If I remain skeptical that treatments might actually succeed it is easier to accept it when they don’t. No matter how far technology can assist, in the end we are counting on a miracle – divine or otherwise. It is this sliver of doubt that keeps me going. Sarah keeps most of her doubt inside, questioning whether after all these years she would finally experience joy. I’m fortunate enough to have the luxury and freedom to express my feelings. All too often women dealing with infertility hide their feelings for any number of reasons. Maybe they are afraid that other’s will misunderstand or judge their feelings, or maybe the process is too difficult. My expressions of hope, doubt, happiness and sorrow are all part of the experience and giving them voice has become a source of comfort.
Sarah was not alone in her laughter, Abraham also laughed when he learned that he would father another child- though his laughter never receives the same attention as the story is retold. Early in the text, he wondered if he could actually have a child at the age of 100 with a wife who was 90-years-old. They did not laugh together, but I like to think that the similarity in their reactions reminds us that a couple facing infertility must do so together. It is true that regardless of the cause, the burden of fertility treatments fall mostly on the woman. Nonetheless, both members of the couple are on an emotional roller coaster. Plenty of resources have been developed aimed at women who are dealing with the emotions that accompany infertility, but far fewer exist for men. My husband and I have found it helpful to remember that this is a shared experience and trial. Through it all we have shared both tears and laughter.
For the most part, I find that society laughs off infertility. Most people learn about it only once they directly feel its affects. While in our adolescence we are taught all about birth control – an important message- often, we fail to encourage young women to understand their bodies and recognize abnormalities that might prevent later complications. Instead, we promote a culture that tells women to worry about the ever-ticking biological clock long before it is actually a problem. Finally, in cases where a woman, or couple, does face infertility, treatments are often prohibitively expensive. I am always grateful that Israel covers IVF as part of its national insurance and am fairly certain that it would not have been an option for us were we living elsewhere.
Examples of women, Biblical and otherwise, who overcame their struggles with infertility allow me to remain hopeful. I believe that, like Sarah, when given the news of my own pregnancy, I too, will laugh.