By Tricia Anbinder and Elana Frank
A staggering one in eight couples will experience challenges in achieving and maintaining pregnancy. Some studies report that the number is closer to one in six. At these rates, it is highly likely that you or someone you know has struggled with this problem—whether you know it or not. And, sadly, there’s a good chance you don’t.
A condition most often battled in silence, infertility is defined as the inability to achieve a healthy pregnancy after one year of trying (or six months for women over age 35). The diagnosis of infertility is usually made once fear and profound disappointment have already set in. Couples have had many months to envision the family they wish to build. Often, by this point, possible baby names have been discussed, nurseries imagined, indescribable joy and fulfillment anticipated. Meanwhile, the negative pregnancy tests and unsuccessful efforts to chart menstrual cycles, take temperatures, and time intercourse have slowly drained the excitement from the fantasy of parenthood. In its place, a desperate longing often takes hold. By the time a diagnosis of infertility is made and exploration of cause is under way, couples are often already coping with a very personal kind of pain.
The planned conception of a child is, of course, something a couple pursues in privacy. For adults who have long envisioned themselves as parents, the imagined road to parenthood is paved with love, intimacy, and creation. The mechanics and biology of conception are often bits of sharp reality uninvited into the softness of hope. But as the months of trying to conceive pass, hope can erode and questions emerge, such as “What’s wrong with me?” “Why us?” and “What now?” It’s no wonder that fear and shame can take hold and lead to isolation just when couples are experiencing a life crisis that experts liken to receiving a cancer diagnosis.
Couples struggling with infertility can—and often do—experience waves of intense emotion, ranging from shock, fear, and disillusionment to anger, shame, and despair. Loss of control over one’s body and future is a profoundly and potentially life-altering experience. And the treatment options involve time-consuming, intensive, painful, and incredibly expensive medications and procedures; for example, IVF can cost between $14,000 and $25,000 per cycle. It’s understandable and not uncommon for infertility to become the preoccupying, defining chapter in the life of a couple.
Infertility as a Jewish Issue
The Jewish Fertility Foundation’s Medical Advisory Committee believes that about one in six Jewish couples suffer from infertility, as compared with a national average of one in eight. The pressures on more observant Jewish couples are compoundeded by the halakhic commandment to “be fruitful and multiply,” which is understood to mean having many children in quick order. With that added pressure, the stigma surrounding infertility is very present within Orthodox Jewish communities.
Dr. Daniel Shapiro, former chair of the Jewish Fertility Foundation’s Medical Advisory Committee and a reproductive endocrinologist, explains that couples from all Jewish denominations—Reform, Conservative, and Orthodox—experience age-related fertility decline in equal proportions. The age brackets don’t vary, but diagnosis at presentation likely will. Polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS) and male factor infertility are most prevalent among the Orthodox, reflecting high rates of obesity in the Orthodox community and because marriage and attempts at fecundity start earlier among the Orthodox than among the non-Orthodox. Conversely, women in liberal denominations or nonaffiliated women would be more likely to experience egg-related issues, as they typically would have their first attempts at pregnancy at an older age than Orthodox women.
Organizations such as the Jewish Fertility Foundation are making great efforts to meet individuals and couples in their pain and offer resources for hope. JFF provides financial assistance, educational awareness, and emotional support to Jewish people who have medical fertility challenges. As an organization built on awareness of the emotional, social, and financial burdens infertility can bring into a couple’s life, JFF offers support groups, financial grants for couples undergoing IVF, and community education.
JFF’s unique Fertility Buddies program pairs women and men who are experiencing infertility with infertility “veterans.” These veterans are men and women who are now parents and can offer the kind of validating support that couples crave. “Getting it” and having been there, they provide a big piece of the success of the work in the field of infertility.
JFF has recently expanded from its original Atlanta, Georgia, base to a second office in Cincinnati, Ohio, and is hoping to grow into other Jewish communities. JFF serves candidates, preferably aged 37 and younger, who have at least one Jewish parent and plan to raise their child Jewish. For contact information, see the accompanying sidebar. JFF programs are free to all qualifying candidates, helping them financially, educationally, and emotionally through their fertility journey.
Tricia Anbinder is a licensed clinical social worker in private psychotherapy practice in Atlanta, specializing in persons experiencing infertility and the transition to parenthood. She has a B.A. from Emory University and received her M.S.W. from the University of Georgia. Elana Frank is the founder and CEO of the Jewish Fertility Foundation.
It’s understandable and not uncommon for infertility to become the preoccupying, defining chapter in the life of a couple.
JFF provides financial assistance, educational awareness, and emotional support to Jewish people who have medical fertility challenges.
Jewish Fertility Foundation
Contact: Elana Frank, CEO and Founder
Current Locations: Atlanta (established 2015) and Cincinnati (established 2019)