Facing Infertility as a Grandparent

“Who among us does not have a story of a friend, daughter, daughter-in-law, son, son-in-law, or relative, who has found themselves trapped inside the world of infertility?  They blame themselves and become subsumed in the worlds of miscarriage, IVF, hormones, frozen embryos, injections, and endless procedures.  What can we do? What can we say?”

Perhaps you learned the story of Abraham smashing his father’s idols as a child. But other than that, what else is there to know about Abraham’s family background?

Much of what we do know comes from  Genesis 11:10-32. We learn that Abraham comes from a stock of people who live for many, many years and who have many children. Shem did not start his family until he was 100 years old. His descendants, Arpachshad, Shelach, Eber, Peleg, Reu, and Serug follow suit with “many sons and daughters.” His grandfather first became a father at 29 and lived until 119. His father, Terah, was a wonder starting his family at the age of 70 and living to 205.

When we finally get to Abraham, we are told that his wife, Sarai, is sterile (akara). It is possible to imagine that the Torah is telling us: “Abraham has what it takes, but his wife…well, it must be her fault.”

I believe that we should think of Abraham and Sarah as the first couple facing the heartbreak of infertility. In spite of the virility of his ancestors, Abraham is tested by the situation. We hear the anguish in his heart when he tells God in Genesis 15:2 “What can you possibly give me, as I go Ariri; childless, lonely, forsaken. Both in this moment and when God gives Abraham the good news that his wife’s infertility will finally be cured ( Genesis 17:17) we feel the heart of a father who longs for a child.

But this is not really a story about the ancients, it is a tale of life today. When the New York Times devotes an entire section in the Sunday paper to infertility, we know it has become a widely recognized concern to thousands of families. Who among us does not have a story of a friend, daughter, daughter-in-law, son, son-in-law, or relative, who has found themselves trapped inside the world of infertility?  They blame themselves and become subsumed in the worlds of miscarriage, IVF, hormones, frozen embryos, injections, and endless procedures.  What can we do? What can we say? And perhaps, of equal importance, what should we NOT do or say.

In my experience, a parent or grandparent or want-to-be-grandparent can be supportive and helpful to children facing infertility, with a few understandings.

First, recognize that couples, perhaps our children, who are facing infertility challenges are suffering every day and every month and that we are helpless. We had our families, perhaps easily. But that is not any comfort. Hope is elusive. The anguish is real.

These couples did not make life choices that brought this ANGUISH. I have heard too many times about the daughter who put her career first and… “Now, you see?” It is a cruel comment.

Second, grandparents need to practice PROFOUND self-control. It is so tempting to ask on a monthly basis if anything is new. And all the question does is make an adult child feel conflicted between their pain, their desire to protect their partner, and their desire not to be mean to their parent.

Third, this may be a time to offer financial support, if you can. Treatments are extremely costly , and our children may be spending hours on the phone arguing with insurance companies; often to no avail.  Can you underwrite a cycle of IVF? It might be so appreciated. Conversely, such support might be viewed with suspicion;  “All you really care about is being a grandparent”. Thus, offer financial support lovingly with no strings attached: “I just want you to know that we are prepared to provide financial help if that would be of value.  All you need to do is to let us know.”

Fourth, at this time, some parts of Jewish life are just too hard to bear. Rosh Hashanah and its stories of miracle births is the worst. Do not pressure your children to attend synagogue on those days. Passover Seder with a million cousins and Aunts and Uncles may be difficult for them too. This is a time for us not to ask our children why they can’t be there. Consider creating quieter, more intimate Shabbat and holiday gatherings.

Fifth, there are many places in the Torah and the prayer book that are openings for our own prayers on behalf of our children. When we feel totally helpless, praying for someone is something we can actually do.

Sixth, and probably the most important, we can choose not to be the parents who ask our children “So, when are you going to start a family already?” They might be trying so so hard.

The Hebrew word for patience is savlanut. It also means suffering. The word patience has the word pathos within. Patience for the granting of this blessing requires of us to get outside of our own experience and success and just to have empathy. And in whatever way we might finally welcome that long-awaited grandchild, we can welcome that child and rejoice and be grateful for the blessings of assisted reproduction in all its complicated forms and do what Abraham and Sarah did…laugh with release, laugh with joy, laugh with devotion, laugh from love.

Jane Shapiro, a founder of Orot: The Center for New Jewish Learners has been a teacher to many over the last thirty. She is a graduate of the Mandel Teacher Educators Institute and Visions of Jewish Education projects. In 2017 Jane received an Educators Award from the Covenant Foundation. She lives in Skokie, Illinois with her husband David and is also mother to four sons, mother-in-law to three daughters and grandmother to four.

Facing Your Children’s Infertility 

Infertility is the unspoken anguish of so many, one that goes undiscussed and unknown through which many suffer silently. -Joseph Shapiro

If you are a grandparent and reading articles on this new Jewish Grandparents Network website, consider yourself a very lucky person. Why? Because you have been given the extraordinary gift of being a grandparent at all.  Yes, grandparenthood comes with challenges and worries: Are my grandchildren attending the right school? Do my children, their parents, allow for fun, creative play amidst all of the social pressures to achieve good grades, play instruments, compete in sports teams and become a well-rounded kid? You have likely thought about unique difficulties parenting a child today, amidst all of the temptations of social media, screen time, and the sense that the world is less safe than when you were raising children.  But at the end of the day, you are lucky and blessed.  There are many grandparents-to-be who await their turn to post on a Facebook page their most favorite picture of their grandchildren. And this article is dedicated to them.

My mother, of blessed memory, used to say that giving birth to my brother and me were the highlights of her life and her greatest achievements.  However, when her grandchildren were born (and she was blessed with nine of them), she claimed that there was a piece of her heart that opened up that she never knew existed before.  This was the love she felt in being a grandparent. And until her early passing in the winter of 2014, her grandchildren were her brightest lights.

In her article above, my mentor and teacher Dr. Jane Shapiro wrote about what grandparents and potential grandparents can do to become more aware of the pain their children might be feeling should they be faced with infertility.

When my husband, David, and I suffered from secondary infertility for many years beginning in 2002, there were very few resources in the Jewish community to help with the loneliness, pain, and disconnection we felt from our unexplained medical condition. Additionally, it was a serious financial strain for us as a young couple.  At the time, David served as the associate rabbi of a large synagogue in Dallas, Texas.  Nobody intended harm, but we were definitely “in the spotlight” and bombarded with well-meaning questions related to our family planning and when our son would have a little sister or brother to play with.  At the time, I was too ashamed to speak of our disappointing failed medical attempts. It just wasn’t talked about.  David and I found a support group that met at a local church. I vowed that one day, should I be blessed with more children, I would give back by raising awareness within the Jewish community to help others along their fertility journeys.

After the birth of our youngest daughter Dani in 2009, we launched The Priya Fund in Dallas.  Priya, a Hebrew word means “being fruitful.” “Priya” references the first commandment God gave to Adam and Eve in the book of Genesis, “To be fruitful and multiply.” Priya soon became a financial resource available to the community held at the Dallas Jewish Community Foundation to help ease the burden of high medical costs associated with fertility treatments or adoption.

Soon after my husband accepted a position at a synagogue in Overland Park, Kansas, I was awarded a Seeds of Innovation grant from my alma mater, The Jewish Theological Seminary, to begin a second chapter of Priya. In 2015, Priya: Growing Jewish Families become a community initiative in collaboration with the Jewish Community Foundation of Greater Kansas City and Jewish Family Services.  Due to the generosity of many local funders, Priya has financially supported two-dozen families to date. We have distributed $55,000 in grants and thirteen babies have been born to families that have received Priya’s assistance.

I believe that every Jewish community in the country should have a resource available to ease the financial burden and offer educational and emotional support services so that we can work towards reducing the stigma associated with infertility.

How can grandparents and potential grandparents help raise awareness about infertility?

  1. Become educated, understand the facts and psychological toll of infertility.
  • According to the 2013 Pew Report, the Jewish birth rate outside of the framework of those who identify with Orthodox Judaism is very low and appears to be declining.
  • The CDC reports that about 10% of women of child-bearing age in the United States are unable to get pregnant or stay pregnant after one year of unprotected sex. This means that at least 1 in 10 Jewish women are having challenges with pregnancy. According to the 2013 Pew Report cited above, non-orthodox Jews have a much lower fertility rate than the general American population – so there might be more than 1 in 10.
  • Research from Dr. Alice Domar of The Domar Center for Mind/Body Health concludes that the relationship between stress and fertility can rival that of the psychological angst on par with cancer patients.
  1. Speak with compassion to your children and with your friends.

A grandparent-to-be once asked me how she can acknowledge the pain her daughter-in-law might be experiencing on Mother’s Day. I suggested that it was important to say something as opposed to just ignoring the awkwardness surrounding such a special day for so many others.  She decided to write an email where she simply said that she was thinking of her daughter-in-law and that she was there for her to talk, but only if she wanted.  She reached out to show she cared but reduced any expectation for a reply. This was enough.

Consider your friends who might be longing for grandchildren. Be mindful as to when to show your pictures and if you speculate that their children might be struggling, remind your friends that you wish to be of support during a time of angst that can affect the whole family. Feel free to forward this article as a catalyst for conversation because they probably haven’t yet discovered the Jewish Grandparents Network website.

  1. Offer to give financial support to your children and to the community.

As Jane clearly articulated, potential grandparents may have financial resources that their children do not.  If your children are struggling, offer to help ease the burden.  I recommend to not expect that they give you the play-by-play of appointments with their reproductive endocrinologists. This is a very vulnerable time for a couple, whether they are your own or your friends’ children, it is important to honor their space for privacy.  Take their cues and respect their privacy as to how open they are to discussing their challenges. They will still feel loved by you if you simply acknowledge you care.

In addition, consider the resources available in your community to offer such support.  Grandparents are often more connected to established charities within the Jewish community like the Jewish Federation, rabbi and cantor discretionary funds, and Jewish foundations.  You can help introduce adult children to these resources. Perhaps there is a fund dedicated to helping families with fertility in the same way that there is a fund to help families send their children to camp.  For more ideas as to how to begin such a fund, I welcome the opportunity to engage with you, any grandparent or any such grandparent-to-be, to help your community make this possible.

Children and grandchildren represent our legacy, our values and a rich tradition of what is most dear to us.  Infertility threatens this legacy and can throw into question how our ancestors and how we will be remembered. Through a greater understanding of the pain of those who face these challenges and an ability to express compassion, we can provide sources of comfort and support during a very arduous time. May we all one day merit be called Bubbies and Zaydies, Sabbas and Savtas, Nanas and Papas, Grandmas and Grampas. And until that day comes, let us hold close those who haven’t yet been blessed with the many gifts of our beautiful grandchildren, for they too, deserve to be remembered.

Annie GK Glickman is the Director of Priya: Growing Jewish Families.  Priya is a community initiative in partnership with Jewish Family Services and held at the Jewish Community Foundation of Greater Kansas City. It is generously supported by The Jewish Federation of Greater Kansas City, The Community Legacy Fund and the Flo Harris Foundation of the Jewish Community Foundation, The Polsky Family Foundation, and many generous individual donors. 

Annie and her family are pictured above.