P’ru U’revu (Be fruitful and multiply)…if you can.

Rabbi Amitai Adler
October 27, 2014
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I should start by noting that I’ve always wanted to be a father. At various times in my life, I have thought consciously and carefully about what I have learned from certain experiences that I wanted to someday pass on to a son or daughter of my own. I have thought long about the things I love in this life that I want to be able to introduce to a child of my own, and the things that I find horrific, that I want to be able to teach my child to avoid, or to help repair, or to guard against. I like kids: I consider myself a teacher first and foremost, and my best moments as a rabbi, as a professional, have been teaching children– so I looked forward very much to teaching a child of my own. I am also an only child, son of an only child on one side, and without any first or even second cousins. On both sides of my family, I am the last of my direct line, and on at least one side, I am the last observant Jew. My whole life, I have keenly felt my responsibility to procreate, to keep alive my little slice of the heritage of the Jewish People. And I also believe that when one has love to give, it should be given: too many children are born into loveless lives; I wanted to have a child to ensure that there was one more person in the world who would grow up loved.

My wife Julie and I had to go through fertility treatment in order to get our amazing little boy, and in order to get whoever our little currently loading file ends up being.

It was hard for both of us, in part for all the usual reasons of dealing with a personal medical problem (especially in a country with crap medical coverage for the non-rich). And it was hard for Julie– harder than for me, in most ways– since it was her body that took the brunt of the medical manipulation, and because I think the stigma of infertility hits women harder than it hits men. But it doesn’t not hit men.

Julie was able to find some support in friends, in online communities, and in a slowly burgeoning reservoir of helpful and caring material online and in print that– due to the slow breaking which has begun of the silence and stigma that have so far accompanied infertility issues– it is beginning to be possible to find.

It’s harder, though, to find such material for men. And it was hard for me. It was devastating for me to imagine a life without a child.

In part, I suppose, it’s only natural that there should be more support material for women. Men don’t become pregnant, and the traditional male gender roles have not been heavy on child nurturing. But the truth is that infertility affects us too. It affects us physically sometimes, if we suffer from problems with sperm production or quality or motility or whatnot. It affects us emotionally and psychologically when– for whatever reasons– we and our partners are unable to conceive naturally, and we want to be fathers.

I worried a little about what it might mean if I were physically unable to procreate. For the most part, I’m pretty good about not resting my sense of masculinity on traditional male gender roles and stereotypes– mostly because I don’t fit into most of them very well, so I’ve had a lot of practice learning “non-traditional” masculinity, though I tend to take a lot of my inspiration for it from traditional sources– Tanach, Rabbinic literature, and other classical literature both Jewish and non-Jewish– even if my readings of those traditional sources were themselves a little untraditional. But it was hard to shake the idea that being unable to physically procreate would make me less of a man. Intellectually, I knew the idea was nonsense. But emotionally, it was a different story. And while it turned out I proved physically capable (with a little help from my medical friends), I took supplements, I changed from briefs to boxer briefs, and a few other modifications of lifestyle also, before I was able to get the job done, and it wasn’t an easy process, psychologically. There was a lot of anxiety.

I was fortunate in that I found a few friends of mine who had gone or were going through the same thing to speak with. I found more who hadn’t, but were sympathetic and empathetic. But I found relatively little in writing, and most of what I did find was not Jewish, often not very well written, and seldom couched in language and ideas to which I related well personally.

This is a problem. Not for me, specifically, anymore: baruch Hashem, we have our son, and b’ezrat Hashem, we will have our little whoever come February, and then we’re done. But it’s a problem because I am positive that I’m not the only guy out there going through this, not the only Jewish guy going through this, probably not the only male rabbi going through it. And while it is wonderful, an amazing brachah, that there is starting to be help and support for the women going through infertility– no question their need is more acute– there should be more for us men. By men.

There is a huge dearth of role modeling for this difficult situation in our traditional texts. The Rabbis mostly deal with infertility as a problem of women. If anything, it’s worse in Tanach, where Avraham Avinu waits his whole life to have kids, grouses about the lack of a son largely in terms of heirship to his clan and household, and when he finally does have sons, proves to be one of the worst fathers ever. Or Yitzchak, though I blame him less, having been so thoroughly psychologically traumatized as a youngster. Or Yakov, who argues with his one infertile wife about it, and goes out and has a bunch of kids with his other wives instead. Even in other parts of the Tanach, it’s just as bad– like Elkanah in 1 Samuel, who can’t figure out why his infertile wife is crying, and instead tries to comfort her by telling her she doesn’t need kids when she’s got a great guy like him! One of the most difficult, challenging situations in a man’s life, and what does our rich tradition offer? A smorgasbord of dysfunctionality and douchebaggery. Great.

We just have to do better. I’m not sure what to do about it yet. Write about it, I guess. Which is where this piece comes in. Encourage other Jewish men to write about it. Maybe we should consider the creation of some midrashim, or some prayers or ritual to help us through tough times with infertility. But we need to do better, to create readily accessible responses from our tradition for men dealing with infertility issues. I will try to work at it. I hope other Jewish men will do so as well.

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