When the Heart Breaks
While religion may fail to comfort a woman facing infertility and loss, Jewish spirit can still buttress a broken heart.
by Danielle Cantor
Two months before my wedding, a time when most brides are scouring Pinterest and overthinking hors d’oeuvres, I was lobbying my very traditional fiancée to try to make a baby. “But our child could be conceived out of wedlock!” he protested. “Not gonna happen,” I reassured him. “I’m 37; this could take a while. Let’s get a jump on it, shall we?” He relented, and not long after what I’d promised would be a practice run, I stood under the chuppah, six weeks pregnant.
We were shocked, ecstatic, and blinded by a first-timer’s foolish expectation that nothing could possibly go wrong.
At the end of the first trimester, I started to bleed. “I’m so sorry,” the nurse squeezed my foot in the stirrup. “There’s no heartbeat.” The next day I marched out of the hospital with an empty womb and a determined spirit. “Onward!” I told my husband. “We’ll get it right next time.” When I met my newborn niece the following weekend, I counted her tiny toes and felt only joy for my brother and his wife. I fully expected to be pregnant again in no time; a mommy within the year.
My niece is now three years old – and a big sister – and I have since acquired a scar on my belly from an ectopic pregnancy; an abortion clinic's business card with two tiny footprints on the back, which is all I have left of the brain-damaged little girl I lost in the 25th week; and a storage locker full of baby gear that seems less and less likely to fulfill its destiny, at least not with any child of mine. My husband and I have delayed buying a larger home, repurposing our down payment savings into fertility treatment funds, only to learn that my eggs had probably expired before we even met. A relative agreed to donate eggs to us, then changed her mind. I am now 41 years old, empty-handed and broken-hearted. Oh – and 10 pounds overweight. I tell my husband I’ve grown fat from all those fertility drugs, but I’m pretty sure he knows I eat my feelings.
At this point in another woman's story, we might discuss the comforting embrace of God. Crisis does tend to drive people toward religion – but it can also drag them away. While I was never much of a believer to begin with, this journey has turned me upside down and shaken out whatever faith I had like loose change.
After the first couple of losses and setbacks I would think, “Surely it’s my turn now. I've suffered; I’ve bled; I’m due my happy ending.” Then my baby girl died, after I’d felt her kicks and chosen her name, and I wondered if I was being punished. Was it because I’d been a difficult child? Was I selfish or cruel? Maybe I shouldn’t have told my sister the name I’d picked. I knew it was bad luck – did I thumb my nose at fate?
Eventually I settled on the belief that if there was a higher power, it had more pressing concerns, and God, or “the universe,” owed me nothing. We don’t all get what we deserve.
But while Judaism may not have guided me through my crisis, being Jewish certainly did. The Yiddish folk tale I read as a child said it best: "Things could always be worse." That quintessentially Jewish sentiment tethered me to gratitude while I floated around in my grief, feeling forsaken. Jewish pragmatism insisted that I still “thank God”: for modern medicine; for the freedom to choose; for the resources to pay for my abortion; that, late as it was, we learned of the baby’s problems in time to terminate. I wasn’t sure I believed in God, but from the bottom of my Jewish heart I thanked Him while I cursed Him, and it helped me find my balance again. (I also had my grandmother – the only member of her family to leave Auschwitz alive – to remind me, “This is terrible, but it is not a tragedy.”)
My agnosticism afforded me the clarity to weigh quality of life against sanctity of life and make a choice – my own pain of loss over my child's prolonged suffering, if she was to be born – without the crutch of religion. The decision was easy to make, if harder to live with, and I was – I am – grateful for the spiritual freedom.
I will admit, though, that for a while I thought a lot about the soul: Did the baby have one? If she did, was I still her mother, or would she find another body – a healthy one – and become part of someone else's family? Might she return to me one day in another form?
Not long after the abortion, I asked a Chabad rabbi at a Rosh Hashanah dinner if he believed that an unborn baby has a soul. I can’t remember his answer, just that he somehow acquired my phone number and called later that week to ask for my Hebrew name so he could “make a bracha” that my husband and I would be fruitful and multiply.
The following week, I informed my husband that I would not be joining him at Yom Kippur services. Once a good sport about it, this time I could not stare into an open prayer book and gamely sit, stand, and hum along. Whatever sins were in my past, I had decided that God and I were square now, and I was done with the charade.
My husband donned his suit and walked to shul alone. I burrowed into the sofa, clutched the tiny pink cap I had knitted for our daughter, and prayed into the silence:
“Please forgive me, baby girl. You would have suffered so much. I did it because I love you.”
Danielle Cantor is creative director at JWI.