Infertility. When a childless couple discovers that conception by traditional means is impossible, the partners must ask themselves some difficult questions.
Here is the real-life story of Steve and Penina Adelman’s confrontation with infertility, and their solution.
Penina: Five years ago, the words “infertility” and “adoption” belonged to a language I had never needed to speak. However, after countless temperature charts, too many surgical procedures, ultrasounds, hormone injections, medications and lost pregnancies, those words left my lips so easily they surprised even me. Not to mention the times my husband Steve and I awakened in the hour before dawn with the recurrent nightmare of dying childless.
Steve: In the city neighborhood of Philadelphia where I grew up, we thought that the single woman living in the duplex three doors away was a witch. The one childless couple on my block was viewed by all as a pair of child-haters. The adopted kid who lived across the back driveway was an only child; my parents spoke about him and his family in hushed tones. As I was growing up, the message became clear: When the time comes, you will get married to a nice Jewish girl and have your own nice Jewish children. The experience of infertility challenged my very identity as a man. I was used to being able to achieve anything I set out to achieve.
Penina: For my entire life, I had been under the illusion that one day I would become pregnant, that pregnancy would be the fulfillment of my womanhood. Then, I had my first ectopic pregnancy, a few weeks before Rosh Hashanah five years ago. I lost not only my baby, but the fallopian tube in which the fertilized egg had implanted. Suddenly, I had to make myself understand that I might never bear a child.
I searched the Jewish texts to find a way to mark the loss of a pregnancy but found none. In the past, the Bible had often provided me with clues as to how my foremothers had handled the challenges in their lives. I turned to Hannah in the Book of Samuel because she was so articulate about her longing for a child. Every day I sat down and studied Hannah’s story thinking about it from every possible angle: How could Elkanah still love her better than Peninnah, his fertile wife? Where did Hannah get the strength to persist in her quest for offspring? This daily study session was my way of saying kaddish for the baby who had died.
Steve: Like many prospective parents, I yearned to improve upon my own childhood experiences through my child. I had been traumatized by a number of anti-Semitic episodes; I longed to instill in my own children a fundamental feeling of strength and security about being Jewish.
Penina: We had worked so hard to reclaim the Sabbath as a day of rest, to learn to speak Hebrew and to reaffirm our connection to the Land of Israel. But now we had no one to whom we could hand the fruits of our labors.
Steve: While my wife repeatedly sacrificed her body and spirit on the altar of the “new reproductive technology,” I decided to set the 2-year Colombian adoption process in motion and to express my desire for attachment to a child by becoming a Jewish Big Brother; this experience demonstrated to us that we might be able to disassociate parenthood from the biological imperative to procreate.
Penina: Deciding on what sort of child to adopt, I came face to face with my own racism. The most difficult hurdle I had to clear was accepting that when I looked at my baby I would not see hints of myself there. As my child grew, I would not be able to claim that strengths and weaknesses of mine were at work. He would never look like a Jew whose ancestors had emigrated from Vilna. I found that there were degrees of differentness, some with which I was comfortable and some with which I was not. I have dark hair and dark eyes. I could picture bringing a brown-skinned child of South American origin to the supermarket with me, but not an Oriental or black child. That felt like being part of an advertisement for adoption, and I was not ready for it.
In March 1986, Steve and I attended an orientation meeting at the Florence Crittenton League in the Boston area. We walked into a room where about 15 couples sat talking in the soft tones usually reserved for funerals. A man and woman, smiling widely, walked in carrying a frisky dark-eyed baby. The atmosphere in the room was suddenly more like that in a nursery. People were talking animatedly, laughing and gurgling and cooing to the baby as he floated by in his mother’s arms. Suddenly I realized: Not too long from now — after a home study, some bureaucracy and a trip to Bogota — a child like this could be mine.
Steve: We survived the inspection of our lifestyle and we survived the bureaucracy and we survived the wait. Finally eleven months after our initial meeting with the Crittenton people, we received a call; A Colombian boy had been born and he was available for adoption. Our excitement was tempered by the dream-like unreality of the situation — we were going to be the parents of an unseen infant in an orphanage in Bogota, Colombia.
For years, I had scrupulously avoided the baby sections of stores, yet in the days before our trip, I rushed down the aisles in search of hooded towels and blanket sleepers — all the trappings of babyhood that had always hurt me to see.
Penina: The morning after we arrived in Bogota, we drove to the orphanage to pick up our son. In a small room decorated with crucifixes, rosaries, flowers and blessings in Spanish, we waited to meet Daniel. We shared this, our delivery room, with three other American couples also waiting to receive their children.
Finally, the director entered the room with our baby. I had stepped in the Sea of Reeds and the waters parted. The nuns gave me a bottle. I pointed it toward my son’s mouth and he gulped the nipple like a very determined little fish.
Learning how to wear my new status as a mother while sojourning in a strange land made both motherhood and Colombia seem like perfectly natural states to be in. After all the struggles with infertility, it would have been too much of a jolt for Daniel to come right into our home. The journey helped. It was a real Yetsiat Mitzrayim, Leaving the Narrows of Egypt.
Steve: Being a parent to Daniel is the most absorbing activity I have ever undertaken. Fatherhood has rooted me in the present, releasing me from the sadness of the past and the worries of the future. Our here and now life with Daniel is enormously satisfying precisely because it is unremarkable. I can think of no greater joy.
Penina: The High Holiday season has come around again but instead of pain for my lost child and dread about our infertility, I am experiencing real joy. I have a son in whom — blood relation or no — I see and hear myself as a child.
I am realizing that I have found the way to heal myself from the infertility. I can be a mother even if I never give birth to my children from my own body. A family is a family no matter how it happens.
And like any family, Steve and Daniel and I have our own rituals. One of my favorites is taking Daniel in my arms and walking with him around the yard, letting him touch leaves and flowers and see the new ones growing. Today I notice something I have never seen before, although it must have been there for quite a while. There, in the black stump which was once part of the trunk of a still-thriving maple tree grows a 12-inch pine sapling. I look around. Sure enough, the maple has a pine for its neighbor. The pine could not find enough room to grow a little one and so cast its seed where there was space, on the maple tree’s vacant, rich stump. A Tree of Life.
Penina Adelman is a writer, social worker and author of Miriam’s Well; Steve Adelman is professor of psychiatry at the University of Massachusetts Medical Center.