Posted on February 2, 2022
I wanted nothing more in the world than to be a mother. Our daughter Liat Odeleya’s name means “Thank God You Are Mine” in a riff on the Hebrew. Jeff and I bless the heavens that she and her older brother Gavi are ours. Their births healed the Gavi-and-Liat shaped holes in our hearts that echoed with hollow longing until these two kids arrived to fill that space with the exuberant chaos of their vibrant selves.
They were hard to come by.
It took six pregnancies to have our two children. That simple fact is what I say publicly about our fertility journey. What I have never said out loud beyond the innermost circle of family is that five of those pregnancies were a mixed bag of wishes fulfilled or hopes dashed. The sixth was not.
I will name up front that it is uncomfortable to speak about my deepest private life in public. Yet, Repro Shabbat exists to assert that reproductive rights, health, and justice are Jewish values, encouraging us to speak our truths, and this is mine.
Just before Rosh HaShanah in 2003 I conceived a life-threatening ectopic pregnancy. Treated with methotrexate, my outward-facing self stood on this bima singing Avinu Malkeinu, listening to the anguished yearnings of Sarah, Hagar, and Hannah, and inwardly praying in secret terror to miscarry safely. The day after Yom Kippur I doubled over, resulting in emergency surgery to repair a perforating fallopian tube. I was battered, but assured by the stellar medical team that a healthy pregnancy would happen in due time.
The nanosecond Jeff and I were cleared to try again I rushed to the mikveh to mourn and offer my heartache up to God in the healing waters, then turned my prayers toward the future. To our gobsmacked elation I conceived immediately. The doctor spun the wheel to give us a due date of… the following Kol Nidrei! I remember an OBGYN stationed in the front row as I again led Rosh HaShanah prayers, this time at full-term, and Gavi was born five days later. I was home sleeplessly nursing him on Yom Kippur, the cycle of a year of loss and life complete.
The Gavi-shaped hole in my heart now filled by a glorious wilde chayah – wild animal – of a kid, we got to work on civilizing him with a sibling. Happily, I conceived again, but near the end of the first term I began to bleed. Despite a reassuring ultrasound, it devolved into what appeared to be a hemorrhage, ending this third pregnancy with another brush-with-mortality emergency surgery. We were devastated and undeterred.
I conceived a fourth time and the hormone levels were not good. If it couldn’t end well this time, I prayed, please God, just let it end peacefully. And it did. There was no heartbeat at the eight week ultrasound.
While in the past staying pregnant had been the holdup, the new challenge became getting pregnant. After several years of reproductive endocrinologists, infertility support groups, and a diagnosis of “unrelated bad luck” (“bad” was not the word the doctor used), we conceived our girl. When she came into the world, the empty space in our hearts evaporated into mist and we poured a river of gratitude into the universe, hence her name.
I found healing in accompanying others who needed a hand to hold on their own reproductive paths, and especially in helping to found an organization called Uprooted: A Jewish Communal Response to Fertility Journeys, a resource I’m proud to share with anyone looking for support in building their family. I wished it had existed as I was struggling to build my own.
And then, unexpectedly, after all those years of rumbling with a reproductive system that refused to politely cooperate, and while still nursing my daughter, I became pregnant for the sixth time.
Now, I need to stop and say that all of this was the silent backdrop of my life. In the foreground, I was a wife, a mother, and a devoted spiritual leader. Jeff was a cantor at another synagogue while also training as a hospice chaplain. Our tsuris, troubles, played out unseen, alongside the pressure of being a full-time working mother in an expensive part of the world with astronomic child-care costs, with a preschooler who refused to sleep, an infant, and no family whatsoever nearby. We were incredibly blessed, so privileged, loved by an amazing community, yet when I reflect on those years I feel again in my very bones the exhaustion of a life that teetered on the brink of unsustainable.
I can only begin to imagine the agony of those with fewer resources facing the same dilemma without the legal, financial, or logistical means to make what they know to be the only right choice for themselves. Now as I look back, although we deliberated, counseled with a rabbi, and took time to be certain, the decision to terminate that sixth pregnancy hardly felt like an actual choice. The Gavi-and-Liat-shaped holes in my heart were gone; there was no familiar aching space. Yet, a new cavernous sinkhole of fury blew open over the fact that even had I permitted myself to contemplate having a third child, I could see no healthy path to embracing one, given the reality of our lives, after all the wishing and bruising just to become a mother. That bitterness still stings.
Without quality, affordable, full-time childcare or a local family support network, my mental and physical well-being were already tenuous. I confess that I was struggling to balance my gratifying responsibilities to my beloved TST community with being a fully present mother to my two precious children, for whom I had fought so hard. It was unthinkable to divide myself further and give either of them any less.
More unthinkable was to risk them losing me. Lest anyone forget that even a routine 21st century pregnancy is hard on one’s body, two of my first five pregnancies could very well have killed me without the excellent medical care I was fortunate to receive. How reckless would it have been to endanger myself again, this time with two young children who needed their mother?
As a Jew I felt grounded in the knowledge that throughout our tradition the life of the mother is understood to be primary. In this week’s Torah portion, Mishpatim, we learn that if a pregnant woman is injured by two men fighting near her, resulting in her suffering a miscarriage, and the harm is limited to that miscarriage, then the perpetrator must pay a fine. However, if the pregnant woman is fatally injured, then the penalty shall be a life for a life. From this, rabbinic tradition held that according to the Torah the loss of the fetus was not a murder, as the fetus was not yet a person. The Talmud reinforced this position in Gittin 23b, explaining that before birth the fetus is considered a physical part of the mother’s body and does not become a separate human being until labor and birth, literally until “the head has emerged,” as we read in Mishnah Ohalot 7:6. Over the centuries, prevailing Jewish law has reasserted that life does not begin at conception, a fetus is not yet a person, and the primary concern must be the life and well-being of the pregnant mother.
The real-life consequences of violating this mandate of my Jewish faith hit me again with full force a few weeks ago, when I read of a woman in Texas with an ectopic pregnancy who was denied legal medical care due to the confusion and fear caused by the abhorrent abortion law still in effect as I speak. She traveled for more than twelve hours before obtaining the life-saving medical treatment she was constitutionally entitled to receive. I remember, too well, being in her exact same condition. I did not have twelve hours. How many others don’t?
Even beyond the physical risks, I knew that it would not have been right, for me, to force my heart and body back into the reproductive arena to face the ordeal of trying to carry yet another baby to term – especially with the only end-game possibilities I could see being to lose it, destabilize my family by raising it, or most impossible of all for me, despite being a path recently suggested by a member of the US Supreme Court, giving it away.
l carry a quiet sadness, but no remorse, for choosing the needs of my existing children, the stability of their parents’ marriage, and the wellness of their mother over the collection of cells that may or may not have had the potential to become life, but were not, according to my faith, afforded the status of life at eight prenatal weeks. In truth, beyond being held by Jewish tradition, I understand that exercising my reproductive rights was also an act of religious freedom. As a proud, civically engaged, American Jewish woman I am petrified at the hijacking of these rights by a narrow reading of a faith tradition I do not share.
Let me be clear: I fully validate the different choices others have made that were right for them, and I am not scarred for having made this right choice for me. On the contrary, I am certain my family and I would have been damaged if the choice was not available. I felt guided by the words of Deuteronomy 30:19, words we read on Yom Kippur, “Choose life, if you and your offspring would live.” These words ring true in my soul with the confidence that our family’s entire fertility journey honored this commandment, and I was embraced by Jewish tradition at every step of our path. As a mother, whose children are everything to me, I thank God for the two of them, for this perfectly imperfect body that bore them, and for the blessing of being able to choose a functional, joyful, loving, life with my right-sized family.