Episode 14: Making a Family (Transcript)
Mark: There are more people kind of struggling and going through this than you know. But what you see are all the strollers and all the people with the happy little kids and you’re like: Well, why them and not us?
Nahanni Rous: We don’t talk about infertility a lot, but it’s actually quite common. In fact, one out of every 8 couples in the United States wrestles with it. When you’re longing for a child, it can feel especially isolating to be part of a family-centered community, as many Jewish communities are.
Nahanni: This is Can We Talk?, the podcast of the Jewish Women’s Archive. I’m Nahanni Rous. In this episode, we talk with one Jewish couple who created a family after their long journey through infertility.
Nahanni: When it comes to infertility, there are countless stories to tell and so many ways people cope with it. Some turn to adoption, others invest in fertility treatments, and some opt not to have children. We’ll be exploring more of these stories in an occasional series about infertility in the Jewish community. Despite how common infertility is, people who struggle with it often feel alone, and it can be emotionally, physically, and financially draining.
Nahanni: I sat with a couple I’ll call Debbie and Mark at their dining room table one evening in Washington, D.C. They prefer not to use their real names in order to protect their twin sons’ privacy.
Mark: Part of the, I think, challenge of being open and honest with these stories is part of it is our story, but a large part of it is their stories.
Debbie: We want to respect and give them the space when they’re older and people search on the internet... nobody should be able to find out their story without them controlling what the story is.
Nahanni: Debbie and Mark’s twins are now 6 months old. Mark turns to a photo album lying on the table. He shows me a picture of one of the boys kissing the other, or, as Mark says, eating his brother’s face. If only they had been able to see this picture back when they started trying to have children, their four year ordeal might have been easier. When Debbie and Mark met and got married, they were already over 40. They knew they wanted a family.
Debbie: It was definitely something that we talked about while we were dating and acknowledging the fact that we were a little bit older, and something that we wanted to start working on right away, knowing that it would likely be difficult.
Mark: Both because I think of our age in terms of the ability to get pregnant, but also the ability to be as young as possible for our children and not be those old parents who couldn’t keep up with their kids.
Nahanni: They decided to consult fertility doctors right away, and a month after their wedding they jumped into treatment. But the first try at in vitro fertilization didn’t work, and the doctors told them the odds of it working the next time were low.
Debbie: Each time we got more bad news, whatever it was, it just kind of changes you, and you know, the joy starts to drain away a little bit.
Nahanni: Instead of the anticipation associated with pregnancy, they faced a process with very little romance... just a lot of needles, bloodwork, and doctors. Meanwhile, people all around them were having babies. Debbie and Mark are both very involved in Jewish communal life. I asked them what it was like to be part of a Jewish community while they struggled to have a baby.
Debbie: Um. Difficult. You know there were a few occasions where I found myself having to leave and going to take a moment in the bathroom and just feeling sad. Or leaving services and coming home and saying it just is too hard. Not anybody’s fault. Nobody said anything insensitive. It’s just watching all the things that you want for yourself that you can’t have.
Nahanni: Reading yet another email with a birth announcement, learning about yet another friend’s pregnancy... it was hard to feel happy for other people, even though they wanted to. Mark says intellectually they knew they were not alone, but it didn’t feel that way.
Mark: I think there’s some awareness on our part that we know that whatever communities we’re part of there are others who are in that situation and this is often not really discussed. And there are more people kind of struggling and going through this than you know. But what you see are all the strollers and all the people with the happy little kids and all that kind of stuff and you’re like: Well, why them and not us?
Debbie: You know, you can’t tell people not to bring their babies to shul, to synagogue. You want people to have happiness. It’s not that you don’t want them to have it. You just want it too.
Nahanni: Was there anything the community could have done to help?
Debbie: When you’re in it... when I was in it, I didn’t want to talk to anybody about it. I didn’t need ceremonies or acknowledgments. I wanted to do the medical stuff, figure out what the next step was, make the time move as fast as it could, and just get to the end.
Nahanni: They could have tried another cycle of IVF, but Debbie didn’t want to waste any more time.
Debbie: I just felt like I’m gonna be an old mom, I’m gonna be an old mom, I’m gonna be an old mom. So, like, the quicker we get this done, the less old mom I would be.
Nahanni: So they opted for something that seemed pretty extreme to them at first: using an egg from an egg donor.
Debbie: At first when we weren’t able to get pregnant with my eggs, that was pretty devastating I think. It was something I had to kind of just move on from, because having a child was more important. If I was making the decision on my own, I would have moved to older foster children, potentially. Because it felt very selfish to just keep doing all these things when there are children out there. But I have a partner and that wasn’t, umm—
Mark: It was important to me if we can do it, I’m an only child and the opportunity to pass along something genetic was important to me. We did also look into adoption and things like that. And that process is not easy, um, and it’s not cheap, and it’s not short, and that was going to be a real challenge too. And so, that wasn’t necessarily an easier or better option.
Nahanni: Mark and Debbie worked with an agency and selected an egg donor. They created nine frozen embryos, and forged ahead with the fertility treatments. Using these embryos Debbie did get pregnant, twice, using these embryos, but both pregnancies ended in miscarriages. When they tested the remaining frozen embryos, they found that most of them had chromosomal abnormalities which meant they wouldn’t develop into fetuses.
Debbie: And so we said to the doctor, if this was you, what would you do. And he said, you know, the surest way to have a live birth, right, when you’re talking technical, is to use a surrogate. We get a new donor, use a surrogate whose been vetted and medically tested, and you’ll have a baby.
Mark: Basically, you’re trying to take control over the situation. As much as possible you’re trying to you know, take hold of the process and control all the variables you can.
Debbie: So then we had to figure out, well what does it mean to work with a surrogate. Each step along the process was kindof more involved and less clear.
Nahanni: Surrogacy was difficult to navigate. It’s not very common, so there’s not a lot of information out there. Debbie and Mark hired a lawyer. She helped them find a surrogate and took care of the legal documents. But Mark and Debbie were also thinking about Jewish law. Traditionally, Jewish descent is matrilineal. They looked into Jewish egg donors and surrogates, but there aren’t many, and the upside of having a non-Jewish egg donor was that they didn’t have to worry as much about certain genetic diseases that are more common among Jews. But if neither the surrogate nor their egg donor were Jewish, Orthodox Jewish law wouldn’t consider their children Jewish.
Debbie: You know, I struggled with this concept of, if it was the exact same child, born out of my body and raised in the exact same way, nobody would question their Judaism. But just because of the circumstances of their birth, it opens up this whole conversion question, which became very fraught. I think I spent a few nights struggling with it until we could figure out what does it look like to convert them, and we’re wanting to do it in a way that they could be as broadly accepted as Jewish as possible, but we’re not Orthodox.
Nahanni: Debbie did grow up Orthodox, though. And she feels it’s important for her children to be accepted as Jewish in as many parts of the Jewish world as possible. That way, when they grow up, they can make their own decisions about how they want to practice.
Mark: This whole conversation I think is a little bit foreign for me, kind of given my background growing up in a Reform tradition.
Nahanni: For Reform Jews, patrilineal descent is also valid.
Mark: I am not used to the well defined barriers and things like that in the sense of, look, if we raise them in the Jewish community and they participate in this, why does somebody else need to give their stamp of approval on it.
Debbie: Thinking about this whole thing was very challenging and it just makes you look at the arbitrariness of some of the requirements, um, you know, we choose to raise our children and educate them and if somebody wants to be Jewish, let them be Jewish, for crying out loud. It’s hard enough as it is.
Nahanni: While Debbie and Mark were considering their future children’s place in the Jewish community, the pregnancy was well under way, far away, in Des Moines, Iowa, inside the womb of a woman they had only recently met.
Debbie: And there were times when you forget that you’re pregnant, you know, cause you’re not pregnant. And she... and we tried to be respectful of her space and not be too invasive. And I think she wanted us to have as much information and access as we wanted, so the relationship between us was as good as it could have been for such an awkward relationship.
Nahanni: As Mark and Debbie got to know the surrogate, they came to feel that she was truly motivated by the desire to help other people. Of course, she was also being compensated.
Mark: So it is not cheap. You know, we’re fortunate that we’re in a position to be able to kind of do this, which we know many are not.
Nahanni: Working with a surrogate and an egg donor can cost between 100-thousand dollars. There’s the cost of IVF for the donor, the donor’s compensation, the surrogate’s compensation and expenses, the lawyer’s fee.
Debbie: At a certain point you stop counting because it doesn’t do anybody any good.
Mark: At the end of the day, because we were fortunate and you know, things wound up working out, you sorta don’t care any more. You know, they’ll have to get a college scholarship. We already spent their tuition.
Debbie: Yeah, it’s like you forget the pain of childbirth? We forget this. That’s our version.
Nahanni: Six months ago, Mark and Debbie flew to Des Moines for the birth of their twin boys. They were in the delivery room while the surrogate was in labor.
Debbie: It’s just this overwhelming, out of body experience almost... and she’s in so much pain. And you just feel terrible for her, and grateful, and amazed that somebody would A, do this, but for you, which is just crazy.
Nahanni: Did you feel, right away, these are my babies?
Debbie: I was worried about that. About bonding and feeling connected. When the first one was born it’s just that reflex of tears and just kind of overwhelming. Yeah, I just felt connected, these were our babies and we were going to take care of them and make sure that they were safe and loved and it was never really a question.
Mark: I think it probably helped to be in a hospital that had dealt with this before. I could imagine a place where this wasn’t common and they’d be like “wait, who’s the whatever” but they had this kind of lined up and it was very clear... that you know, they may have come in with somebody else, but they’re gonna go home with you. After they take ‘em out and clean ‘em off, it's like, here do you want to hold your son?
Debbie: To us, not to her.
Mark: After like 30 seconds.
Debbie: We had a room next to hers, which is what they do. The first night she said, “I just need to sleep” and the next day we visited with her and she got to hold the babies. She’s part of the story, she’s part of their narrative, and she’ll always be an important part of our family. So we definitely feel that and appreciate that she feels similarly.
Nahanni: Mark and Debbie are now in full-on parenting mode... with bottles in the kitchen, baby clothes on the sofa, and a white noise machine to help the twins sleep. You’d never know how much they went through to bring their two boys into the world. They’re still processing the experience.
Mark: I think the more we went down this journey from the IVF to the donor to the whatever, at least for me, it became a little stranger and harder to talk about. Because you never quite know how people are going to react and you know, in some regard it’s hard not to internalize the sense of it required all these steps. It in a way, I think reminds us of the difficulty of these things which in some ways you’d sort of like to not think about and acknowledge.
Debbie: Yeah, I mean, I didn’t feel that way. I’m happy for people to talk about it. I think people need to talk about how families are created and there’s so many different ways, and there’s more every day. And it’s not easy and it’s not a given.
Nahanni: Debbie wishes more people understood this, and could make room for the possibility that things don’t always work out.
Debbie: Because so many people go through IVF and have babies, everybody assumes that you go through IVF and you can have a baby. And not everybody has a baby. And there were some people who would say to me, you’ll get your baby. And I’m like, I might not get my baby. Don’t... you know... it doesn’t always work. And we’re lucky that we had options and we were able to have our beautiful babies, but if we didn’t have financial means, we might not. And I think that’s a message that we don’t hear enough, that it doesn’t always work out for everybody.
Nahanni: Now that the ordeal is behind them, Mark and Debbie are thinking about how they’ll help their sons understand the story of their birth.
Mark: The hope is that it will be much less unusual for there to be like, “Oh, I had a surrogate too because my two dads couldn’t carry me,” and those kinds of things.
Debbie: Yeah, and my hope is that they will be proud, and feel lucky to have been as wanted as they are.
Nahanni: Debbie and Mark have planned a conversion ritual to honor their boys membership in the Jewish community. They’ll do the ceremony at the camp where Debbie spent 17 summers. A close friend who is an Orthodox rabbi will officiate, and the campers will bear witness.
Debbie: They have a mikvah that they just built, and we’re gonna do it there and hopefully make opportunity for the kids to learn about conversion and understand and maybe expose them to not all family making is as simple, and just, you know, use it as an educational opportunity for the campers as well.
Nahanni: They’ve designed a meaningful lifecycle event, one they hope the boys will appreciate too, though it’ll be a while before they’re old enough to understand. For now, they’re still just babies. Speaking of the babies, they’ve slept through our whole interview.
Debbie: They are... they are great babies. I think they got the memo that we are a little bit older, and so they’ve been very kind to us. They’re just great, they started eating food, they roll over, they giggle. They make us happy. They’re cute. Yeah, they’re pretty great.
Mark: Yeah, we may be biased, but other people tell us they’re really cute too.
Nahanni: When Debbie was Orthodox, she remembers sitting behind the mechitza, the partition between men and women during prayer services. It felt isolating to her. She was separated from the action. She says infertility feels like that too. You long to be part of what’s on the other side, but all you can do is watch. Even with the experience behind her, she hasn’t forgotten. She knows how important it is to remember that not everyone has it easy when it comes to bringing children into the world.
Nahanni: Thank you for joining Can We Talk? with the Jewish Women’s Archive. We hope that we can be part of helping to bring the conversation about infertility out of the shadows and in this spirit, we are so grateful to Mark and Debbie for sharing their story, and entrusting us to tell it.
Nahanni: The Can We Talk? team includes JWA’s Executive Director Judith Rosenbaum and Social Media Manager Emily Cataneo. Ibby Caputo edited the script. Our theme music is by Girls in Trouble. We’d love to hear your responses to this episode. Please contact us. Visit us online at jwa.org/canwetalk to listen, subscribe, and send your friends a link to your favorite episodes. If you listen regularly, consider making a donation at jwa.org/donate. And if you're interested in sponsoring an episode, please email us. I’m your host, Nahanni Rous. I’ll see you again next month.
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Jewish Women's Archive. "Episode 14: Making a Family (Transcript)." (Viewed on May 15, 2021) <https://jwa.org/podcasts/canwetalk/episode-14-making-a-family/transcript>.