Today’s guest post on motherhood comes from Melissa Belsh. Melissa was in graduate school with my husband (Go Rams!) studying social work. She was one of our first Orthodox Jewish friends. We have learned so much from Melissa not only about how to be a kick butt social worker/lawyer/advocate, but also about the beautiful traditions of the Jewish faith. Over the years we have also have come to respect the great effort she puts into observing an Orthodox lifestyle.
But I have to admit, when I learned that Melissa was struggling with infertility and high risk pregnancies like I did, I never considered how that intersected with her faith life, even though I know how it impacted my own. That is why I am so grateful that she is sharing her story of what it has been like to be an Orthodox woman who wrestled with her identity as a woman through infertility, grew closer to God through her complex pregnancies, and eventually ends up asking questions neither of us has an answer to. Melissa is the first to admit she is not a Rabbi or a Hebrew scholar, but she shares her story and wrestles with tough questions for us, and for that I am eternally grateful.
“A woman of valor who can find? Her value is above that of pearls. . . Her children rise up and make her happy; her husband praises her… She opens her mouth with Wisdom, and the teaching of kindness is on her tongue…Give her the fruit of her hands, and she will be praised at the gates by her very own deeds.” – From the Hebrew song entitled Eishet Chayil, (A Woman of Valor)
Every Friday night, observant Jews gather at their dinner tables to welcome the Sabbath. We lift our voices in song, lighting candles and making blessings over wine and bread. We sing of our thanks to God for sustenance, for safety, for health. With the Hebrew song Eishet Chayil, taken from The Book of Proverbs (31:10-31), we also sing in praise of the Jewish woman. So exalted is the woman in Orthodox Judaism that she is honored weekly as part of this important holiday. In a religion that revolves around observance at home and in everyday life, wives and mothers are the center of the Jewish family and the heart of the faith.
I was drawn to Orthodoxy in part because of this ideal. As young woman exploring her ancestry, I fell in love with the long Sabbath meals at tables full of loud, bustling families. I was searching for a connection to my Jewish roots, but I was also healing from a turbulent adolescence in the wake of my parents’ divorce. I wanted spirituality, stability, and family. My plan: 1) Finish school. 2) Get a job. 3) Get married. 4) Make babies. 5) Become an Eishet Chayil, a Woman of Valor.
Years later, most parts of my plan were coming together. I had a great job in a career both challenging and fulfilling. I had met and married a wonderful guy. But the last piece of the puzzle eluded me: the babies. Like 6.7 million other women in the United States, I was unable to make them.
Suddenly the thing I most loved about Orthodox Judaism – its focus on families and children – became a reminder of what I could not have and what my body would not do. Beyond the utter devastation of the infertility diagnosis, I wondered what this meant for me as a Jewish woman. What was my purpose on Earth? What was my role in my community? What was my value to my husband? To God? To myself? I had committed to a way of life that seemed to require a functioning reproductive system.
As anyone who has gone through fertility treatment knows, a great deal of mental gymnastics is involved. You must be honest with yourself about your odds of success and chances for failure. Meanwhile, everyone is constantly admonishing you to “be positive!” because of course you “still have time!” and “you never know!” It is exhausting, constantly hoping that something is going to work while at the same time steeling yourself for disappointment.
Ever a student, I read everything I could get my hands on regarding infertility and Judaism. I learned that there is a substantial difference between the Jewish concepts of emunah (“faith”) and bitachon (“trust”). It is not enough to be cautiously optimistic that everything will be okay. You must also believe that God will grant relief from your pain, that your prayers will be answered. This is easier said than done, especially when answers to prayers do not always take the form we imagine. But I held onto this idea and allowed myself to daydream about my dinner table full of children, my sweet little boy or girl, my chubby baby, my round pregnant belly. I would go to sleep at night indulging in the fantasy of kissing my baby in that yummy spot in the folds of the neck, feeling a freedom to believe.
I held that image through six intrauterine inseminations (IUI) and an IVF cycle that was almost canceled due to poor response. I imagined that sweet baby smell through a difficult and hospitalization-riddled twin pregnancy and a traumatic and life-threatening cesarean birth. I practiced that kiss for the twelve hours it took for the doctors to deem me healthy enough to hold my babies for the first time. My sweet little miracles. Jonah and Dalia.
I was thankful (if totally overwhelmed) but still I yearned for more children. I had my hands full with my two active toddlers – one with special needs. And yet it felt as though there was a hole inside of me, a piece of me was missing. I had more love to give. And my fantasy dinner table had way more than two kids sitting around it.
If I thought my trust in God had been tested before, this was the advanced course in bitachon. During next five years we underwent so many IVF cycles that I honestly lost count. I conceived once only to miscarry. I took dozens of medications, all with various side effects. I had several surgeries, including a major one to repair my bladder after it was ruptured during a fertility procedure. When I did finally become pregnant with our third child, I was bedridden the entire time and spent the last month in the hospital. So much struggle and time away from my existing family was a hefty price to pay. But through it all, I tried to believe. I tried to be that strong Jewish woman in the song.
When she was born, we named our daughter Eliana, which means: “my God answered.”
And because He did, my questions about the Orthodox Jewish lifestyle and infertility remain largely unresolved. I suspect the answers are similar for women everywhere, regardless of religion or culture. Perhaps I would have focused on my siblings’ families, or on the children I encountered through my job. We almost certainly would have tried to adopt. The truth is that even now, the pain of infertility lingers. I work every day to live in the moment, to see what I have and be thankful, to remember that the Woman of Valor in the song has value beyond her children. She is strong, wise, kind, and resourceful. She is faithful and “God-fearing.” A good lesson for us all, whether or not we have kids. Each of us is bigger than any one aspect of our lives.
Each of us can rise to be an Eishet Chayil.
Raised in Southeastern Virginia with a Jewish identity but without formal observance, Melissa came to identify herself as Modern Orthodox as a young adult. She is educated both as a social worker and a lawyer and most recently worked in child protection and foster care as an attorney in NYC. She is currently a stay at home mom living on the Jersey Shore with her husband and three kids.