I hardly knew her. Miriam was a thirty-something professional - we sat in the
same office, and had worked side-by-side for about a year. She was always very
nice, intelligent and charming, but we were never close since she lived in
another community and we didn’t travel in the same circles. I guess we were just
so busy with our own lives, and since our lives were so different, they never
coincided. While we really enjoyed working together; talking about this and
that, we just never had all that much in common: After all, her whole world
seemed to revolve around her work, whereas my career was my family; with the
office but a small part of my life.
I'd always thought she was happy: everything in her life was going just as
she'd planned - she loved her job and was advancing up the corporate ladder, she
had a caring and successful husband, and they had just bought a beautiful home.
Everything was going right. Everything was perfect. Or so I thought.
What had I said in the past? How had I been insensitive?
And then, one day, out of the clear blue, as we stood around the coffee
machine, she suddenly burst into tears. Startled, I tried to calm her, and when
she felt a bit better she poured her heart out to me.
Everything was going right in her life... except for one thing.
She was not getting pregnant.
Miriam told me she and her husband had been trying to conceive, never
expecting any problems, but after trying for over two years - nothing had
happened. At first they'd laughed it off as 'work-induced stress', but after a
while they realized it was a more serious problem. And so, while everything else
was going so well, this one thing was certainly not. And this one thing was what
they desired more than anything else.
"I thought of nothing else," she recalled to me. "I would be sitting in a
meeting with a client and would be thinking about having babies. I remember once
one of our co-workers made an innocent remark about going away for the weekend
with her husband and leaving the kids with her mother. She was nervous about the
kids missing her, and about her mother's ability to cope with three little ones.
She smiled at me and said, 'You are so lucky you don't have these problems.' I
gritted my teeth, smiled at her, and then went to the bathroom and cried for two
I felt so terrible that someone said that to her, and then realized how
easily I could have been the one to have. What had I said in the past? How had I
been insensitive? It never even occurred to me that this was a painful topic.
Never having had any inkling that she struggled with fertility problems (in
truth, never having realized that anyone struggled with fertility problems) I
was not aware of what a painful issue it was in so many lives.
I was taken aback - here I had worked next to this young woman for a year,
we'd chatted casually about all kinds of things, and I had had the feeling that
her life was proceeding just as she'd planned. Yet all along she'd been feeling
deep-down miserable, and just hiding it well. And then, one day, over coffee,
she could keep it in no longer - out it poured...and to someone she barely knew!
At first I didn't know how to react. Ironically, I had always been a bit
intimidated by her. Miriam was a real powerhouse. Next to her, such a successful
career woman, I felt like an ordinary housewife. Little did I know that it was
what I had that she valued most. But Miriam seemed to need someone to confide
in, someone objective and somewhat removed from her personal life; and I had a
responsibility to listen. While I did not know why she picked me, I figured that
if she had, I owed it to her to try and help in whatever way I could.
She told me she had started seeing a medical professional, a fertility
specialist, who kept sending her for more and more tests - with no results.
"You just don't know what to do, who to talk to"
"I was overwhelmed; I would go to the doctor's office to do an ultrasound
test to see when I was ovulating, and then rush to work. Many times I came late,
and though the boss was very understanding I felt bad having to explain to him
and to all my co-workers why I was always late and often grumpy. And then when I
started on medication I felt worse physically, as well. And after all that, I
would get my period - I was a total nervous wreck."
But just getting to a doctor, she explained, is not enough. Apparently each
doctor has a specific specialty, and a doctor who helps one couple may not be
able to help another. Miriam said she's met many couples who spent endless hours
pursuing unsuitable doctors and inappropriate, time-consuming, anxiety-provoking
treatments. Sometimes they would wait for months just to get to see a particular
doctor only to be told that they should stop trying, that they were too old to
"You just don't know what to do, who to talk to", she said. "And I couldn't
speak about it with anyone around me - my immediate family felt bad for us,
didn't want to bring up the subject at all; my younger sister was wrapped up in
her own kids; and it was obviously too personal a matter to discuss with
professional colleagues. All my friends either had their own children to keep
them busy, or weren't even interested in becoming pregnant... and they certainly
didn't want to hear about my troubles. I felt all alone, as though I was the
only person in the world with such problems - I had no one to turn to. "
Well ... I was certainly flattered that she'd decided to confide in me, a
virtual stranger. - it must have been an act of sheer desperation on her part.
But I was also flabbergasted: here was a problem I personally - thankfully - had
known little about, an issue which, for many, is all-consuming and even
life-determining. In retrospect, of course, I should have realized how
overwhelmingly difficult it must be to have trouble conceiving, especially in
our community. After all, Judaism places incredible value on family life and
raising children. And it is impossible not to have your life revolve around your
children once you have them. From the moment of conception on, your lives are
I'm ashamed to admit I'd not really given the whole subject of infertility
much thought. I guess I had just taken it for granted that people had babies
when they chose to. Once Miriam and I started speaking, I began to wonder who
else I knew who might have been affected. It had never occurred to me that maybe
some people that I thought just must not have wanted might have very badly
wanted children and couldn’t have them. I never thought to be sensitive when
meeting someone and immediately asking, “So, how many children do you have?” I
started wondering how many people might have extremely painful stories to relate
about my thoughlessness.
The first thing I did after Miriam and I spoke was to search the computer to
learn more about infertility. Sadly, Miriam and her husband are far from the
only ones - they are just one of the thousands of couples who experience
problems conceiving. In fact, about one in seven of all couples may have
problems with fertility at some point during their married life. And it appears
that the numbers only increase as the couple gets older. This means that around
15% of couples may not become pregnant after trying for twelve months. Some will
subsequently conceive without any intervention, but most will require some
medical assistance. It is unfortunately a rather widespread problem affecting
many...and I was basically unaware.
One in seven of all couples may have
problems with fertility at some point during their married life
A few months after the 'coffee-machine incident', Miriam arrived in the
office one day looking much more at peace than I'd seen her in a long time. She
had finally found a medical professional whom she trusted, one who was a source
of tremendous emotional support and comfort for her and her husband and was
guiding them through the entire process of fertility treatments. He was helping them put things into perspective and regain control of
their lives. With the positive feedback she was now receiving, she was continuing
treatment with greater confidence and a renewed sense of hope.
Miriam continues to thank me for ''being there' when she needed me; the truth
is, I have learned a lot from her and have a lot to thank her for. I have
learned to be more aware, to open my ears and my heart to others. And if someone
should choose to confide in me and to express her feelings, or if someone just
appears to be overwhelmed and in need of some support, I will try my best to
listen, to let her speak freely of her frustrations and disappointments.
Because of Miriam I have started volunteering at a center for couples with
fertility problems, sharing with these people their hopes and concerns. There are
hundreds of couples like Miriam and her husband, most suffering in pain and in
silence. They may well be our neighbors, our friends, people we go to synagogue
with; and we may often be oblivious, or insensitive, or too absorbed in our own
lives to share their worries. Through this incident, I have become determined to
help, in any way I can. And not just by providing information about infertility
to those who suffer from it, but to those who fortunately don’t, so that they
will hopefully become a source of support and strength to those who do, rather
than a source of pain and sorrow.
Most importantly, I have learned to count my blessings and never to take
anything for granted. I hope and pray that one day I will be able to join in the
happiness of Miriam and her husband, as well as the other families trying to
conceive, so that I can be there when they do become pregnant, and give birth to
a healthy baby, and gratefully welcome a little one into their homes.