Another night at the mikvah. I hold the towel close, and look in the mirror: Can you see the disappointment hidden in the corner of my eyes? How many times will I find myself back here, before I finally get to experience the joys of motherhood? What if I never get to experience those joys? My belly looks swollen; I see the faint traces of needle marks from the injections I’ve been giving myself daily, as part of IVF. I always used to feel that, even though I didn’t have children, at least I got to keep my body-shape. I didn’t have to worry about losing the “baby fat” that so many of my friends complained about. But now, here I was, full of “baby fat”, but no baby.
I immerse in the waters. I used to have hopes that this moment would be a time of prayer, when I could reconnect with God and with the Divine Spark within me – a spark that seems highly diminished on nights when I’m exhausted and pumped full of hormones, and it’s all I can do to go to work and then collapse on the couch. But the logistics of the mikvah work against me. There’s always someone watching me, and always someone waiting to dunk when I’m done. I have neither the privacy nor the time to pray in the waters.
As I step out of the mikvah and wrap my towel around my body, the mikvah lady wishes me “good news”. Does she mean a baby? How many people have looked at me hopefully, telling me they expect to hear “good news” soon? How many have told me they “know” that I will be a mom, even though in reality, God is the only one with the gift of certainty?
If I knew I would have a baby, even if took many rounds of IVF, I could handle that. I wouldn’t be happy about it, but I’d have faith that it’s worth the outcome at the end. But because I don’t know how long it will take, or if it will happen at all, I find myself full of bitterness and disappointment.
I’m angry at God. Those aren’t nice words to say, but they’re true. It’s not that I don’t have faith in God’s righteousness. I know that God has a plan, and there’s a reason that I am experiencing this pain. But right now, I don’t know what that reason is – and that makes it hurt so badly. If God is supposed to be a loving presence in my life, then there needs to be space in our relationship to hold the anger and the pain.
There needs to be space for tears. But in front of the mikvah lady, I won’t let myself cry. I already feel so vulnerable: This is the only person, besides my husband and my doctor, who knows that this cycle failed, and who knows exactly when. I don’t want to see pity in her eyes. I already see pity in so many eyes around me. I even think I see it in the eyes of my doctor sometimes, when he tells me that everything looks fine, while knowing that doesn’t mean anything, because everything looked fine all the other times that treatment failed.
I probably should be grateful that everything looked fine, that I have a husband who loves me, and that I have a doctor whom I trust. But I don’t want to feel grateful tonight. I want to feel sad, but I live in a culture that tells me it’s not ok to do so. Someone sad must be “cheered up”, as if grief were a side-effect that must be gotten rid of, instead of a major component of human existence.
I’m back in the preparation room. I look at myself in the mirror once more; my wet hair clings to my neck. I issue a silent prayer – that I not find myself back in this room for a very long time. I feel guilty, to be praying not to be performing a mitzvah. But guilt is such a familiar part of the fabric of my life, that I no longer pay it any mind. I constantly feel guilty. Sometimes I tell myself that had I just davened more, or done “xyz” mitzvah better, God would have given me a baby. Other times, I tell myself that perhaps this is a punishment for sins I’ve done in my past. But I just can’t believe in a God who’s looking down on people keeping score, thinking “Hey, that hechsher wasn’t good enough – do not pass Go. You need to go back and start a new round of treatment until you pick up a “Get out of infertility by davening” card.” Because that behavior seems so petty – so human. I believe in a God who loves people, and wants them to be happy.
I leave. My husband is waiting in the car. I’ve been taught that this should be the most special night in our relationship – a spiritual and romantic high, because of the experience of the holy waters and of reuniting with my husband after two weeks of being apart. I was taught that this on/off rhythm was the secret to Jewish marital bliss, and that having intercourse specifically around the time most women ovulate, was the secret to Jewish reproduction and survival. Now, it feels like that on/off rhythm is failing me. It means that I can’t have intimate physical contact with my husband precisely when I need it most, when I have my period and am just starting to internalize the fact that this round of treatment has failed. It’s certainly not helping me to get pregnant. Sometimes it feels like mikvah is just another annoying thing I have to do when I’m getting ready to start sacrificing my schedule to the onslaught of blood-tests, ultrasounds, insurance phone-calls, and half-days at the hospital that IVF entails.
But the truth is that even before dealing with infertility, mikvah was always a challenging night for me. As a feminist, I resented the way that the laws of niddah and mikvah developed over time. I also felt pressured in the pre-mikvah experience to check every part of my body just so — not to make sure I had fulfilled the halacha, but to make sure it met the mikvah lady’s standards of cleanliness — so that I wouldn’t be sent away when it was my turn to dunk, robbed of agency over my body and feeling my body objectified. I felt nothing when I immersed in the waters, except for, “Am I done yet?” My complicated feelings about mikvah only increased when mikvah turned into a symbol of the fact that I wasn’t pregnant yet.
Because I’ve been taught that mikvah should “feel” holy, sometimes I feel like there’s something “wrong” with me because I’m not finding it meaningful, even though I know that we can’t always control our emotions. IVF is a big reminder of the many things in this world that are beyond our control – and that’s not something we always want to be reminded about. Sometimes I feel that even my guilt is really a mechanism of control; if I adhere to the belief that the treatment failed this month because I didn’t do mitzvah “x”, the corollary is that if I do mitzvah “x”, I can get the treatments to succeed, thereby controlling the outcome.
But of course, that’s not really the case – and that is precisely what is so frustrating. I try to tell myself that mikvah is the practice of letting go of control, of letting myself be overcome by the water, which represents the life I am living. I tell myself that true faith is believing that whatever happens, it will be ok. It means opening myself up to the possibility that treatments will succeed, and allowing myself to feel hope, even though that hope makes me more vulnerable to pain. It also means opening myself up to the possibility that it might take another round or two, and if that happens, I will deal with it – I will make it ok, even if that ok winds up being a completely different “ok” than I hoped for or imagined, even if it might not include the gift of motherhood – and I am allowed to grieve for that possibility. In order to have faith in God, I must have faith in myself and my ability to deal with life’s challenges.
I also remind myself that it’s ok to find mitzvot hard. When it comes to kashrut, we’re taught that it’s perfectly acceptable to crave the steak in cream sauce that you see and smell when you pass by the non-kosher restaurant. Heck, keeping kosher and resisting that temptation is sometimes considered more laudable than not getting tempted at all. Why can’t mikvah be the same? I don’t enjoy it, but I do it anyway, because I believe that God commanded me to – and maybe that makes it a purer form of worship.
Sometimes, that’s how I think of IVF as well: It’s a mitzvah that I’m struggling with. It’s not a mitzvah because of the dictum to “be fruitful and multiply”, but rather, because, as a human being, I am commanded by God to do everything within my power to try to live a fulfilled life and be the best version of me I can be, and I’ve decided that for me, that vision includes the experience of motherhood. There may be women for whom motherhood does not fit with their vision of themselves – and that is an equally valid choice.
This means that when I get home, give myself a shot of hormones, and collapse on the couch, I am in fact, performing an act of worship. And I will keep telling myself that, with every episode of stupid TV that I watch, and every bite of chocolate that I take. As I do so, I will remind myself that it’s ok that my relationship with God might have moments of anger and pain, because that’s part of how I know that our relationship is real. And I will pray to God that next time I struggle with the mitzvah of mikvah, it will be for a postpartum immersion. Then I will probably break down crying, far away from the space where a woman saw me climb into the waters, and nakedly sing with my body the maternal desires that could not be encompassed in words.