August 22, 2008
Our anniversary is coming up soon, the anniversary of the day that (among other things) we signed our ketubah. Traditionally in Judaism, the ketubah is a marriage contract, not unlike the modern-day prenup, listing the material goods that the husband vows to provide the wife, and the settlement that will occur in case of divorce. Relative to other practices a couple thousand years ago, it was very progressive in terms of offering rights to women, but at the same time, there was an overtone of the bride as property, something to be acquired.
Because DH and I are not traditional people, our ketubah says nothing about contractual obligations. Instead, we made beautiful promises such as cherishing each other’s uniqueness; creating a home filled with reverence for learning, loving, and generosity; and my favorite, doing everything within our power to permit each of us to become the persons we are yet to be. Surrounding these heartfelt words is a vibrant painting. It is a joy to look at our ketubah on the wall every day. It reminds me to help my husband to become the person he is yet to be, and to strive to develop myself. It reminds me of how much we loved each other on that day, and how much more we love each other now.
Recently, I had a different experience with a ketubah. DH and I were in a marvelous European city, in a Jewish museum attached to one of the most remarkable synagogues in the world, and the tour guide was showing us different artifacts. When we got to the ketubah section, the guide told us about the nature of the Jewish marriage contract. It was all information that we’ve heard dozens, maybe hundreds, of times. Then she said something that neither DH nor I had ever heard before.
Even though the ketubah theoretically offered the option for divorce, it was very difficult to obtain a get, or rabbinically-approved divorce. The husband always had the advantage; he was the one to initiate the divorce, and he was the one with the choices. Unlike today, you couldn’t get divorced just because you were unhappy. It would have to be a situation like infidelity. Or a couple who hadn’t had any children after being married for a really long time, like 10 or 15 years.
Her matter-of-fact little piece of information knocked the wind out of me. DH later told me that he had a similar reaction.
We have been married for over 10 years, and obviously we have no children. According to ancient law, our marriage is a failure.
There are so many ways in which I place no stake in Jewish law, but this one really got to me.
After my initial visceral reaction to our own situation, I thought of all of the infertile couples over the millenia (and some of the highly observant Jews today). The expectation to have kids, and lots of them, right after the wedding. The questions, and looks, and disapproval when the kids kept not materializing. The blame (probably directed at the wife, regardless of the actual cause). The endless trips to the mikvah after every failed cycle. The desperate prayers. Finally, the official decree that the failure to produce children meant that the marriage must end. Maybe the husband could have a chance to try again with a new wife. After 10 or 15 years, the original wife’s clock might have run out (even if the original IF cause had been male factor). After 10 or 15 years, with future children unlikely, who else would want her? Being a divorced woman meant something different in that world than it does here. It meant that it was all over.
Not that this situation was fair for the men. Imagine spending 10 or 15 years with a woman, loving her very much, but being forced by your family, your community, your society, to divorce her because together you had failed to produce children. The men were able to remarry, but it might not have been so easy to find a second wife when people questioned your ability to do your duty and give her children.
I was pissed. Pissed at the religion, pissed at the power structure, pissed at the close-mindedness, pissed at the judgment, pissed at what these poor people had to endure.
And I’ve been pissed for months, right up until writing this post. Now, suddenly, I am grateful.
As much as IF has been incredibly awful for me, I am so grateful to have so many choices. I could opt not to have children for years after my wedding, and it was acceptable. I could choose to devote my life to something other than raising a family, so that during the years of IF I had purpose (and, sometimes, distraction). I could choose from an array of medical technologies to raise our odds. I could choose to step away from those technologies when it all became too much. I could choose several other avenues to bring a child into the family, if it comes to that. Though I hope I never have to, I could even choose to step away forever, and live without children but with my marvelous husband who treats me as an equal and shoulders these burdens equally. I would get plenty of flack for some of these choices (and I already have, sometimes), but I still have the power to choose.
Whoever would have imagined that a thoughtless tour guide and someone else’s ketubah could make me feel good about my infertility?
August 19, 2008
Welcome to my stop on the Barren Bitches Book Brigade!
My first exposure to Eat, Pray, Love (aside from my mother-in-law telling me that she found it “whiny”) was a quote that Lollipop Goldstein used in Barren Advice Nine in response to my question about whether I should pee on a stick. Through Gilbert, she advised me to “grab onto the ankles of that happiness and not let go until it drags you face-first out of the dirt.” I followed the part of her advice that instructed me to pee on a stick, but I didn’t manage to follow the happiness part.
Now that I’ve actually read the book, I may be more receptive to some of its wisdom. In fact, I had a transformative realization while reading the book, but you’ll have to wait until Show and Tell this weekend to hear about that. Please come back to see it! For now, I’ll answer some questions posed by other Barren Bitches. Can you tell that I really like that moniker? I also really like that the Barren Bitches actually read the book and then actually talk about it instead of sitting around gossiping and getting drunk like most IRL book clubs that I’ve attended. I’m often the only nerd who sits there sober, having read the whole book and wanting to discuss it. Now, we can all be nerdy Bitches together.
At the start of the book, the author states that she will not go into the details of her divorce. Could you accept this and move on to the rest of the book, or did this lack of explanation influence your opinion of the entire book?
Fine with me. I didn’t come here to read a book about divorce.
Which of the three settings (along with associated activities — eating, praying or loving) resonated most for you? Why?
Of the three, I would most want to spend time in Italy. I have been to Italy, but not to India or Indonesia, and there is a reason for that. Italy is the kind of travel I am into at this point – culture, art, wonderful food, a language that I understand enough to read menus, first world. DH also happens to be so freaked out by India’s downsides (poverty, disease, lack of roads, and so much more) and by Indonesia’s strife (even if that doesn’t apply to Bali) that we will end up going to many other countries (and back to Italy half a dozen times) before we ever consider going to either locale.
It actually took me several trips to Europe before I made my way to Italy. DH wanted to go very much, but I thought that it couldn’t possibly live up to the hype. I was entirely wrong, and Italy was even better than its reputation. I like some cities more than others (Rome is not my favorite), but I would rather be anywhere in Italy than in most other countries in the world.
However, I also feel certain connections to the other two settings. When I was a child my family had a guru from India, and I became very familiar with mediation and Hindu-influenced spirituality. However, I have not meditated since I was a kid, and spirituality is something that I mostly choose to put out of my mind at this point. I still believe in reincarnation… I think.
When I was very young, my father took a trip to Bali. He came home with some vibrant batiks that decorated our house for years. He also came back with a story about walking along the beach and stepping on a deadly jellyfish. His local friend immediately sprinted into the forest, located some magical healing herb, and instantly cured the sting, saving my father’s life. The healing wisdom of the Balinese, the incredible natural beauty of the island, and the sense of peace that one feels there are part of the mythology of my childhood.
As for the associated activities, I guess you can sign me up for Loving over Eating or Praying, in that order. I’m actually not a big foodie, but several of the meals I ate in Italy are among the best of my life — and comparing the average meal in Italy to the average meal here is a joke.
On pages 94-95, Elizabeth discusses the continuity of and our positioning in our family as it relates to fertility/childbearing and the idea of finding purpose and the feeling of “being relevant” if we choose to not have children or are not able to. Does your infertility struggle affect your perception of your position in your family hierarchy? Why or why not? Has this affected your involvement with family events? If so, how?
Depends which family. In my own extended family, there are the breeders and the achievers. The cousins who have not been successful (poor or no job prospects, little education, debilitating mental illness, serious substance abuse) all have children, and all are divorced. Those of us who have gotten educations and pursued big-shot careers are all currently childless (actually, now that I think of it, all of them are divorced too except for me – my family doesn’t do marriage very well). In my family, my job is to be educated to an unprecedented level, and extremely successful, and well-traveled to places that others can only dream of, and fabulously happy in my marriage. I haven’t heard a word from anyone in my family about my childlessness, except for the annual hints my father gives in the form of holiday gifts for his future grandchildren.
(Don’t get me wrong. My “unsuccessful” cousins are mostly really good people, and by no means are their problems related to having had children, and in fact I think most of them are better at parenting than they are at the rest of their lives. My “successful” cousins are even better people, some of the very kindest people that I’ve ever met in my whole life, in addition to being smart and ambitious and athletic and unbelievably attractive and humble… the kind of people that you would hate except that you absolutely can’t because they exude goodness yet are also wonderfully sarcastic.)
In DH’s family, it’s another story. We are also considered successful and educated, but for the past decade our role has been The Married Ones (with the other siblings either too young or too immature). We still go to family events, but more and more over the years I have started dreading them (even when they turn out to be not so bad after all). In the old days if I happened to be in my in-laws’ city around my birthday, they would throw a big party for me with the entire family and all of our friends. It was generous and thoughtful and a lot of fun. I’ll actually be there around my next birthday, but I won’t mention anything about a party. I’m not in the mood for our friends to bring over their babies and preschoolers, and for my in-laws to fawn over the babies and display their obvious yearning for grandchildren.
Our parents must either…
- suspect we are having trouble conceiving but they are refraining from asking directly
- assume that I am too focused on my career for children, which is the impression I’m trying to foster at this point
- think that I absolutely cannot take a hint.
In chapter 13, the author talks about what type of traveler she is and other traveling personalities. What type of traveler are you? Does it vary based on the trip or do you approach every trip the same way?
Ideally, I am the best prepared traveler around, full of what Gilbert calls “due diligence.” I am nothing like Gilbert in terms of travel style or personality; instead, I am much more like her sister Catherine on both accounts. When I have time, I try to learn a bit of the local language (if I don’t already speak it), research the perfect hotel, the best restaurants, the local delicacies, the can’t-miss sites, maybe even brush up on some history. When I am being extra-prepared, I rent some movies from that country or read novels that take place there, to get a feel for the culture. That’s what kind of traveler I am when I travel infrequently and have free time.
Lately, I have been traveling more than I ever imagined possible and have had very little free time (partly related to the travel, partly unrelated). I still manage to figure out a hotel in advance, and usually how to get from the airport to the hotel, and download a few restaurant recommendations to sort through later, but for the most part I’ve been doing my research on the plane or even in the hotel room the night before, just planning one day at a time. I’m embarrassed when I don’t know how to say “thank you” in the local language, but I have traveled so much lately, to countries whose languages are so different from any that I speak, that I have been slacking off. Luckily DH is great at languages and can instantly learn the key phrases, saying “thank you” for the both of us in an impeccable accent.
Unlike the author, whether I do a little or a lot of research ahead of time, I am the one in the train station who looks like she knows where she is going. I carry my little compass, and on the train I try to memorize the route to my destination, with a tiny map folded in my hand just in case. I don’t have the easy people skills of the author to elicit help from anyone who may pass by, and I don’t particularly feel like getting pick-pocketed because I am an obvious tourist.
I also try not to be an obvious tourist by being the opposite of an “ugly American”: I speak softly, follow the locals’ lead in my comportment, carry an unobtrusive camera, wear nondescript clothing instead of “USA” t-shirts, wear European comfort shoes instead of sneakers. In fact, I try to do all of these things in any country, including my own.
By nature I’m not someone who starts long conversations with strangers, but when I have the opportunity for an extended conversation, such as a one-hour shuttle ride or a meeting with a friend of a friend, I seize it as an opportunity for cultural exchange. I try to learn all about their way of life and connect on a personal level, preferably in their own language if I can manage it, though their English is almost always better than my command of their language.
I’ve only had the opportunity of living in another country for an extended period once. Even though it was a big city, I experienced a sense of community I’ve never encountered before. One day, the produce market didn’t have an ingredient I needed; the next day, the grocer had procured it and eagerly ran up to me when when I walked through the door and presented it to me. Nothing like that has ever happened to me in the States. I really should figure out a way to live abroad again…
In the Ashram, Richard points out to Elizabeth that “nothing pisses off a control freak more than life not goin’ her way.” He counsels her to “let go” or she’ll “make herself sick” and “toss and turn forever, beatin’ on yourself for being such a fiasco in life.” Are you a control freak and, if so, how do you manage when life doesn’t go your way?
If you couldn’t tell from my detailed description of my travel style, yes I am a control freak. Infertility was my first big encounter with life not going my way. Over time I’ve come to a teetering place between continuing to attempt to exercise control (mostly through pursuit of aggressive Western and Eastern interventions, but for a while I exercised control by opting out of TTC) and accepting that my control is finite. In some areas of life, I’m working on reducing my controlling tendencies. In other areas, I embrace my control-freakiness.
I will close with some advice in case you are ever in Rome. I disagree with the information from Gilbert’s friendly bus driver about San Crispino having the best gelato in Rome. It is excellent, some of the best gelato you could possibly have in this world (and is worth a stop if you are on a gelato-a-day tour of The Eternal City), but the gelato is even better at Giolitti. I don’t even like ice cream! I do make an exception for gelato in Italy – I’m no fool. Just imagining the shop, the feeling of anticipation, looking at all of the flavors and being faced with such marvelous indecision, puts a huge smile on my face.
Hop along to another stop on this blog tour by visiting the main list at Stirrup Queens. You can also sign up for the next book on this online book club: Baby Trail by Sinead Moriarty (with author participation).
July 26, 2008
In my post about my mother, I mentioned a beloved grandmother. She died a few years ago, but I think of her often. She actually was my husband’s paternal grandmother, not mine, but I was very close to her — closer than I am to my own grandparents. My husband was even closer to her, of course, much closer to her than to his own mother. Frankly, his grandmother did a lot more to raise him than his mother. Also frankly, I am very glad he takes after his grandmother (and his father and grandfather and other grandparents and the dog) more than his mother.
[The benefit of a secret anonymous blog is that you can tell the truth about your mother-in-law.]
Thinking about his grandmother is one of the saddest parts about infertility. With all of my heart, I wish that I could have had a baby years ago. Not just because infertility has been awful, but because I wish that his grandmother could have been alive to meet the baby. Just imagining the warmth in her smile, her eyes dancing, with the baby in her arms, makes me cry. I have photos of her with my husband as a baby, and she always looks like her heart is going to burst with love for him. I know it would have been just the same for my baby, maybe even moreso, because her beloved grandson would have a baby of his own, and she would have loved us all, so so much.
A few months before she died, she and I had a quiet, intimate conversation. I asked her permission, if we ever had a son, to name the child after her late husband. She said, so gently, “I have thought about that, many times. That would make me very happy.” I cannot convey to you the warmth of her smile when she said that.
A month before she died, she and I had a long conversation about family. We talked about a cousin I had just seen, whom I hadn’t seen since we were little kids. She asked me if I planned to keep in contact with the cousin. I didn’t. She urged me to maintain contact. “You know that for me, family is the most important thing.” I said, “I know,” but that I was selective about which family I stay in contact with, that this cousin and I had never been close and didn’t have much in common. She said, “To me, none of that matters. They are all your family.”
DH and I have had baby names picked out for years, even before TTC. A girl’s name that we’ve loved from the beginning, and a boy’s middle name after his late maternal grandfather. After his late paternal grandfather died, we figured out a first name for a boy that derives from that grandfather’s name. But, because his grandmothers both outlived his grandfathers (the other grandmother is still alive, and very spunky for a woman in her late 90′s), and DH’s cultural tradition is not to name a child after a living person, we hadn’t picked out any names to honor his grandmother. But the more I keep thinking about it, the more I know that we have to name a baby girl, if we have one, after his grandmother. We haven’t settled on a name yet, and until I’m finally pregnant for more than a couple of weeks I don’t think we’ll break out the baby name books to start narrowing it down. But we’ll find something lovely.
His grandmother was one of the gentlest, yet strongest, people I have ever known. She survived the WWII concentration camps and the loss of her entire family. She lived with a chronic illness for 60 years that resulted from her time in the camps. She escaped her home country with her husband and little boy in the midst of a violent revolution. When her husband died, she learned to be independent, learning to do basic tasks like use the ATM. She held so strongly to her faith, trying to teach by example but never telling her children or grandchildren how to live their lives. She loved animals, and over 50 years later still cried about the dog that she’d had to leave behind when she fled her homeland. She accepted and loved her granddaughter-in-law from a different background, even though her culture said she shouldn’t. She never let us come over without eating “just a little piece of fruit,” and she never let us leave her house without some candy. She knew the score, but unlike every other person in the family she never said a bad word about anyone.
When you name a child after someone, you are trying to honor that person. When you name a child after yourself, well frankly I don’t know what you’re doing because I would never do that, so I really have no idea what the motivations are. But when you name a child after someone else, someone that you love and respect, often you hope that the child will take after that person in some way, that you will draw some of that person’s qualities to the child.
My future daughter, if I have one, will never get a chance to meet her great-grandmother, but her middle name will always remind her of how much this incredible woman loved her, even before she existed. Her middle name will remind her of all that her great-grandparents sacrificed for her grandfather, for her father, for her. I would love for my little girl to be gentle yet strong, brave, kind to animals, and never say a bad word about anyone. My daughter couldn’t possibly have a better namesake.