How do you write a story about an event that doesn’t happen?
When I say “event”, I mean having a baby. That is the event that doesn’t happen.
What happens instead is miscarriages, doctors’ appointments, progesterone injections, herbal remedies, timed sex with no romance, jealously, insensitive comments from grandparents about “hurrying up and having a child,” comments from friends about how the childless are inherently more selfish, and a deep yearning that penetrates every bone and sinew in your body to the point that you do not know how to exist outside of it.
But these are not events. These are just incidental to the fact that The Event, having a child, has not happened. And may never happen.
The story of infertility is actually a non-story. An anti-story. But still, it’s an “anti-story” that is too ubiquitous not to be told. And it is an experience that is so raw and complex that we have too much to learn from it for it to be ignored.
One author had a crack at it: god (or whoever it was that wrote the bible). Many of the female heroes of the Book are introduced to us through their own anti-stories of childlessness. We recall the trials of two of these women, Rivka and Hannah, over the High Holidays. In this piece, I’ll focus on Hannah.
Hannah was desperate for a child. But god “had shut up her womb.” To add insult to injury, Hannah was one of two women married to a man named Elkanah. His other wife, Peninah, an excellent breeder who had mothered many children with Elkanah, would taunt Hannah for her childlessness.
In her suffering, Hannah paid a visit to the temple to beg god to make her pregnant. At a time when prayer was said out loud, Hannah introduces the innovation of silent and personal prayer. She moved her lips feverishly, mouthing the words to her prayers, but with no sounds escaping from her mouth.
A priest named Eli watched Hannah perform this strange act, speaking with no sound. He concluded that she was drunk and scolded her. She clarifies that she was actually talking to god. Eli then blesses her, and Hannah is celebrated as the “inventor” of silent and personal prayer.
Isn’t it interesting that this childless woman expresses her desperation with no sound? For this is a suffering that often has no sound.
It is apt because even today, many who are yearning for a child do so in silence. There are many reasons for this: superstition, privacy, family interference. But I would argue that at the very core lies deep shame: shame that your body is not functioning correctly. Shame that your social situation is not as you’d hoped it would be. Shame that you are not a real Man or a real Woman. Shame that you feel jealous, bitter, spiteful of others whose luck is better.
And like the anti-story of fertility, shame has no story either. It has no sound. It forces us to be silent about our grief, our loneliness, our anger.
Shame doesn’t just accompany the grief of infertility. It accompanies mental health problems, relationship break-ups, job loss, chronic illness. But our desire to keep up appearances, and our perception that no one else’s life is as dysfunctional as our own, makes us suffer in silence. It makes us suffer without words, like Hannah.
Rosh Hashanah is nearly upon us. Every year we read Hannah’s story and we remember the origin of the silent prayer that marks the majority of the High Holiday services. We will pray silently, or perhaps we will stare into space silently alone with our thoughts and reflections.
But we are not really alone, because we do this with hundreds of witnesses: the rest of the community. Each of us sits with our sorrow, our angst, our guilt, our hopes and probably a healthy dose of shame as well, internal monologues running through the year’s events, inches from our neighbours who are doing precisely the same thing.
Is it not ironic that our culture encourages us to contemplate our most private thoughts in the company of so many others? Perhaps there is a message here. Perhaps we are not supposed suffer in silence. Perhaps we are supposed to turn to each other, to share our stories, even when it feels like there is no story.
Every New Year, Hannah’s story will resonate with many in the service. It will resonate with those who are grappling with the pain of infertility – be it social or medical. But it may also resonate with anyone who has suffered loss, who has been desperate for something outside of their control, who feels shame even though that the shame is undeserved.
Perhaps the Hebrew year of 5777 can be a year where we allow ourselves to give sound to our suffering, to lift the layer of shame that silences us, to feel that it is safe to tell our stories, and to invite others to share theirs.