Infertility as a Punishment, Parenthood as a Reward
Some people were concerned over the ChickieNob wondering if she had ever seen Befana in a toy store, purchasing toys for other children and looking sad.* I’m not too concerned that she believes that all people without children live grey lives filled with continual sadness. She has plenty of child-free adults in her life who show her a wide range of emotions. And I think that yes, if we were to see Befana in a toy store, she’d probably be pretty sad. She has been experiencing infertility for over 2000 years. She is in a continuous state of trying to fix a wrong so she won’t have to endure another year of infertility. She delivers presents not because it brings her endless joy like Santa Claus. (Does it bring him endless joy? I’m just assuming that.) She does it to try to find Jesus. In other words, the message sent is that when Befana finds Jesus, she will finally be released from this cycle in the same way that Tantalus waits to be allowed to drink water or Sisyphus wants to stop rolling his stone. If she had just gone with the three wise men in the first place, she would have never experienced infertility. Doesn’t that suck?
Reading up on Befana, I’ve found other versions of her story, but these were the two that the palazzo owner’s daughter told me, so those are the ones we’ve told the ChickieNob and Wolvog.
While I don’t have any concern over the ChickieNob wondering if someone who has been battling infertility for 2000 years might feel sad purchasing toys for other people’s children when she is trying monthly to have her own (24,144 cycles later, give or take one or two depending on the length of her cycle), I am concerned with two messages that seem to pop up continuously in both stories and oral response which is that infertility (or cancer or take your pick of something that may affect one person and not another) is a punishment.
Befana in the first version of the story is most definitely punished. She didn’t take the time to go see baby Jesus, and now she needs to wander the world trying to find him. How many times have we seen the story of infertility pop up that could be construed as punishment? Jacob loved Rachel more than Leah, so Rachel was left barren as a punishment. Michal scorned King David and was left infertile… as a punishment. There are, of course, other explanations one could argue rather than punishment, but the simplistic interpretation is that they’re punished with infertility since G-d “hardens their wombs.”
How long do you think it will take for the ChickieNob to internalize that idea? To come to see infertility (or cancer or any other disease or situation) as punishment for cosmic wrongdoing? I know I certainly silently asked myself what the hell I had done to find myself in the throes of infertility.
And I find the inverse of that message just as dangerous: that parenthood becomes a reward. In the Bible, Sarah finally gets her child. Rebekah too. And Rachel. And Hannah. We talk about ourselves as being blessed when we reach parenthood after infertility, but the hidden message in that for everyone else is one of worthiness. Not chance but something we either actively did or someone actively choosing us begs the question — why one person over another? Because they wanted it more? Because they prayed harder? Because they were a better person? I am much more comfortable when people discuss the use of prayer as a coping mechanism, something that brought them peace of heart when life was out of their control. Because finding peace of heart is something within our control; whereas our health (within reason) or our ability to reproduce is outside our control and subject to an enormous dose of chance coming from a multitude of factors.
My view of life (and yours may differ) is that there is no person more worthy nor less worthy, no punished or rewarded. Just people. Trying to get through life and fulfill themselves along the way. And within that, shit happens to them, sometimes because of something they’ve done or someone else has consciously done, but more often by chance.
And arching over all of that is G-d, who perhaps is somewhat more like a therapist, listening and helping and guiding you to answers, but not necessarily judging or admonishing and certainly not punishing. The perfect therapist who helps you to be a better you simply by letting you talk out your thoughts in the form of prayer and arrive at the answers you need to find. Who wears long skirts and whose office smells vaguely of cats. A therapist who has given us her direct cell phone number in case of an emergency and is always willing to listen, but who can’t necessarily fix things with magic as much as we’d like her to be our safety net, always catching us. It’s up to us, as individuals, to do the hard work of living.
So I am more worried about the ChickieNob processing that withholding parenthood from someone is a perfectly reasonable punishment. Or that if a person does reach parenthood after infertility that they have been blessed, given a reward. I don’t want the ChickieNob to process her existence as either the outcome of a punishment (because she wouldn’t be here if I hadn’t had all those other failed cycles; it would be another baby) nor that she is a prize gained because I did something “right.”
Just that she is on earth by chance, just as I am on earth by chance, and what a great chance it is to get to be alive and experience all of this.
This was the first time I can remember that the ChickieNob expressed uneasiness with the idea that her great joy (receiving toys) might possibly bring someone else sadness. That she is only rich in toys on this holiday due to someone else’s reproductive poverty. I don’t think that’s necessarily a bad thing that she stopped for a moment to consider in her excitement that her happiness may not be shared by even the person giving her the present much less people outside that exchange.
I’ve spoken before about my favourite Naomi Shemer poem, “Al Kol Eleh,”
One of my favourite songs is a Naomi Shemer poem called “Al Kol Eleh.” That link contains a fairly dreadful translation, but I do love the opening stanza: Over the honey and the sting / Over the bitter and the sweet / Over our daughter, our baby / My God, watch over what is good.”
It’s this reminder; that you can’t have the honey without the bee, and with the bee comes the sting. You can’t have the intense love you feel for a child without realizing the fragility of life; that death is just as much a possibility as living.
This idea is reflected in a Jewish wedding when the groom stamps (and breaks) a glass at the end of the ceremony. It’s destruction amid a moment of great happiness. It’s a reminder that the joy you’re feeling isn’t necessarily the bliss felt by everyone else around you, and there is still work to be done to end pain and suffering in the world. It’s a reminder to not become blind in your happiness so that you stop noticing what is happening all around you.
I don’t think it’s a bad thing to realize that even when we’re enjoying our happiness, it’s a good thing to pause for a moment and still notice and react to everything happening around you. Not to temper your feeling of joy, but to be mindful of everyone else’s journey at the same time as you feel your joy.
* I love No Kidding in NZ’s post about it, musing on the defining of “a regular woman” and when did certain situations get marked irregular? Though in the case of the ChickieNob, I believe what she meant by “regular” was the idea that Befana could be anyone around us, not looking magical per se but instead looking ordinary, since other questions were in regards to how one tells a magical being from a non-magical being. She is very excited by the idea that she could be interacting with wizards and witches and just not know it.