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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.


1 Chickenpig { 01.08.13 at 9:27 am }

I went out for breakfast yesterday, and one of the waitresses was going on and on about her 5 grown children (or mostly, the youngest is 11, I now know waaaay too much about this stranger’s children). Something was bothering me about what she was saying, and now I know. She kept saying she was “blessed” with a smug and self satisfied air. To be blessed means you were chosen, which means that for some reason someone else wasn’t chosen. I feel incredibly lucky to have my 3 children, as well as incredibly un-lucky to have miscarried 3. Am I deserving or undeserving? I’m so confused. 😉

2 Pepper { 01.08.13 at 10:01 am }

So interesting. I think about this a lot, actually. I mourn the baby I lost but my D would not be here is he/she (who would have been 2 on Sunday) was. This post also made me immediately remember a conversation I had with my husband in the midst of our infertility journey. We were dealing with another pretty big financial issue and were doing what we both perceived to be the “right” (moral) thing to do. Other players were not and we were losing out in a lot of ways because of that. In one particularly stressful moment, as we contemplated doing something we were morally against but would be better for us financially, I said “No. Because karma exists. We are going to do what is right and you know what? We are going to get something really amazing as a reward. We are going to get our baby.” Is that really how it works? I have no idea. I hope not because then what did I do to get to that place in the first? But we did do what was right. And we did get our baby. Hopefully that just means that, in separate events from each other, we stayed true to ourselves as good people AND we eventually became parents.

3 Lisa @ hapahopes { 01.08.13 at 10:04 am }

This totally struck me and I know it’s going to sit with me for days. I’ve not been going to mass these days, but not because I think G-d did something to me. I just have issue with how my religion deals with infertility and I don’t feel welcome there. Catholic doctrine states that children conceived naturally are a “blessing” of the marriage, which says to me that my religion doesn’t think my marriage is worthy of a child. This would be crap if you ask me. I too see G-d not as a puppet master, but as a therapist or someone who can guide me. It’s hard to explain that to people. You did so beautifully.

I love the reminder to not be blind to other’s pain while you are feeling joy. We all need that reminder. All great lessons for ChickieNob.

4 Lollipop Goldstein { 01.08.13 at 10:09 am }

Pepper, I often think/do the same thing (sue me, I am a human and contain massive contradictions) more in a way of thinking, “can’t hurt, might help.” It does make sense that we see how what we put into the universe we often get back (be kind to others and people tend to be kind to you, etc). Even if X cannot influence Y directly, it could have an indirect effect in the sense that your heart is at peace. I think it’s always worth doing the right thing.

5 Lollipop Goldstein { 01.08.13 at 10:11 am }

Lisa — I imagine our therapist G-ds hanging out with each other at a big psych conference.

6 Lacie { 01.08.13 at 11:40 am }

Great post, Mel. So many things to think about.

From what I’ve read here, Befana is definitely sad buying all of those toys. She also might be in that precipice-of-a-rollercoaster moment where you are deciding whether or not to pee on that stick when you can no longer stomach the two week wait. Maybe, just maybe, this time, she’ll be rewarded. But, most likely not, as her experience would tell her otherwise. She most likely feels sick over it. That’s the way I always felt.

There was a period of time, when I still had faith that Clomid (and then injectables) would work that I actually got a part time job at Babies R Us as an outlet for my obsession over all things baby. Seriously. That madness went on for TWO YEARS (my struggle to bring my baby home would continue for another eight years). I think I might know EXACTLY what Befana felt like. “I see you are comparing these two breast pumps. What questions can I try to answer for you?”

7 Tiara { 01.08.13 at 12:34 pm }

As always Mel, you are able to write so beautifully on something that is stuck in my head. Your comparison of G-d to a therapist is so right on for me. Thank you

8 Battynurse { 01.08.13 at 12:48 pm }

I love this post! I have such a huge ambivalence to the idea or belief in prayers being answered. For instance two children are both sick with similar cancers, one dies and one lives and both of these are supposed to be God’s will? Or did one child have more prayers? It’s hard to explain typing all this out on my iPad but I like your description of God being like a therapist who lets you talk things through and prayer as a means of finding peace.

9 Cristy { 01.08.13 at 1:28 pm }

I’ve been thinking a lot about ChickieNob’s insight since you wrote your last post about Befana and after reading No Kidding in NZ’s post. Lots of food for thought.

I think you’re dead on about people seeing those dealing with infertility/loss as “cursed” while those who are able to reproduce as being “blessed.” I think part of the reason our society embraces this is because parenthood is hard work and many people need to feel special in order to meet the base-level needs for their kids. On the flip side, judging those who live with infertility and loss is a way of justifying this “blessed parent” viewpoint and serves as a warning to others to “behave.”

The problem is, there are many wonderful people who would be/are amazing parents who live with the pain of infertility and loss. Equally so, there are people out there who are perfectly fertile who use their children, causing irreversible damage.

Maybe it’s time to change the interpretation of Befana’s story? To emphasize that she is the mother of all children?

10 serenity { 01.08.13 at 1:36 pm }

The idea of infertility as punishment is something I have struggled with since we discovered that we are infertile. Before Lucky, I often wondered if it meant I was such a bad person I didn’t deserve to be a mother. During my pregnancy with him, I was consumed with such anxiety that I had gotten away with something I wasn’t meant to have, and that meant that at any moment, someone – God, the universe, whatever – would discover it and take him away from me.

I am starting to find peace in this idea that it just is; the association of punishment or reward is a construct we HUMANS have created to explain why stuff happens to us. We’re always writing stories in our heads.

I have yet to reconcile my issues with God, though, so you’ve give me food for thought. I like your image of God very much.


11 Pepper { 01.08.13 at 1:48 pm }

I agree, Mel. It can’t hurt to do the right thing. Along a different line from reward vs. punishment, I do like to believe God does not give us more than we can handle (cliche, yes, but also true) and that those of us facing obstacles are faced with them because we are strong, brave, and will overcome. It’s a compliment. 🙂

12 Turia { 01.08.13 at 3:14 pm }

I am currently writing a PhD dissertation on the cultural place of fertility among the Roman elite (Ancient Romans to be precise), and there is a definite moralizing bent to the way they view infertility. It’s really interesting, although I must say I find coping with the material easier now that I have E. (my idea for the dissertation came from our struggles to have him).

Really interesting post.

13 lifeintheshwa { 01.08.13 at 7:46 pm }

I have felt moments (especially after miscarriage #4, a second trimester loss) that I felt like whomever was up there was squishing me under his/her thumb and laughing. Objectively I never really believed that was the case, but it surely felt like it. I read the book of Job after my 3rd miscarriage and tried to accept the “taketh away” part. I’ve wondered why me, why the losses, why the 3.5 years of trying for a second child. It doesn’t help that I work with vulnerable populations day in and day out – people who are addicted to drugs, who are fragile emotionally, socially, and financially, and somehow they seem to have no difficulty having six or seven children, only keeping them out of state supervised care once they’re here.

This time, I am pregnant again, and I ask again why me – there are so many people out there who would be incredible parents, who can’t have one, and now that there may be an end in sight to secondary infertility and RPL this time, why me?

Ultimately I conclude and know in my heart that it’s random – God is there, but isn’t there to save me from hard times, nor am I being somehow rewarded (maybe) if I do have this child. Good things happen to good people, bad things happen to good people and there isn’t any rhyme or reason to it. Bad people have wonderful blessings bestowed on them, and sometimes without realizing it, and some bad people have bad things happen. God’s love and the rhyme and reason of it all is in the kind acts of people from our church, dropping off casseroles while I was on bedrest. It’s in the kindness I try to show my fellow sisters in IF/RPL, and in the love I have for the son I am eternally grateful for, even if I never get the feeling that our family is complete with just three of us. It’s the old shit happens, I suppose, and I don’t pretend for a second that I’m somehow “worthy” whereas other people are not. I just got lucky once, maybe I’m going to be lucky again and I don’t think there is more I can glean from it than that.

14 a { 01.08.13 at 8:02 pm }

I’ve been having a hard time with these sorts of things lately. I guess it would be good to have Kant’s Categorical Imperative – there is this moral law and that is all there is. Black and white. Right and wrong. No shades of gray. It would certainly make things like this easier to interpret. However, I don’t believe in that, and so this idea of punishment and reward when it comes to children is totally offensive to me. Of course, I don’t spend a lot of time talking to my daughter about infertility, and she just has the vaguest notion. I think that when her psyche is a little more developed; when she determines her views on God and fate and karma and such; we will have deeper discussions on this topic. Or not, because we don’t need to beyond “be sensitive to the sufferings of others” which is my preferred ideal situation.

(I have been having a tangentially related discussion on how it is bad (in my opinion) to tell women that they shouldn’t be scantily clad because that attracts rapists. Because you’re also telling them not to be pretty or to converse with people or to have an engaging laugh or anything else that might attract attention. Which to me, is essentially telling women that they get some of the blame if they end up getting raped. I know the people I’ve been discussing this with do not mean that, but they don’t understand the import of their ideas. Same with the punishment/reward system regarding children, to me.)

15 Guera { 01.08.13 at 8:34 pm }

It’s funny because I feel so unworthy and undeserving of being Sofie’s mom while incredibly grateful at the same time. I don’t feel like we were chosen (blessed, yes but not in the sense of being worthy or chosen). I don’t believe that God punishes us on earth and I don’t believe that infertility is a punishment. I believe our actions (individually and collectively) result in consequences not punishments meted out by God. Infertility is not normal. Something causes it. I may cause my own infertility by my own actions or it may be caused by a host of other reasons out of my control. I really hope that the view by the religious that infertility is a punishment changes. I have lots of ultra conservative Christian friends who believe children (lots of children) are a blessing from God. But I also know that not a single one of them believes my infertility is a punishment. I haven’t gotten too deep into conversations about them with regards to how they feel about adoption and how our daughter came to be ours. But honestly, at some level I don’t f-ing care what they think either.

16 Aerotropolitan Comitissa { 01.09.13 at 9:09 am }

I have a lot of concerns over the messages we give our children through stories. We really need to be thoughtful and involved when it comes to our fiction and our traditions. It doesn’t end when the story is passed over, either – we should be watchful for when it is passed back, just to see how the listener transformed it. Stories are a wonderful thing but more powerful than many account for.

17 Aerotropolitan Comitissa { 01.09.13 at 9:10 am }

Ok. You may have sparked a post. I can just tell this is going to stick in my mind (especially after our recent trip to the library and the mixed lot we brought home).

18 loribeth { 01.09.13 at 3:55 pm }

The ideas being expressed here remind me so much of Harold Kushner’s “When Bad Things Happen to Good People.” It was such a comfort to me after our daughter’s stillbirth — I have recommended it to many bereaved parents who are struggling with faith issues.

19 Sarah { 01.10.13 at 10:11 am }

First of all I’m here, or back technically 🙂

Second – I liked your post. I have spent so much time (my darkest hours) feeling punished by not being able to have kids. And I do feel that becoming a parent will be a reward for the “time I’ve served” not being a parent. But now, I can say that I know that trials are not punishments. I know that those two things are completely different. God loves us and because of that he wants us back in his pesence. He needs us to be faithful to him, and therefore needs to test us and our faith. This is my trial. And one day, I hope raising children will bring me different trials.

Third – Can I ask why you type God the way you did?

Thank you for writing this blog. it’s brought me a lot of peace, and comfort over the last 4 years. Thank you thank you thank you!!

20 kateanon { 01.10.13 at 3:17 pm }

I wrestle with the punishment / reward idea constantly. As in, why do they get this reward and I didn’t?

I think, some little part of me, maybe in the deep dark recesses of my mind and heart, believe that I did not deserve a child; that my infertility, my miscarriages, my cancer were all a punishment.

It’s one of the hardest parts to let go of, actually. It’s harder than the loss and the grief, that compulsion to punish myself.

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