I have started telling my story a number of times. I have stopped every time, as I have not wanted to revisit the past few years of my life. But I am ready to start a new chapter, which means ending the last one. It is a chapter that has had many highs and many lows. There has been much joy and at times, unimaginable pain and sadness.
While I would like to share this as our story – my husband’s and mine – ours is not the same story. We shared the same laughs and the same tears along the way, but the past few years have changed my life and the woman I am, in a very significant way. Sharing my story about the juxtaposition of life and loss is very difficult for me. I do not give many people access to this side of me and so sharing my story makes me feel rather vulnerable. However, I have realized that this vulnerability opens me up to connect and heal. I am in no way ashamed of my story but chose to keep it a more private one, for my own self preservation. I am someone who generally puts on a brave façade. Yet, we all need to be reminded that when someone chooses to be private about his or her fertility story, leave the judgment behind. No individual or couple have the same fertility struggle. Be there for them when they open up to you; trust me, it’s not easy. My hope is that my story will resonate with someone going through a difficult time now.
I was 18 when I moved to Toronto to study fine arts and psychology. I had always excelled in school and truly loved studying. I met my husband on one of my trips home to visit my mother and moved back to Johannesburg and got married when I was 25. There were definitely many comments and questions about my choice to pursue my career over starting a family after we got married that have stayed with me for a long time. Honestly, I was not ready to become a mom when we first decided to start a family. A few years ago, I would have described myself as an academic. I wanted a career and to achieve in the professional part of my life. It was a core value I was raised with and I had worked hard my whole life to pursue that path. So at first, when we didn’t fall pregnant straight away, a part of me was definitely relieved. But soon after, things changed.
Someone once said that going through fertility cannot be counted in years bur rather in months. The months passed and I felt the loss of potential life again and again – twenty-two losses. The hardest part was that the fertility center never diagnosed the reason for us not conceiving. Unexplained infertility is very complicated as you fall into the “we don’t know what is wrong” category. For me, no tangible answer meant no concrete solution. Each investigation took time and I felt like months were passing by. The countless hours sitting there for a scan at the crack of dawn before work started to add up. The bruises from a number of procedures and injections never had time to heal before we began again. Faces who were there with me when I began, started to disappear and I felt like I was standing still. I started to lose hope in the process and in my body’s ability to be a woman. It was a trying time physically, emotionally and especially spiritually. I was navigating a road that had no signs ahead and I started to forget who I was as a person. I began to withdraw from the things and people that made me happy and retreated into myself.
And then, finally, we had the incredible news that our treatment was successful.
In a moment, that lonely place was forgotten and the pain I was holding onto was released when we welcomed our little baby into the world nine months later. All the tears I had cried had been worth it. This perfect miracle made me a mother. I knew that being a mom was exactly who and what I wanted to be. Unexpectedly, the parts of me that felt such sorrow and pain began to heal.
A few months later, my whole world came crashing down on my family and me. My mom was diagnosed with terminal cancer and she was given a few months to live. The part of me that was still recovering from the past couple of years began to shatter again. I could not understand how in the same year that I had been given this incredible blessing, my mom would be taken from me. It did not make sense then and it still does not. The looming loss haunted me daily. Nevertheless, I had a reason to get out of bed every morning. My baby kept me going. I made it my mission for her to experience a happy and loving mother. And she did. My daughter kept my mom alive with her infectious smile and adorable nature. She kept us all smiling during the hardest time in our lives.
After trying chemotherapy for a number of months, we received the awful news that my mom was not responding to treatment anymore; there was nothing else they could offer her. If I had to use one word to describe my mom with, it would be STRONG. My mother was one of the strongest women I have ever met. My brother and I lost my father when we were young and she raised us as a single mom. A selfless mom. She always put us and our needs before her own. She was always there for us even when we pushed her away. She fought battles for us. She fought her own battle for us and for her grandchildren. She was a courageous woman. She was definitely not ready to give up and neither were any of us.
I wanted more time with her and approached her and my husband to consider the idea of transferring a frozen embryo that we had at our fertility center. I had hoped that the idea of another grandchild would give her something to live for. They were both against it and said that in my state of stress, my body would never sustain a pregnancy. And yet, they both supported my decision to try again. We transferred the embryo two days before my daughter’s first birthday. My mom was there to celebrate the milestone, and I am so grateful for that. A couple of weeks later, we found out that I was pregnant but it wasn’t an easy pregnancy. After my mom was first diagnosed, I had not been feeling well and had my thyroid checked, quite nonchalantly, only to learn that I had a thyroid issue, and I needed to have it removed urgently. I look back now and realize my pregnancy was a miracle as my thyroid was uncontrolled up until my ninth month. An unstable thyroid can lead to a miscarriage, and at the time I was terrified to lose this special soul growing inside me. When I was around 5 months pregnant, my mom was becoming weaker and we knew that time was running out. We made the best of those few weeks. She came with me for my scan and we found out that we were expecting a little boy. I prayed for her to hold on long enough to meet him. She was my one confidante through our fertility process. She was there with me for scans, treatments, every step of the way. Eventually, our role as mother and daughter changed and I became the nurturer. I would have done anything to take away her pain and end her suffering. Sadly, she passed away days before Shavuot. A time of such happiness in the Jewish faith was a time of mourning for my family and me.
Three months after her passing, we welcomed this precious soul into our family. We named him after my father.
I am a different person today not only because of my fertility struggles, but also because of the losses I have faced. I no longer take any moment for granted. I thought I was trying to revive the person I used to be, but I have realized that I am instead working toward discovering the person I am now. I am more whole because my greatest accomplishment in life is being a mom. I am constantly reminded of how important it is to be kind to others, as we never know what challenge they are facing behind closed doors.
I am very blessed to be working for the Malka Ella Fertility Fund alongside some incredible individuals. We have the privilege of being able to help those going through such a trying time hold onto some glimmer of hope. Though not everyone goes through an identical journey, we all have the same purpose and goal in mind – to have a family. Some people may have success naturally, while others need assistance with IVF, egg or sperm donation, adoption or surrogacy. And yet, only Hashem knows how each one of us will fulfill our potential as a mother or father. My children would not be here today without Malka Ella’s financial and emotional support along our journey. I am eternally grateful to them and the exceptional doctors and nurses at our fertility center.
I never understood how much my mother did for my brother, my family and me until I experienced what being a mother truly meant. Being a mother means more than having given birth to a child. It’s a precious gift that is unimaginable to any woman who does not have a child in her life. It is a love that grows continually even in the hard times. A love that always wants more and to see you do better. It’s being terrified that you can’t prevent pain, injustice, heartbreak and at times even death. It is being strong for them when you are weak. It is smiling when you want to cry, and crying when you’re smiling with pride.
Being a parent is a blessing, a gift and a relationship that never ends. It is a love that knows no limits and has no boundaries. It is the best thing I have ever become, the greatest love I have ever known and the best part about being me.
My hope is that all those who read this know that you are not alone. May Hashem answer your deepest wishes with kindness and abundant blessing.