Navigate to Belief section

Fertility Rites

The longing that made a writer turn to God

Elisa Albert
August 14, 2007

Every time I see Dr. W, my endocrinologist, I leave in tears. Not sad tears, exactly, and not because I’m in physical pain, and not tears of joy, either. Just tears: the old fashioned kind, indicating catharsis, the spilling over of complex emotion. It’d be fair to say that I indulge in a fair degree of dramatism where my fertility is concerned.

I have a pretty common condition called poly-cystic ovarian sydrome (or PCOS). Which means, without getting too graphic, that I don’t ovulate properly. It’s estimated that 10 to 15 percent of all women have some form of PCOS, and a disproportionate number of these are (surprise!) Ashkenazi Jews. I should be okay to have babies, says Dr. W, but it will never happen “accidentally.” It will probably require basic fertility drugs, though hopefully nothing major: no Petri dishes or hormone shots or surrogates or donor eggs from a desperate grad student. Hopefully.

Dr. W and I have the same conversation in her office every six months or so.

“Are you thinking about getting pregnant?” she’ll ask.

“No,” I always answer, and then promptly burst into tears. “But someday, maybe…”

Dr. W has dealt with worse; she’s treated women with reproductive challenges much more significant than mine, and proverbial clocks ticking much more insistently. Her walls are covered with plaques and awards and elaborate thank-yous from legions of elated new mothers and fathers. There are offerings of crayon drawings accompanied by notes: If it weren’t for you, Jakey wouldn’t be here at all and thank you for making all our dreams come true. There is even a gorgeous sampler with a rainbow poem of gratitude.

Invariably, Dr. W will hand me a Kleenex, offer a seen-it-all smile, and tell me, with total conviction: “It will be just fine; you don’t need to worry.” The relief and gratitude that wash over me then are immense. I want to learn to sew and make her a sampler: I thought my eggs were all fucked up/ after every single useless shtup/ but Dr. W showed up and saved the day:/ I ordered me a Bugaboo and now it’s on its way!

From Dr. W’s mouth to God’s ears, I find myself thinking, reflexively, after every pap-smear, drying my eyes as I emerge onto the sidewalk.

But whoa: God? What could “God” possibly have to do with the science that may (or may not) one day help Dr. W help me to conceive? Here’s where I’m momentarily—if uncomfortably—a knee-jerk true believer. Do I believe in a God? Let alone a Jewish God? I can’t really say for sure. If there is a higher power governing the universe—and I do sort of believe there to be one, if only in the notion that life itself is precious—it is certainly not a higher power concerned with the specific struggles of my one journey through this lifetime. Let alone the realities that may prevent me—one tiny part of the human race—from reproducing myself. Surely individual cases of reproductive trouble are of little consequence to the universe at large, to the continuation of the species, to the meaning of being alive in the first place.

Still, there’s that silent, reflexive appeal to God. President Bush—science-bashing father of test-tube twins!—would be proud. As would any number of American rabbinical associations, who’ve run themselves ragged for years telling us how low birth rates among American Jews are, for purposes of Jewish continuity, worse than Hitler.

I recently turned 28. Not an age at which it’s necessary—in 2006, at least—to seriously take stock of one’s reproductive prospects. But regardless, I’ve been preoccupied with thoughts of babies—my babies, to be specific—for almost as long as I’ve been (irregularly) menstruating.

It’s interesting to note the obvious, I think: that the word “pregnant” is metaphorically synonymous with “heavy” and “weighty” and “uncomfortable”, as in “a pregnant pause” or “a pregnant question”: both cases in which something is to be borne out and that thing may or may not be positive or pleasant for all involved. My wanting to have children has felt at times like a burden—a huge, awkward thing to be carted around through my adolescence and into my twenties. It’s led me more than once to make bad decisions where men are concerned, blinded—like some terrible evolutionary case-in-point—by some pseudo-ideal trait of prospective daddy-hood.

Not to mention the fact that I feel increasingly sheepish openly admitting that I do in fact want kids—and want them, actually, a lot. A significant part of me feels like it’s a cop-out, a weakness, a shameless bowing to bourgeois convention, to want children. The notion that babies are the best and main thing a woman can do with her body and life is stupid, at best. Some of my most beloved, respected friends are of the sort to sneer at endless reams of unsolicited baby photos and hiss “Breeder!” at passing stroller-pushers. I myself am wracked with self-loathing whenever I wander through Park Slope: the insufferable smugness! The unapologetic materialism! The seething competitiveness! The baby-style narcissism! Oh, to want to be a mommy in gentrified Brooklyn: for shame.

For reasons good and bad, selfless and narcissistic, considered and totally naïve, however, I do want children. I know it’s not cool or cutting-edge or intellectually defensible, but there it is. Now back to my aging reproductive organs.

For my 28th birthday, I took myself on a solo trip to Greece. I had a pocket of free time, I had a little extra cash, and I’m ever-conscious of the fact that, ahem, backpacking without an itinerary isn’t the sort of thing I’ll always be able to do. (Which is code for: get all your livin’ out of the way now, girlie-girl!)

On the isle of Rhodes, a few weeks into my travels, my main objectives included: conclusively identifying the best strawberry-nutella crepe in town, finishing Anna Karenina, watching the sun set from the roof of my lovely guest house, and giving the finger to the monument declaring the Nazi-murdered Jews of Rhodes “martyrs” (when, of course, the Greeks handed them over, lambs to the slaughter, in 1942).

And one other thing.

Rhodes is famous for its mythical colossus and for the only inhabited medieval fortress town in all of Europe, a stone’s-throw (literally: the walls are pockmarked with cannon-wounds) from Turkey. Rhodes is less well known for the Tsambika Monastery, also known as the “Baby Monastery”, which I found mentioned only briefly in my trusty Lonely Planet, buried under “Other Things to See”. Halfway between Rhodes Town and the small fishing village of Lindos, the monastery is perched 300 km up the side of a mountain, and is home to an approximately 750-year-old religious icon said to bring luck and fertility to those in need of both/either.

Legend has it that generations of reproductively-challenged (much nicer than “sterile”, no?) women from near and far needed only to ascend the mountain barefoot to pray for and be blessed with conception. An elderly woman on the bus told me that on September 7th—a saint’s day—the most desperate women would actually climb up the mountainside on their knees to appeal to the icon. What else were they to do without a decent endocrinologist around? These child-free women faced a different brand of societal disapproval than is routinely dispensed today. Alternately, they were thought to be diseased, cursed, possessed, and/or simply bad luck. Their poor knees.

Even still, wannabe-mommy Rhodian women continue to make pilgrimage to present offerings to the icon. The name Tsambikos for a boy or Tsampika for a girl is unique to the island of Rhodes, bestowed by grateful mothers whose prayers were ostensibly answered by the Madonna and child icon nestled into the tiny, Byzantine chapel attached to the Tsambika Monastery. Apparently one can call out “Tsambikos!” on any busy street in Rhodes and see for oneself just how effective the icon has been in fostering conception.

The ornate chapel itself was similar to others I saw throughout Greece, with its overflow of candles and frescoes. In the far right corner was the famous icon: a silver metalwork Madonna and child measuring about 8 x 10 (or, if you prefer, about the same size as the issue of Vanity Fair heralding the long-awaited Annie Lebowitz snapshots of little Suri Cruise).

Their painted faces were worn clear away into wood, their expressions gone. Standing before the thing, I was tempted to cross myself—despite the fact that, no, I do not believe Jesus Christ was the son of God—it’s just theatrics, after all, and couldn’t hurt! If there is a higher power, no way does one set of religious observance have the monopoly. Synagogue, church, mosque, I don’t care. If it’s quiet and there’s some discernibly good ju-ju around, I’ll pay my respects and give Feeling Something a fair shot. Being a Jew, to me, isn’t about shutting out everything else.

So I sincerely tried to have a religious moment, staring intently at the icon. At the hundreds of tin baby charms hanging around it. At the dozen or so giant wax-baby candles (yes, truly: there were actually life-sized wax-baby candles, with wicks sticking out from the crowns of their bizarre little heads).

I thought about what it might be like to share a careless night (or afternoon, or morning) of passion with my honey and wind up—whoops!—with child.

I giggled at the thought of the birthday card a hilarious friend had threatened to send this year: Happy Birthday! Seven years to go until your uterus is useless!

I reflected on my painfully small (and ever-shrinking) family of origin.

I conjured the wonderful face of my beloved.

All I could feel was ridiculous, however, followed in quick succession by shame and boredom. Pretty much the same feeling I get in any house of God. This baby-obsession, it occurred to me as I stood there, rustling around in my heart for some reverence, is absurd. A total waste of time. If it happens, it will happen.

And if it doesn’t? Surely I can live a worthwhile life that doesn’t include reproducing myself. I’m sick to death of carrying around the weight of wondering whether it will happen, and how, and with whom. I’m sick of those emotionally cumbersome visits to Dr. W.

Is letting go of the concern, the worry, not itself a demonstrative act of faith?

It was getting hot in the little chapel, and I was hungry. And anyway, what was actually moving wasn’t the icon itself or the prospect of divine intervention where my fertility is concerned, or imaginings of my possible future organic-produce-fed progeny. It was the thought of the thousands upon thousands of beseeching prayers that had preceded my mighty ambivalence before that 8 x 10 piece of metal and wood. Legions of women who so desperately wanted children, wanted to grow them in their wombs and give birth to them and nurse them and hold them and raise them—and who couldn’t do any of it. Women without endocrinologists or the promise of Clomid or IVF or the privilege of adoption, or, if all else failed, the option to simply have a full, happy life sans kids. All coming here in hope, resignation, anger, as a last resort. The air, if I may be permitted to further abuse so cruel and overt a metaphor, was pregnant with their prayers.

Elisa Albert is the author of the novelsAfter Birth, The Book of Dahlia, and the story collection How This Night is Different.

Elisa Albert is the author of three novels and a story collection. From 1969 to 1980, her stepfather was an active member of Kibbutz Be’eri, where Hamas carried out mass civilian slaughter on Oct. 7.