Episode 5: A container big enough to hold us
Hey again. Glad to be back in your ears and on your podcast feeds with episode 6. It should be said now, more than ever, that when thinking of when and how people choose to have children or not, access to affordable healthcare is at the top of the worries list. The current administration is doing everything that it can to make it for so many people impossible to terminate a pregnancy, or afford prenatal care. Queer parents ability to adopt is tenuous at best, and now more than ever the words of Megan Smith from the Repeal Hyde Art Project ring true, that building queer family is an act of resistance. This episode is the second and final segment on reproductive loss, focusing on queer reproductive loss.
My stomach falls out when I realize it won’t be as easy as I thought to have kids. Growing up in a world that assumes everyone is straight--and, similarly wrongly, assumes everyone is able to get pregnant, the idea of not being able choose to mix genetic sequences with someone you love and create a new someone to love, that’s heartbreaking. I experience a piece of that heartbreak now every time I think about having kids with my partner.
The women unable to have children in the way they might have dreamed are signposts that run a path through the whole Torah. Hannah who cries out to God silently to conceive is misunderstood by the world around her, and she is chastised. Hannah’s experience of loss and how she mourns her inability to become pregnant has to be explained, taught, before she can receive comfort. In I Samuel, Hannah goes to the Temple to pray for help. Her prayers are so fervent that her lips move without any words coming out. Eli, the high priest, sees this weeping woman mouthing silently, and accuses her of being drunk. “How long will you make a drunken spectacle of yourself? Sober up!” Hannah corrects this high priest, this authority who cannot understand nor bear her grief. She says, “I have only been speaking all this time out of my great anguish and distress.” [I Samuel 2:12-16]
Hannah’s grief is unimaginable to Eli, who scolds her for disrespecting the Temple rites. Infertility, loss of an adoption, inability to conceive with a partner, these are stories that we have to seek out. What if Eli had seen Hannah’s grief, and sat next to her as she prayed? Joined in?
Reproductive loss is the loss of a wanted pregnancy. But it is also the loss of potential, the loss of pregnancies, failed adoptions, infertility. This episode of Kaddish offers a queered vision of reproductive loss, that centers on the body, but understands the myriad ways we might have such an experience, moving from just the sphere of the body, and into the spirit.
I first learned about this idea, this expansive and compassionate understanding of reproductive loss from our first guest, Naomi Leapheart. Naomi is an educator, faith leader, and organizer based in Philadelphia. We’ll also hear in this episode from Crista Craven, a professor in Women’s Gender and Sexuality Studies in Ohio. Both weave the body and spirit into our imaginings of what reproductive loss is- something that happens to queer bodies, and in queer families.
This episode is a prayer to find the vessels big enough for us to pour our loss into. Finding vessels that can contain loss. This could be a story about not having to explain why we pray silently, instead inviting others to join in the prayer.
I'm Ariana Katz, and this is Kaddish.
Naomi I am the Faithwork Director at the National LGBTQ Task Force. I am also a born and bread baptist and I am currently making my denominational home in the United Church of Christ.
So, I've been thinking about this. And 01:21 I would say that any loss we can attribute to the expectation of new life. The generation of new life. I would consider a reproductive loss. So both in the politicized sense where we're thinking about a child that has been lost to a mother who is pregnant, thinking about a child who is lost at any point in that child's life. But also there's loss involved in the expectation of new life that cannot be met for all of the reasons that that could be.
Ariana Reproductive loss is losing a wanted pregnancy. Is having a living child die to violence or illness. Is infertility, and the inability to get pregnant.
Christa Craven is an associate professor of anthropology and chair of the Women's, Gender and Sexuality Studies at the College of Wooster. She wrote an essay in Queering Motherhood with Elizabeth Peele, called “Stories of Grief and Hope: Queer Experiences of Pregnancy Loss.” But it was through her own experience of reproductive loss in 2009, a miscarriage in the second semester of her pregnancy, that she began to see the dirth of resources to support queer people in their loss, and the differences in how it impacts queer people. Here’s Crista’s story.
Christa We looked for resources and there were very little in terms of what looked like our family. Most of it was heterosexual couples, mostly white christian blonde hair blue eyed, and we really didn’t find much that addressed the experiences that a queer fam might have.
Ariana Christa and her partner didn’t have other folks in their community that shared their family structure, but were met with a tremendous amount of support from folks who saw that to support LGBTQ families meant supporting LGBTQ families in loss, too.
Christa And so once we had come through that experience one of the things I was doing was going online, searching out other communities, were they supporting each other, and there was vv little on lgbtq exp of repor loss.BACKGROUND ON RESEARCH
Ariana But she did stumble on a survey by Psychologist Elizabeth Peele, and after some convincing, the two began to work together to study how reproductive loss specifically affects queer families. Their first piece together came out in 2014 in an anthology called Queering Motherhood, called “Stories of Grief and Hope: Queer Experiences of Pregnancy Loss.”
Christa I talked with over 50 people and i can’t tell you how many said “wow, i thought i was the only one until I saw you were doing this research. Yet over 100 people have contacted me. Its a relatively common exp but its one we never talk about.
I’m creating the work i wish i had access too…
In what I have sent out asking people to contact me if they want to be a part of this study, i have id myself as a queer parent who has experiences repro loss as well as a researcher in this topic. And i’ve had numerous people say to me i never would have gotten in touch with you if you handt had that exp because ive talked to too many people who have been dismissive of my own. being able to empathize with someone whose gone through something similar has been a real part of this research
Ariana Christa Craven and Elizabeth Peele outline several particular ways in which reproductive loss is different for queer people. Namely, they focus on the financial burden of affording insemination, surrogacy or adoption, the invisibility of the non-carrying partner, fear of shaming.
For me, the shift in imagining what building my family will look like has been a kind of loss too.
Christa So many of the people I’ve spoken with said something to the effect of that their big fear is that people would say to them you’re queer anywhay you shouldnt be having children so this is why this is happening.
The financial piece is one that none of us really want to talk about, I think. I’ve asked this question and i think its a difficult question for the ones ive spoken with. Not everyone saw this as a tremendous financial burden but many did. And it really goes again to that so much of the literature written for LGBTQ intended parents as well as the academic literature talkes about reproduction as if it is only wealthy couples that engage in this. And if my research has shown me anything, that is absolutely not true ive takled to many people who espeicallly after a loss feeling a real intensity wanting to continue of their goal of making family, have taken second mortgages on their house, maxed out their credit cards, had a very significant impact.
I talked to one couple when i was talking together in their living room, and when one got up to go in the other oom, the other one, the one who was the carrying parent said to me, “im really afraid that im going to let shamika down, that you know because of my anxiety about loss and becuase we’ve already expereinced a loss im goign to miscarry again because im so afraid of how much this is costing us and how much this is impacting our family.” we don’t want to when we think about loss, of course we think appropriately think first of the emotional experience that we have, but for those of us who are investing a significant amount of finances in our experience of reproduction as well, to feel like we can leave that out when we talk about this and the kinds of imapcts this has on lgbtq families, though iw ould aregue many heterosexual families that are engaged in assisted reproduction have these epxeriences as well. FINANCES
Ariana In Christa’s interviews she particularly centers the experience of non-gestating parents, including those who have experienced adoptive loss.
Christa Their experience of losing a child after they had come into their lives for a few days or a week or 30 days from when a child can be placed with you but can then be reclaimed. So i spoke to people with a variety of experiences of lost who were not only biological or gestational parents.
Ariana One couple she interviewed included a trans man who identifies as genderqueer, and their partner.
Christa Nora had initially gotten pregnant, and had then had a loss and then had some health complications which meant that she was not going to be able to be pregannt again. And so they did in this instance decide that alex would then carry the children, and you know that was complicated on a lot of levels, you know, certainly in terms of their relationship, and gender identity, but also in terms of a legal relationship.
Ariana Because the state they lived in would not grant legal relationship to the non-carrying queer parent, they could not be on the birth certificate.
Christa So that switch you know between the partners made for much more complicated legal and political arrangements and did not have enough money to leave the state and try to do an adoption elsewhere.
Ariana In other situations, the non-carrying parent’s experience of loss was simply erased.
Christa People would ask about their partner who had been carrying the child, who had physically experienced the loss, but would not ask about the experience of the other parent who was very much anticipating that child, and had been involved in their conception and planning and all the ways in which you’re involved in making a family.
Ariana For us, here, the blocks that can come up in the script of how family gets made can bring grief, too. Queer people’s bodies experiencing infertility bring compounded loss, and are even less understood. Craven and Peele write in their essay that they spoke with a lesbian couple who, when the partner trying to conceive could not, their friends suggested that they simply “swap.” Naomi always thought she would biologically carry and birth a child--but she’s run into reproductive loss more than once. Naomi is a queer woman whos fertility is compromised.
Naomi So I am a woman who as I would say, has an issue of blood. So I have fibroids. They don't seem to want to go away. And they compromise my fertility, right? And so when I realized this, I had to deal with the grief I was surprised by because whatever figment of my imagination existed around birth, pregnancy, motherhood was shattered by just the fact that this might not be this easy peasy process. So I think that I'm still grieving the loss of the perfect reproductive situation. Why is my body not cooperating with my dreams? What does this mean for my status in the world as a woman, as a person who claims a female body? How is that connected to my larger sense of identity in the world? Do I now feel like I can walk through the world as confidently as I did before? 06:29 So for me, reproductive loss hit me unexpectedly when I realized I wouldn't be able to do it like I imagined.
Ariana The words “grief” and “loss” can talk about the potential that our bodies might once have had.
A Kaddish listener, Kat, told us about how the loss of their period is a part of that loss.
Kat I'm 24 years old and this past year was diagnosed with PCOS and for me that means I have high Testosterone levels and my periods are no more. My ability to one day carry a child is complicated with this loss and it means that it will likely not come easy to me if it does at all. When I expressed the concern of pregnancy to my physician they jumped straight to saying "there is always IVF" as if that was an easy (or cheap) choice to make when the time came. I know very little about what Judaism has to say at this loss of potential, but it feels real none-the-less.
Christa In the case of LGBTQ reproduction it is very rare that we have unplanned experiences. And certainly with the folks I’ve spoken with, often years of planning go into the dreams and expectations of having a child. And so I think that that coupled with the financial experience and I ahte to say investment, it sounds really crass, but the way that those things impact us as families you know, I dont’ think that we can ingore that. We have to find ways to talk about it that are meaningful and acknowleding of how these kinds of um material realities come into our experiences.
Ariana We’ve learned that the issues that compound reproductive loss range from the cost of fertility treatments, to the invisibility that a non-carrying queer partner can expereince. We know that all bodies, including queer ones, can experience infertility, and the compounding of those experiences result in a unique place.
Naomi I think that reproductive loss is a queer issue full stop
Ariana Here’s Naomi again.
Naomi Because lots of, first of all, queer identified people experience the reframing and reorienting of their own expectations around kind of re-productivity as they come to know themselves as queer people. So I am my queer body. Am I going to be able to do the things I imagined I would do in a non queer body? I want to be in a queer body. Does that change my own expectation of myself around whether or not I'll parent and how? But also, more sort of poignantly for me, how do our parents, so the parents of queer children, reckon with their own sense of reproductive loss when their expectations around how they would become grandparents are not met?
But in her mind she had already prepared for this loss, that I won't become a grandmother, due to my daughter's having a baby, because she's queer. So I think that a lot of queer families go through this loss. And so they don't know what to call it, they don't know to call it that 09:21 they don't know that there is support for that. Is that a thing? When there are straight identified people who experience reproductive loss in this kind of more mainstream way? So that's why I think reproductive loss is a queer issue because many of our families have to change their expectations around how we will give, bring life. And that is experienced as a loss, as a grief.
Ariana There are so many ways we build family. Uncles and Aunties who are actually family friends, who become so related to you and your family that it’s hard to remember who is and isn’t a biological relative. Teachers who become adoptive parents, and show up for graduations and celebrations. Friends who raise children of the same age, who parent each other’s children without missing a beat. It is natural and holy the way that our webs of connection form, and cement.
When looking for proving texts for queer reproduction and queer reproductive loss, the Babylonian Talmud has what we need. In Niddah 31a, it teaches:
There are three partners in [the creation of] man: The Holy One of Blessing, his father, and his mother.
His father brings forth white seed that produces bones, nerves, nails, the brain in his head and the white in his eye.
The woman brings forth red seed which produces skin, flesh, hair, and the dark of the eye.
The Holy One of Blessing gives the spirit, the soul, the personality of the face, the sight of the eye, the hearing of the ear, the speech of the mouth, the locomotion of the legs, understanding and wisdom.
It takes so much more than biological materials to create a being. It is the love of family and community, a unnameable Force, kismet, luck, that all comes together. It is not just the parents that create the being, but according to Niddah 31a, there is a triune formula that includes the God. We have in this text an ally. It allows many players (parents, sperm donor, surrogate, adoptive parents, biological parents) to all be part of those partners in creation.
And the text continues:
When the time comes to part from this world, the Holy One of Blessing takes His portion and the part of the mother and the father are laid before them.
When the time comes, each being is reduced to the physical self, and the holy ingredients brought by God, by the Source, invested in by community, that essence, is what is collected. Some things last forever, and it’s much bigger than only biological materials--this acknowledgement of the many factors of parenthood is an acknowledgement of queerness..
Ariana For Jacqui Morton, she had to create Holding Our Space to find room for her story, of terminating a wanted pregnancy. Our faith communities all need to work better to hear stories ring out and stay true of all the ways reproductive loss can exist.
Naomi And so women who experience say, miscarriage, there is no space to like, is there something, can we do a burial, can we have a memorial service? Can we do that? I've never heard of that happening in a Christian faith community. So again, giving people 27:51 the space for ritual, for memorializing, honoring the dead, the loss can be such a powerful thing for people. To me it's like an incomplete sentence, like we're asking people to just hang on, you know. And they don't feel like they've done what they needed to do with their bodies to honor the lives that have been lost. Or the sense of loss.
I think particularly as we experience the blood of folks running through the streets right now, we need to be talking about death. And loss. And not just trying to run and claim some victory or make some meaning. Oh this is the way it had to be. So no I don't think we do a good job at all. And I hope that, not just in my professional role, but as I'm personally evolving as a person of faith that I'm able to contribute that to the community.
Ariana In Christa’s interviews, she spoke with one person who named ritual and ceremony as more important in LGBTQ communities specifically because efforts to make families are so often devalued, and naming those efforts and that loss is that much more important.
Christa Sometimes that was through a religious or spiritual ceremony, sometimes that was through keepsakes in public and talk to people about when they were in their home, for some it was memorial tattoos. It was interesting that most of the memorial tattoos that people shared with me were in a public space on their body. They werent necesaarily face and DOB and DOD, but in the cases wehre ive spoke with people it wasnt necessarily clear what it was, so they had the option of speaking to someone about it if they wanted to and including them in that community of grief, or not. And i thought that was a particularly interesting aspect of memorialization.
Ariana What would it look like if our religious communities could hold this loss, and not require us to host ceremony on the fringes?
Naomi How can we structure our organizations and institutions to either partner or get good at providing support for people post termination, like the day after, the month after, the year after. Do we have the capacity to follow up in that way? How do faith communities come in and provide nurture and care? So I just find myself wanting to disrupt this claim that you know 31:13
Ariana Our text reminds us: When the time comes to part from this world, the Holy One of Blessing takes His portion and the part of the mother and the father are laid before them.
When the effort and care to adopt, to give birth, to conceive, or the ability to even decide, are laid bare, all that is left is grief. When God’s portion is collected, we are left trying to figure out how to hold all the potential of what could have been. It is in these moments that grief, laid bare, deserves to be seen, held. Knowing that ways our bodies move through this existence are sites of joy and liberation and grief and what-ifs. Believing we hold the multitude of ways to create and dream and fan out into this life. Praying that what has been lost will not be forgotten.
If you want to share your story of reproductive loss with the Kaddish community, you can call 240-KAD-DISH and for a listener episode.
As always, I am so grateful for all our listeners, and the brilliant Kaddish team.
We’re fundraising!! Kaddishpodcast.com or bit.ly/kaddishpodcast to go there directly. Offering wonderful tinctures made by friend of the podcast Jonah Daniel at Plants as Allies. These tinctures were made to ease symptoms of grief, and open the heart during times of pain. We’ve got lots of other goodies including stickers with our awesome logo designed by JB Brager, and a grief benscher zine with poetry and prayers to take to houses of mourning, by yours truly. Any amount of a donation helps keep this show going!
Two book recommendations: Queering Motherhood, out from Demeter Press. And Hannah Wept, Infertility Adoption and the Jewish Couple by Michael Gold.
Thank you so much to:
Naomi Christine Leapheart
Tiny Victor, for the music
The Jewish Federation of Greater Hartford
And Alex Stern, fearless Kaddish Producer