After several years of marriage, it became clear that Tami and I were having problems getting pregnant. After both of us underwent all sorts of tests (and subsequent “procedures”), the doctors asked us to query our mothers about a drug called DES that decades earlier were given to pregnant mothers. Amazingly, both my mother and Tami’s mom had been given DES in the very late 1940s – the cause of our mutual infertility.
In math, we are all taught that multiplying two negative numbers renders a positive. But in real life, it turns out that adding two negatives can also end up as a “positive”.
A couple’s infertility has the potential of being a marriage-breaker – for two reasons. First, it demands of the couple some soul-searching and heavy decision-making: Do they go childless? Do they try to adopt – and if so, how and who? Or perhaps surrogacy?
These are very difficult choices, each with substantial advantages and downsides. Childless through life? Lots of freedom and secure finances, but with a “hole” in the family unit, not to mention serious familial loneliness in old age. Adopt through an agency? Not that expensive, but not too much choice of the type of child unless you are willing to forego a baby for a kid somewhat older. A legal, private adoption? More control over what you are getting – but frightfully expensive (lawyers’ fees, biological mother’s medical costs etc). Hiring a female surrogate and/or donated ovum – or using a sperm bank (depending on who is infertile)? Cost and/or parentage issues. In short, any one of these questions can lead to a serious rift between a married couple.
By far the worst issue, though, is the “blame game”: who is the infertile one? Whether husband or wife, emotions can run riot. On the part of the infertile spouse, a major blow to self-esteem and perhaps jealousy of the “healthy” partner. The fertile spouse has a tough choice – almost Solomonic: to continue with the marriage at the cost of never having biological progeny or sacrificing a marriage partner for “genetic continuity” (if not biological immortality). In short, minus one added to plus one = a huge negative.
But if both spouses are negative, the equation pretty much straightens itself out! Neither is jealous of the other. Surrogacy is out (except for sperm and ovum donations). Only the quandary of childless freedom vs. (type of) adoption remains as a tough decision. In our case, we quickly agreed on adoption (although the process for each of our two sons was wildly different).
While not at the same level of “severity”, another ostensible double whammy had no less an impact on my life. Indeed, I considered it then to be so “horrendous” that it was the only time in my life that I was really furious at my mother. In the 8th grade of my Jewish Day School, we had the choice of taking the entrance exam to Bronx High School of Science – the highest ranked and most well-regarded high school in all of New York City. My mom allowed me to take the test which I passed; and then she wouldn’t let me go! “You need to continue getting a good Jewish education,” and that was that.
Anger and frustration hardly begin to describe my feelings back then – for two reasons (the “double whammy”). First, which kid would not want to be in such an elite high school? I always had a keen interest in science and was pretty good at math. Second (the other side of the coin), eight years of Jewish education was quite enough for me; what was there still to learn? (Young teenagers are not known for their “wisdom”; they would be more correctly be called “wise?dumb!) The thought of four more years studying Talmud and Hebrew (not to mention it being an all-boys school!) was not what I was looking forward to.
In retrospect, my mother’s decision changed my life in unintended, positive ways. Of course, one can never know “what if” I had gone to Bronx Science. But this was what happened at Yeshiva University High School in Manhattan. First and foremost, I did get a solid Jewish & Hebrew education that enabled me later on to offer a tentative “yes” to Tami’s “ridiculous” demand before she would go on a second date with me: would I consider making “aliyah” (moving to Israel)? That education also formed part of my secondary research agenda later in my academic career: writing on the Jewish Political Tradition.
Second, and this might seem to be a rather minor outcome, but in my eyes of major importance down the road, something that I already alluded to in my previous post, entitled Fa(r)ther – I was able to play on my high school basketball varsity (I most probably wasn’t good enough to make the Bronx Science team; who says “nerds” can’t be athletes? And anyway, they played many games on Saturday, my shabbat). Over 50 years later at age 71 (pre-Corona) I continue to play intensive hoops twice a week with some guys around half my age – and I’m one of the more energetic players among them.
What’s the big deal? As I have already mentioned, my father died at 57 from heart failure; similarly, his sister and brother passed away when only somewhat older than him. I have been aware of this “genetic threat” from my Twenties so that exercise became for me a potential lifesaver. However, as many exercise wannabees know only too well, if it’s drudgery you won’t stick to it. For me, basketball was always FUN – easy to stick to. Moreover, there was secondary element to this: as I got older into my 40s and 50s, it became clear that in order to be able to run up and down the court for an hour and a half, I had to stay relatively thin – thus impacting my eating habits: healthy and minimalistic. People constantly tell me “of course you’re thin – you play basketball.” They have the cause and effect backwards: in fact, I stay thin in order to play basketball! In short, what for me back then was my mother’s double “terrible” decision (letting me take the entrance exam – and then not allowing me to go to that school), ultimately turned out really well for all concerned.
These were my double “bads” that flipped into big positives – the first averting marital disaster, the second placing me in a life path that at the time (a 14-year-old whippersnapper!) I viewed as “calamitous” but turning out far better than I could have imagined. Obviously, there are many other life situations where a double whammy can ultimately end up being quite beneficial. To take a common one: I am sure that there are numerous men and women out there who become unemployed and/or get divorced, and as a result move to a new city – only to find the true love of their life or get hired for their dream job.
The lesson is universal: the paths of life are never linear; what seems negative at first – especially when doubled over – can hold profound (and unexpected), positive consequences. Does this mean that everything bad ends up good? Of course not! But it does suggest that whatever knocks we encounter in life, it pays to maintain a long-term perspective. What we feel at the time they occur might not at all be how we view them in hindsight decades later. And sometimes, despair twice-over shared with another person close to us can have its own mutual, positively reinforcing benefits.