Sisterhood Blog

Why Being 'Childless by Choice' Often Reflects Jewish Disengagement

By Debra Nussbaum Cohen

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The personal is political, said feminist writer Carol Hanisch back in 1969, and while reading Renee Ghert-Zand’s recent blog post on childbearing, I couldn’t help but think that procreation is political, as well.

That’s especially true when it comes to Jewish parenting; anyone who is Jewishly engaged is aware of the cultural/religious imperative to have children.

And it is an imperative. Being fruitful and multiplying is not only in the first book of the Bible, it’s also a way to respond to those who, through annihilation or assimilation, would see the Jewish people winnowed away to nothing.

My Oma, may she rest in more peace than she had in life, had a single child: my father. She would say that “Hitler took my other children.” She meant it metaphorically, since she and Opa (who died of cancer before I was born) couldn’t afford to have more, financially or psychically. With their 5-year old son, they narrowly escaped Nazi Germany and came to this country with literally nothing but what fit in the single suitcase they shared. Opa painted houses and sold household items out of the back of a car. My Oma started out cleaning other people’s houses and later went to work at her brother-in-law’s plastics factory. Though they were Orthodox, they did not have more children. Oma lived so modestly that it always seemed as if she felt that at any moment, she might have to pick up and flee.

It is a reflection of our sense of fundamental security that Hubs and I could have the three children we wanted.

The 2000 National Jewish Population Study — the last one conducted — showed, as this article reflects, that more than half of all Jewish women then aged 30 to 34 were childless. This was double the percentage of American women in that age group overall. Though it was nothing new; Jewish women have borne fewer children than other American women since the 1920s, said Alice Goldstein at the time. She was part of the technical advisory committee for that study.

More detailed relevant information about that study’s findings can be found here.

The lower rate reflects higher levels of educational achievement (for women, there is an inverse relationship between level of education and the number of children borne) among Jewish women than among American women in general, but being childless by choice is also a reflection of disengagement from deep Jewish involvement.

I don’t know any Jewishly engaged woman who is childless by choice. Perhaps it’s reflective just of my little corner of the Jewish world, but those I know who are childless are so not by choice but because of infertility. This is not to say that everyone who makes the choice not to have a child is Jewishly uninvolved. The decision to have a child (or not) is for many of us a complicated calculus of internal longing, finances, energy, and a desire to be able to fulfill our own potentials.

Either way, there are always tradeoffs.

In the Haredi community, there’s no question that procreation is political (as well, of course, as religious). Their population growth, contrasted with a slowing birthrate in other parts of Israel’s population has led to their becoming perhaps the dominant force in Israel’s domestic politics.

Because regardless of penury, Haredi Jews procreate. I know many Haredi families who live in very modest circumstances but have six or seven or even 10 children.

They do not tabulate their finances and lifestyle before trying to get pregnant again. They just do it. (Though I know some who do not, and use some forms of birth control to space their children after they have a boy and a girl, which technically fulfills the Torah commandment).

When I was pregnant with Rockerchik and fretted to my (Haredi) mother-in-law about my worry that we couldn’t really afford another baby, she said “every child is born with a loaf of bread in its mouth.”

That sounded silly to me then as it does now, but the truth is, based on the math alone, who can afford even to have one child in this crazy economy?

While for a time after my mother died I yearned for a fourth child, someone to name for her, there are days I feel challenged taking care of the three I already have.

And yet, Hubs and I are alone for Shabbat dinner this week, with all of our children away at summer programs, and it feels frankly odd. For us, not having children would feel to me like another kind of poverty.

That isn’t how everyone feels, of course. And I wonder if we are ever really sure of what we’re doing, when we decide to have children? Or even when we decide not to?

I’m acutely aware of how limited I am in my vision, how small I feel as an individual with little control over so much in this world. Having children is, for me, a statement of hope that I will continue, my family will continue, my people will continue and that this world will, too.

At the end of the day, having a child is a leap of enormous faith. Faith that you’ll not totally screw up as a parent, faith that you’ll be able to afford it and faith that, somehow and someway, things will all work out.


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