A friend of mine had an abortion this week. She wasn’t raped, she is not underage, and she is not experiencing a mental breakdown. She simply does not want to have children. She is not mean or cold or super-ambitious. She’s lovely and smart and funny. She just never felt the “urge.” She is 38-years old, has been married for two years, and says simply, “If the rest of my life is spent with just my husband and me, I would be really happy.”
But the decision not to have children is not so simple for a Jewish woman, especially for a Jewish woman in Israel. First of all, there is enormous family pressure. My friend’s parents do not understand her position, and they are relentless in offering their opinions on the subject. Of course, “family” also refers to distant cousins, co-workers and occasional passengers on the train who have no compunctions about asking, “So, when are you planning on starting a family?” Even the assumption of the question is that two people do not constitute a family, like there is something wrong with you. (See The Sisterhood debate about being Jewish and childless by choice here, here and here.)
Then there is the position of the State of Israel. True, abortion is legal in Israel. But in order to obtain that legal right, women who seek to terminate a pregnancy are put through the ringer. They have to apply to a committee, which usually includes a social worker, a rabbi, and perhaps a doctor, and, as if sitting before a parole board, women have to recount in gruesome and invasive detail exactly why they want an abortion.
My friend tells me it was one of the most humiliating experiences of her life. Even her doctor did not support her, she said. “I explained to him my reasons,” she said. “I told him that I don’t know if I’ll be a good mother, that I don’t think we can afford it, that I don’t know what it will do to me as a person, and that I just never had the desire to have children. He said, ‘Everyone goes through that’. He looked at me as if I’m crazy.”
All these pressures combined with the actual physical trauma of the abortion, and left my friend recovering pretty much alone, figuring out what to do with herself — and whether she made the right decision. “I did it for myself,” she said. “But maybe that’s wrong.” Only women torture ourselves for doing what’s right for us.
The reason why she is second guessing her decision is not that she suddenly changed her mind and wants to have children. The reason is that her husband wants children. At a certain point, when one person wants children and the other does not, one person has to give in. There is no such thing as compromise here, no such thing as having half a child, so to speak. So she is wondering whether she should have simply caved in to his desire for the sake of the relationship. That’s what she meant when she said she’s feeling a little selfish. In terms of her own needs, she is at peace with herself, but in terms of her husband’s needs, she is conflicted.
So I asked her whether her husband has offered to relieve her of some of the burden if necessary. Meaning, let’s say she has a baby and cannot cope, or feels overwhelmed or unhappy or desperate to get away (it happens!), I asked, would her husband be able to take over and be “both” parents for a while? After all, if having a baby is so important to him, is he willing to make any kind of caring or sacrificial gesture himself to take some of the pressure off of her? The answer was unequivocally no.
There you have it, I thought. It’s not parenthood that she is avoiding as much as it is motherhood. Having a baby will turn her into “the woman,” with all kinds of unequal expectations and demands. She just doesn’t want it. She likes her life, she likes her person, and she does not want to put herself in a position where, for the rest of her life, both child and husband expect certain things from her just because she’s a woman.
I must say, I understand her. Because motherhood does that to so many women; it carves out pieces of our identities, as if we’re a turkey lying there for all to partake in, without any reprieve in sight.
But it does not have to be this way. Motherhood does not have to be the end of a woman’s sense of self, an end to our own contours. With understanding partners and a properly functioning support system, women can be parents and still feel like whole people. Women just need to ask the men in our lives — as well as lawmakers and business leaders — to make the well-being of women their top priority.