While reading Elana Sztokman’s recent Sisterhood post about her friend who had decided to have an abortion, I found myself responding very strongly. While I’ll admit that I am stubbornly pro-choice, it is not the actual decision to have the abortion that filled me with admiration for Elana’s friend — it was her decision to be a childless, married, woman living in Israeli society.
I have had countless discussions with my female friends and peers on the societal demand placed on young Israeli woman (particularly in Orthodox circles) to get married and have a baby — and fast. I am a high school senior. It is therefore only natural that the subject of our future is constantly being discussed: With it comes the talk of diamond rings and weddings and three beautiful children (first two boys and then a girl, in that order). Now, don’t get me wrong. I too can’t help but squeal with glee when I think of myself in a lovely white gown surrounded by friends and family as I walk down the aisle. But the difference between my friends and me is that my future wedding is still very much a fantasy. I have no doubt that it will happen, but I certainly do not expect to be looking at halls or printing invitations for many, many years. I’m only 17.
That is where my frustration begins.
When I asked a group of girls in my class how many of them saw themselves tying the knot within the next five years, more than half did not hesitate to say that it was definitely a possibility. I responded with the typical, obvious questions: What about university? Seeing the world? What about taking time just for me, to enjoy being young and single and free? Their answers to the first two questions were simple: Why can’t I be married and still do those things? The answer to my third question, however, nearly had me bursting out in laughter. “Keren,” they said, giving me a look that hinted that I was clearly out of my mind, “We don’t have forever. We don’t want to be those weird old moms.”
At this point I couldn’t help and think of my own dearest mother, who these same friends would without a doubt consider the epitome of an “old mom.” At nearly 51 years old, her youngest child — my sister, Vered — is 12. This is where I really begin to feel the difference between my cultural upbringing and that of this group of classmates, who were all either native-born Israelis or Americans who made aliyah from tightly knit religious communities. I am the odd creature that made aliyah from what I’m convinced must be the least-Jewish small town in America. Back there, my mother was one of the youngest parents in my public-school class. My mom used to joke that in Israel, having children is just a given — and in America, it’s more like an expensive hobby.
But as I listened in horror as my friends counted their future children on their fingers, I realized that my mom had put her finger on the problem. In Israel, you get married as soon as possible and you have as many children as you can, so that people don’t talk. If you can’t have children, then there must be something wrong… and if you don’t want children, then there must be something seriously wrong, if not with you then with your parents and the way that you were raised.
It’s true that all of the girls with whom I had had that conversation seemed to legitimately want to bring life into the world, even if too soon. This is not, however, the case with two other close friends of mine who are under the same pressure for early motherhood, yet simply have never taken a liking to children. These two outstanding young women are bright, kind and loved by all. They both get outstanding grades in school, and are the type of youth that adults tend to look at and think, “She’s going somewhere.” What is common to both of these friends of mine — both of whom are, by the way, religious — is their secret lack of desire to be mothers, not just in the near future, but at any time in their lives, at all.
Of course, they are still teenagers, and a lot could change in the coming years. That said, my heart goes out to these two girls who have both admitted to me in private — their faces burning bright red, and their eyes cast downward in shame — that they simply have no desire to bear children. They feel guilty that they are much more eager to build careers and become businesswomen than to start a family. “What is wrong with me, Keren?” they ask. “Why am I so selfish?” What was even more heartbreaking for me was the look of gratefulness I received when I answered them, with all my heart and soul, “There is absolutely nothing wrong with you. You do not need to have children to be worthy of respect and love as a woman.”
It was after having these conversations that I read Elana’s piece, and felt such extreme admiration for her incredibly brave friend who reminded me so much of an older version of my 17-year-old peers. I only hope that my friends will find the courage to come to peace with their individual desires, and do what they feel is right. But I would be lying if I said that I did not fear that both of these friends will indeed end up having children, yet not because they have grown up and discovered hidden a magnetism towards motherhood. No, I am more worried that my friends will simply give in to the demands that they feel have been so heavily placed on their shoulders as women living in Orthodox Israeli society, and have children because they feel like they do not have a choice. To my dismay, both of the conversations ended with my friend shrugging her shoulders in defeat and proclaiming something along the lines of “What can I do, I’ll obviously end up having children anyway. That is, after all, what I’m supposed to do.”
I remain exasperated to this day over the fact that I did not succeed in empowering my friends whom I love so dearly, and convincing them that they are free to do what they want with their bodies and their futures.
Cases like these make me wonder how many other religious Jews — whether in Israel or elsewhere — identify with my friends’ feelings about children and motherhood. I find the fact that there are teenage girls who already feel trapped and helpless about their future absolutely tragic. I only hope that cases such as that of Elana’s unnamed friend will become increasingly visible, setting an example for the younger generations and sending a message to my peers who are having doubts that it’s alright, that they’re normal, and that being childless does not make them any less worthy of respect, love, and acceptance in Israeli society and in the world.