Illustration by Lior Zaltzman
In last week’s editorial, Jane Eisner once again fretted about the state of contemporary American Judaism, most pointedly about the purported declining fertility rate amongst non-Orthodox Jews as touted by the infamous (and frankly overplayed) 2013 Pew survey. While she proposed no actual, feasible solution to this problem (or rather, this set of statistics presented as a problem), she exhibited a paranoia about the extinction of American non-Orthodox Jewry mainly due to her arbitrary rubric of what an appropriate Jew can and should be.
Eisner severely delineates between Orthodox Jewry and non-Orthodox Jewry, the latter characterized as “progressive Jews,” ostensibly Jews that are a part of the Conservative, Reform, and Reconstructionist movements as well as the unaffiliated. In her piece, she points to comparisons of fertility rates between American Orthodox Jewry and the aforementioned subgroups of non-Orthodox Jewish strains, citing one analysis that “there are 5,000 more Orthodox Jews and 10,000 fewer non-Orthodox ones in America, every year.”
What Eisner fails to illustrate is the significance of how or why this is problematic.
One Sunday late last year, while on a biweekly library run with my children, I picked up an illustrated book about Anne Frank from the kids’ section.
“What’s that book, mom?” my son inquired, as he cleared the shelf of Franklin W. Dixon’s “The Hardy Boys.”
I quickly hid it between the stash of books in our library backpack, and pointed out that he missed one book in the “The Hardy Boys” series. I did not know what to tell him. How do you begin a conversation about something so elemental, something so close to home, something that is bound to give a child endless nightmares and shatter his sense of safety in the little bubble we created for him?
As if back-to-school season and the High Holidays weren’t enough to command our attention and energies, here in New York we’re anticipating mayoral primary elections (slated for September 10). Last week’s campaign developments, as noted in Kate Taylor’s “Trailside” column in The New York Times, included the following: “Two Democratic front-runners, Bill de Blasio and Christine C. Quinn, on Wednesday got into an ugly dispute over whether Mr. de Blasio’s wife, Chirlane McCray, had suggested that Ms. Quinn could not understand the problems of parents because she did not have children herself.”
Of course, there’s more to the story — including corrections to the Maureen Dowd column, also for The Times, in which McCray’s comments appeared. Regardless of McCray’s original remarks or intent, the situation spotlighted something familiar to some of us who don’t have children: the claim that we simply don’t understand the lives of parents. More important for The Sisterhood’s purposes, it has provided an occasion to counter that claim: In truth, some of us are childless (or childfree, or however you choose to describe the situation) at least in part because we understand the lives of — and the pressures faced by — contemporary parents.
We understand quite well.
In her recent Time Magazine piece, “Having It All Without Having Children,”, Lauren Sandler spoke to women and couples about their decision not to have children in the context of social pressure and statistics (19% of women aged 40-44 have no children, which is almost double the percentage from 30 years ago, according to the U.S. Census Bureau) as well as the expectations and “cultural noise of motherhood.” The magazine’s cover drives it all home: It’s a photo of two smiling, relaxed white people in matching bathing suits, as if to say, “When you don’t have kids, you have time to lay in the sun and match your bathing suits.”
When I’ve written about being childfree in the past, I’ve often been asked to clarify that I’m not talking about reproductive challenges like infertility. Often, the two are confused. Talking about infertility is a taboo, and so is the idea that a woman might choose not to reproduce because she doesn’t want to. While couples and individuals encounter reproductive challenges and sometimes choose to remain childless, that is a different reality and a different conversation. When I talk about being childfree, I’m not talking about something that I wish I had that I don’t. I’m talking about a choice I’ve made, which should always be a choice and not as an assignment. I’m talking about what it means to not want something that women are expected to want. And I know I’m not the only one.
Responses to Sandler’s piece included this chat between two Yahoo writers, Sarah B. Weir and Beth Greenfield, both mothers, who admitted their own suspicions and frustrations in regard to childfree women. Upon hearing that her husband’s colleague, a woman in her early 30s, definitely doesn’t want kids, Weir said, “I immediately went to ‘selfish, narcissistic.’ What is that about?” Greenfield admits “to being perplexed when I’ve met women, throughout my life, who say they don’t want to,” but also questioned her own motives when she got pregnant: “Was it a good decision for the world, which is overpopulated? Or was it just a good and selfish decision for me?”
I found myself surprised by the critical response Caroline Rothstein and Debra Nussbaum Cohen got for explaining why they feel Jews should marry Jews. Rothstein wrote about why she only dates Jewish guys and Nussbaum Cohen about why she wants her children to marry Jews.
I see no problem with the act of wanting a Jew to marry a Jew. To me this just means that they want themselves or their children to marry a partner who will be more likely to preserve a culture and lifestyle that they find comforting and nourishing. What is inherently wrong with that?
As I see it, the issue isn’t wanting yourself or your loved ones to marry a Jew, but how you react if you or they don’t. I suspect, and hope, that most of us would not do anything radical should our children marry outside the faith. We might be a little sad, a little disappointed, but this should never be cause to end or harm a relationship.
My story about the crushing pressures ultra-Orthodox women face to raise large families touched a raw nerve. The story went live on the Forward’s web site on Monday, March 11. By that night, I was sorting through an avalanche of emails from people within and out of the community, from those who sympathized, and those who were enraged.
My words seemed to evoke a strong, visceral reaction. By Tuesday morning, there was an online response written by Rachel Freier, a Hasidic mother and practicing lawyer.
The article was a sincere but formulaic repeat of the worldview I’d grown up in, the very one that led to the nightmare I found myself in as a young, Orthodox mother. Rachel explains that orthodox women feel that it is the greatest blessing to have many children; it is our joy, our purpose, our legacy. She said Orthodox women celebrate this decision, and do not want the kind of life led by secular women, one invested only in her career and profession, something that does not bring true happiness.
I agree. I never wanted a career. I never desired a profession, nor thought it would bring me happiness.
I am not a lawyer. I am a stay-at-home mother of three children. I write my articles starting 9 pm, after my children are fast asleep. But I still do not want a large family.
Within the regimented mindset of the ultra-Orthodox world, there is a neat and tidy summation of the outside world, one that is repeated like a mantra. That wholly inaccurate mantra is that all secular women pursue full time careers, eschew children like the plague, and in the end live lonely, empty lives regretting the happiness they could have had.
All the while, they stare in envy at ultra-Orthodox women and their 57 grandchildren.
The first thing I thought when I learned that gender reveal parties exist was, “Oh, Jews do NOT do that.” My reaction was based on the fact that every pregnant Jewish woman I have ever known has delayed announcing her pregnancy until she’s past her first trimester (at the very least). In the Jewish community, there is already so much secrecy around pregnancy. Anyone could be knocked up, and you wouldn’t know it until enough time has passed for things to be considered “safe.” In the Jewish community, there is no baby shower. You don’t buy things for the baby before it’s born, and you definitely don’t gather together with friends to disclose the sex. (The second thing I thought, by the way, was that gender reveal parties should be called sex reveal parties, and that whoever came up with the idea needs a crash course in the difference between the two.)
When I posted on Facebook inquiring as to whether or not people had heard of this phenomenon, I got a huge response. Yes, people had heard of it. Jews knew all about gender reveal parties.
“My non-Jewish friends post more belly pictures, more ultrasounds,” wrote Jessica. “Most often with my Jewish friends, you don’t get belly pics until maybe 6 months pregnant, and then much, much fewer… I am beginning to think that one of the biggest differences between Jews and non-Jews anymore has to do with attitudes toward pregnancy.”
I smiled when I read the title of Chanel Dubofsky’s latest Sisterhood post, “Why I Don’t Want Children.” I met Chanel last year when we were both working for a local Jewish non-profit. We bonded over our love of great coffee, feminism and pugs. The one topic we did not bond over was motherhood. I’ve always known that kids aren’t in Chanel’s future, just as she knows she’s off the hook for babysitting when I have a family. The reason we can have honest conversations about her choice not to have kids and my desire to have lots and lots of babies is that we’re in front of the same firing squad.
Despite shows like “Modern Family” and the upcoming “New Normal,” not to mention gay celebrity dads Neil Patrick Harris and Ricky Martin, society still demands that women live lives based on hetero-normative family values, i.e. the husband, wife and children. When you fall outside of these “normal” parameters — when you choose not to have children (like Chanel) or to be part of a queer couple (like me) — it’s somehow perceived as a threat. For some women, the choices they make have very little to do with what their family, religion and society wants for them, and yet all three are often the most critical of the personal choices women make.
I have wanted to be a mother for as long as I can remember. Growing up, I used to play house with my sister. We’d line up all of my dollies and teddy bears around the kitchen table to dole out breakfast before heading off to “work.” The beauty of being a child of the ‘80s was that I knew I could be both a mother and a businesswoman. Clair Huxtable of “The Cosby Show” was my role model. I believed that I, too, could have five wonderful children, be a top-notch lawyer, and make wonderful meals for my husband when he’s not cooking chili.
That now-infamous Vogue essay in which mother Dara-Lynn Weiss writes about putting her 7-year-old daughter on a diet — Weiss resorts to such tactics as occasionally refusing the youngster dinner, and publicly shaming her when she wanted to go off of her diet — has gotten the author a book deal and some public shaming of her own.
Over at Slate’s Double X, Katy Waldman spoke to body image expert Dr. Robyn Silverman, who said that a mother should never speak with her daughter about weight. Ever. Waldman goes on to say that it saddens her that weight loss has become so fraught a topic, especially considering that obesity is considered a health risk.
I don’t doubt that Silverman’s advice is sound, and would benefit many mother-daughter relationships. But it doesn’t seem like it should be the end goal.
In a perfect world, the one I hope my daughter will get to live in, weight-gain would not be the loaded topic it is now. It would be something you can laugh about, a matter without much significance. I grew up in a house like this. It wasn’t my mother, but rather my Salvadorean housekeeper who offered me an alternative and, frankly, empowering, narrative about weight.
Somehow, I am not surprised that just as I find myself at what has for me been the hardest stage of parenting (working mom with three boys, ages 9, 14 and 16), studies are showing that fewer women are choosing to be mothers.
A recently released Pew Research Center study shows that a quarter of American women in my age and demographic group (40-44 , with an advanced academic degree) are childless. While that percentage is down from 31% in 1994, there is evidence that choice, and not just infertility, is involved.
The recent report cited a 2007 poll, showing that 41% of respondents felt that children were essential to a successful marriage, down from 65% in 1990. A recent, much-talked-about article in New York magazine titled, “All Joy and No Fun,” covered the supposed revelation that parenting is hard and captured the zeitgeist of today’s young parents hating to be parents.
Girlchik got on the camp bus yesterday with a wave and a smile, happy to head off to overnight camp and into the safe first steps toward independence for which, at 11, she is beginning to hunger. Rockerchik, who is 9, was by turns excited and having separation anxiety, bounding off the bus to give me the 10th “last hug and kiss” before she headed off to her first overnight camp experience.
I feel kind of like Rockerchik.
Since Boychik is in Israel, learning Jewish texts with great teachers and taking midnight swims in the Kinneret with new friends, this means that Hubs and I are on our own for the first time in 17 years.
Sara Einfeld says that “A hole in the sheet” saved her life.
The 25-year-old former Gur Hasid and mother of two from Ashdod said in an interview in last weekend’s Yediot Aharonot that she was choking in her life, “a carbon copy of masses of other ultra-Orthodox women, all about kids, cooking, husbands, and meeting friends to talk about kids, cooking and husbands.”
Then she discovered the Internet and began blogging anonymously at “Hor Basadin,” literally “A Hole in the Sheet.” That, she says, “was when redemption came.”
I read this week on Failed Messiah, a blog by Shmarya Rosenberg, about Mrs. Rachel Krishevsky, a haredi woman in Jerusalem who passed away a week before Rosh Hashana at age 99, and left at least 1,400 descendants.
This blessed woman passed away at home surrounded by some of the many children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren and great-great-grandchildren produced by a marriage that began over 80 years ago.
On the one hand, I can’t imagine getting married (or having any of my children marry) at age 18, to a cousin, as she did.
On the other, I feel a faint twang of something like envy for her prolific fecundity.
Women are getting more beautiful, and men are not, according to recent studies by Markus Jokela, a researcher at the University of Helsinki, and Satoshi Kanazawa, an evolutionary psychologist at the London School of Economics, The Sunday Times reported last week. Relying on data from the Wisconsin Longitudinal Study and the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health, respectively, Jokela and Kanazawa’s combined findings are that attractive women tend to have more children than unattractive women, and they tend to have girls more than boys. Thus, “attractive genes” are getting passed on disproportionately to female offspring, making women more and more attractive over the years, while men’s attractiveness level stagnates.
The evolutionary explanation for this trend, as The Times explains, is that beauty is a more valuable trait for women than it is for men:
Kanazawa said: “Physical attractiveness is a highly heritable trait, which disproportionately increases the reproductive success of daughters much more than that of sons. … In men, by contrast, good looks appear to count for little, with handsome men being no more successful than others in terms of numbers of children. This means there has been little pressure for men’s appearance to evolve.