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 am a new mother, but I am not a young mother. I am an old enough new mother, in fact, that my formative Mother’s Days date back to a hippie household in the early 1970s. Inside the walls of our little bohemian family enclave, calendar-driven sentiment was discouraged, even disparaged. But it wasn’t quite forbidden — if only because no behavior was really forbidden. So I always made a point of presenting Mom with handwritten poems and handmade cards on Mother’s Day.
I’m convinced my DIY tokens of affection kept the inevitable discourse on consumerism shorter than store-bought gifts might have prompted. Nevertheless, over the years I became well versed on the dubious origins of the holiday and the part it played in the grand conspiracy to impoverish working families at the expense of corporate interests.
Later, as a young bride — and I was a young bride — one of the things I found most charming about my in-laws was their rigid obeisance of holiday ritual. Not only do they observe all the major public holidays with family get-togethers, they do so in a nearly identical manner each and every time — a small home-cooked meal prepared by the woman of the house and served as close to 2 p.m. as possible.
I love to cook and I like to fete others. So, for the first few years of my marriage, I enjoyed preparing and presiding over these small elegant Mother’s Day gatherings. Then, as my own quest to become a mother hit the brick wall of infertility, the ritual of Mother’s Day became bittersweet once again. As I rolled out the piecrust, stirred the gravy, and set the table these past few years I couldn’t help wondering, “When will it ever be my turn?”
For American-Israeli women like me, having a baby means a trip to the U.S. Embassy. Once you are home from the hospital, and once your newborn’s Israeli birth certificate is granted and health care benefits are in order, you head to the embassy to apply for U.S. citizenship on behalf of your infant.
With the U.S. passport (replete with a funny-looking newborn passport pic) in hand, you can relax knowing you won’t face visa headaches when it’s time to take your bundle of joy to America so the grandparents can kvell.
Convenience is, of course, only one of the reasons that American parents anywhere in the world want to quickly establish the automatic U.S. citizenship granted to kids with at least one parent who is a citizen. In a post-9/11 world, American citizenship and the ability to travel freely in and out of the U.S. is not something to be taken for granted.
When I went through the process for my three Israeli-born children, my biggest worries were getting the diaper bag through embassy security and filling out the forms coherently on very little sleep. But mothers who had their babies using assisted reproductive technology, such as in vitro fertilization, are now facing a much bigger and more serious problem: Many of these children are being denied citizenship altogether.
This was a big week for the Knowles-Carter family. First, as you have likely heard, Beyoncé gave birth to a baby girl named Blue Ivy. Second, for those of us pushing for more open and honest discussion about the reproductive process, new daddy Jay-Z became a hero.
Like many musicians before him — check out Slate’s round-up of post-natal hits — Jay-Z released a song about his child. Entitled “Glory,” the single begins with the rush of euphoria felt by the new parents. “The most amazing feeling I feel/Words can’t describe the feeling, for real/ Baby I paint the sky blue/ My greatest creation was you, you: Glory.”
But then Jay-Z moves to a darker place. “Last time the miscarriage was so tragic/We was afraid you’d disappear, but nah, baby, you magic/So there you have it, shit happens.” With those lines, Jay-Z adds more to the miscarriage conversation than anyone else in recent memory. Here he is, explaining out loud, in verse, the pain and fear that miscarriages bring. And in a rap song! Among the many tropes associated with the genre, fomenting dialogue about reproductive issues is not one of them.
Pressure against the Pu’ah to abstain from holding a conference for men only on fertility and Jewish law seems to be working. As of this morning, 9 out of 10 Israeli doctors scheduled to speak had withdrawn. In addition, the Ethics Board of the Physicians’ Union announced that from now on doctors will not be allowed to participate in medical events or conferences in which women are excluded, either as speakers or patients. This is an enormous victory by any social activism standards.
A roundtable of 30 social justice organizations convened by the New Israel Fund over the past few months to address the exclusion of women seems to be largely responsible for this success. Dr. Hanna Kehat, founder of the religious women’s forum Kolech, brought the Pu’ah conference to the attention of the other members of the roundtable — and several member organizations helped activate pressure. (Full disclosure: I also sit on the roundtable, representing The Center for Women’s Justice. Everything reported here is with permission).
Lili Ben Ami and Limor Levy Osemi, of the Lobby for Equality Between the Sexes, have been particularly influential in achieving the support of the physicians’ Ethics’ Board, and have been speaking to doctors, Knesset members and members of the media. Mickey Gitzin, director of Be Free Israel, which promotes civil equality, has also been encouraging doctors not to cave into Haredi pressure.
Imagine a medical conference dedicated to women’s bodies in which no women are allowed to speak or even sit in the audience. No, this is not a Victorian novel or the back room of an old-fashioned gentlemen’s club. This is Israel 2012.
For the fourth year in a row, Pu’ah, a publicly funded organization dealing with gynecology, fertility and Jewish law, or halacha, is set to hold their annual medical conference on January 11 in a setting completely devoid of actual women.
Women are excluded as conference presenters on fertility, medicine, or Jewish law, and barred from even sitting in the crowd. Over the past three years, Kolech has written petitions, gone to the media, and turned to medical professionals asking them not to participate “This year, for the first time, people are taking an interest, and maybe something will happen,” Kolech’s founder, Hanna Kehat, said.
In her post “Why Infertility Breeds Silence,” my fellow Sisterhood blogger Elissa Strauss writes about the silence surrounding conception and infertility in her group of friends in the child-bearing stage of life. She observes that it:
feels as though we lack a vocabulary for how to discuss these things and as a result conversations are often awkward. I wish I would hear more first-person accounts about trying to conceive from friends. I want to hear about the pain and frustration and the fun and joy. I understand that for some trying to get pregnant is something they feel should be kept private, and I respect that, but sometimes privacy hurts more than it helps.
Having conceived and given birth to three kids, and suffering some all-too-common early miscarriages along the way, I would question Elissa’s assertion about privacy sometimes hurting more than it helps when it comes to the business of procreation. Granted, I live in Israel, where women have the opposite problem: Every woman’s uterus seems to be the whole country’s business and people don’t seem to stop talking about having babies.
The magazine produced a funny and touching video with stars like Sherri Shepherd and Padma Lakshmi speaking candidly about their struggles to conceive, and some 50 Redbook readers posted videos of their own. In the story accompanying the video, Norine Dworkin-McDaniel writes about how one in eight women have trouble becoming pregnant, yet few of them feel that they can discuss the issue. Dworkin-McDaniel says the problem with culture of secrecy surrounding matters of infertility is that it “has left so many women to cope alone, in pain, and often uninformed.”
I am 32 and married and so are most of my friends; we have officially entered the age of the procreation. Many in our social circle either have a baby, are pregnant or have hinted at wanting one. None of them, however, speak or have spoken openly about the process of getting pregnant. Yes, some of them might mention in passing that they are “trying,” or respond with a low-level groan when the subject comes up, but that is about as specific as they get.
Rabbi Dr. Einat Ramon has gone to war against surrogate mothers, sperm donors and feminists. In a recent op-ed in Haaretz, Ramon calls for making illegal anonymous sperm donation and all forms of surrogacy, and replacing it with an exclusive Jewish sperm bank filled only with the seed of Jewish men who died childless. I am sure that mine is not the only jaw that needs lifting from the floor.
Ramon opens her essay with an attack on what she calls radical feminism. “The lurking danger to the wholeness of the Jewish people in our times,” she writes, comes from “the ideology of radical feminism, which refuses to acknowledge the proven biological differences between men and women and the moral value of joint parenting between the man and the woman in the absolute majority of human cultures throughout history.” That’s a surprising statement. I would think that there are many other, more pressing dangers to the wholeness of the Jewish people — Iran, Hezbollah, anti-Semitism, to name a few.
Ramon has regressed by a generation or two, at least, in this assertion that LGBT parents and single parents are by definition inferior parents. It’s particularly shocking to hear Ramon, the first Israeli woman to be ordained as a rabbi and the first woman to hold the position of Rabbinical Dean at the Schechter Rabbinical Seminary in Israel, defend so passionately the theory of gender difference.
Her eyes twinkling behind oval glasses, author Phoebe Potts led seven of us into the kitchen of the education center at a suburban Boston community mikveh. She lit a piece of paper on fire in the sink, and then urged us one at a time to toss our slips of paper into the flame. On that slip of paper each of us had written what got in the way of our voice — as writers or artists. Then, we symbolically destroyed what Potts refers to as our “internal mugger.”
Welcome to the irreverent, frank, poignant, and often hilarious world of Phoebe Potts, the 40-year-old author of “Good Eggs. ” The graphic memoir, published last year, chronicles her attempts to find a mate, to deal with depression, to come to terms with her Jewish faith (she is a child of an interfaith marriage) and, especially, to navigate a painful battle with infertility.
Why so much humor, asked a participant at Potts’ free writing workshop held Sunday at the Mayyim Hayyim Living Waters community mikveh and education center in Newton, Mass. “It’s part of the Jewish gestalt. If we didn’t laugh, we’d cry,” Potts said.
It’s no secret that Israel is a fabulous country to live in if you happen to be struggling with infertility. Not only is health care considered a right, not a privilege, but so is childbearing. The universal government-funded health care, package covers fertility treatments for women until they produce two children.
Israeli women take full and enthusiastic advantage of the privilege. Unlike their American counterparts, who must make tremendous financial sacrifices to finance in vitro fertilization treatments, the number of attempts are not limited by their means. Even the poorest of women make attempt after attempt. They can use their own eggs, or donor eggs, and they have the right to keep trying at state expense. (Unofficially, I have seen anecdotal evidence of “infertility aliya” — American Jewish couples who have become citizens and settled in Israel primarily so that they can qualify for state-funded IVF. In the US, they simply can’t afford children.)
Now, the state has even better news for women who aren’t dealing with infertility yet — but worry that they might someday. Beginning this month, the freezing of eggs by healthy women for future use is available in Israel for the first time covered by state health insurance.
For many couples, keeping the commandment to “be fruitful and multiply” doesn’t come easy.
The good news is that, today, those who have trouble becoming pregnant have options that Abraham and Sarah (the Bible’s most famous reproductively challenged couple) never did; the bad news is that halacha or Jewish law — with its set of demands about how a child is to be conceived, and how religious lineage and priestly status is to be passed from generation to generation — can complicate matters of employing reproductive technology.
Those complications are the raisons d’être of the Jerusalem-based Puah Institute. The organization counsels infertile couples, and sends supervisors to fertility clinics around the world to ensure that the business of making babies is done within the confines of Jewish law. The work of the Institute, named for a heroic midwife in the Book of Exodus, is detailed in this enlightening article, published Sunday in Canada’s National Post, and its companion podcast.
As a Puah supervisor told the National Post: “Just like rabbis supervise the production of Kosher food, we supervise the fertility process. It’s not that we don’t trust the labs, but this is the only way this process is Halachically sound.”
Retail is sluggish; real estate prices are down; but the market for Jewish eggs seems not to be suffering — even though it costs the couples receiving them between $40,000 and $50,000.
In New York, payment to the women who “donate” their eggs is between $5,000–$8,000; the rest of the money goes to pay medical expenses — and $4,000–$6,000 to the agency that makes the match would-be parents–donor match.
The economy has made a slight impact on their work, say two women who make those matches: “We had two three weeks I could really feel a difference but it’s really picked up again, in an intense way,” says Ruth Tavor, who with her husband co-owns a New York City company, NY LifeSpring, which finds mostly Israeli egg donors for their international Jewish clientele. Egg donors can have their eggs harvested up to six times, and many Israelis return again and again to donate. A Forward article from last year explores the phenomenon in greater detail here.
Judy Weiss advertises for donors around the country on Craigslist and in local papers. Her company, A Jewish Blessing has been in business for about four years, with offices in Sonoma County, Calif., in Jacksonville, Fla., and in Israel. The economy “has affected specific families whom I am working with,” she says. “In one case the husband lost his job and the family had no choice but to place their dream of a child through egg donation on hold.”
Even when an infertile couple finds an egg donor and puts down the money, there is no guarantee that a baby will result. The donor is paid for the successful retrieval of her eggs, not after a pregnancy and birth result. “Perhaps for any family out there looking at such a large ‘investment’ with no true security that the outcome will be positive it is a little daunting to undertake when the news is constantly full of doom and gloom about the economy,” Weiss says.
Outside of these private matching agencies, couples offer far higher amounts to potential egg donors. One current ad, posted on Craigslist in multiple cities around the country, offers $20,000,while the ads looking for eggs from young woman from larger ethnic groups offer as little as $4,500.
Why are Jewish eggs worth so much more?
Because there’s definite demand and less availability than in many other groups, say the experts. Jewish women, like other well-educated women in America tend to defer marriage and pregnancy. By the time they’re ready, their own eggs may not be. And Jews, like others, want as close a genetic match as possible in their donated eggs.
“Everyone I’ve ever worked with, Irish, Italian and Africans from Africa, people always ask for a donor who comes from their background. The Jewish families are not really unique in that,” says Weiss.
What’s more, few American Jewish women seem to be eager to sell their eggs.
“Young Jewish woman don’t run around trying to donate their eggs but they are incredibly generous when they know there’s a Jewish family in need,” Weiss says.