Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Making Jewish Babies

For someone who does not like babies, I am often surprised at the amount of time I spend discussing them. Before I continue, allow me to establish that I have nothing against infancy or childhood. I recognize that these stages are a necessary point in human development and I wish babies and children well. Often, new friends are surprised at my stance on children, even after I explain that I have no problem with the procreation of others, that I do not judge the choice, and that I will happily be someone’s Cool Aunt Harley, so long as it does not require actual childcare. I am often told that I seem like someone who would be very good with children, which I am, but being good at something does not mean you like doing it or would choose to make a career of it.

I began to be more vocal about my disinterest in children when everyone I have ever known suggested I become a school teacher upon graduation. Teach for America, New York Teaching Fellows, National Teaching Fellows are all necessary programs whose efforts I applaud, but they are not for me because I am disinterested in children and being in my vicinity would be detrimental to them. Having firmly established that, I still experience the onslaught of baby questions. As a Jewish woman of child-bearing age (not to mention child-bearing hips), I am asked the marriage question regularly, every person I date clearly being vetted for future betrothal (regardless of how many times I state my views on marriage). But marrying a Jewish mate is not an end in and of itself: it is a good only insofar as we use our union to create Jewish babies. And so we’ve come full circle.

Recently in this space (see “Dis-Parity) and on David Kelsey’s blog (see the discussion following “Conflating Modern Orthodox Mores and Secular Realities”), we discussed gendered choices and gender parity in the job market. If you’ll recall, in Dis-Parity, I addressed the conflation of womanhood with motherhood, that to reject the role of motherhood is to become, socially and politically, non-gendered. This process of un-gendering women based on their procreation choices has two effects: (1) you must have children to be considered a “real woman” in this society and (2) to become successful professionally, women must become non-gendered. Either you are a successful woman, meaning you have children or you are successful professionally, meaning you are not a mother and therefore not a woman. (Disclaimer: I am not saying this argument holds true to this extreme, but that the original article logically leads to this conclusion.)

At the time, I did not delve into the psychological and emotional effects of the former statement for women living in a pronatalist society, such as the U.S. The issue is compounded for women who adhere to pronatalist religions (or have cultural or religious identities that also promote child-bearing as the primary expression of womanhood and as a basic duty). This overwhelming duty and compulsion (not to mention the biological imperative that everyone tells me will feel like a time bomb when I hit thirty) effectively forces women into making personal concessions and constraining their professional lives. And it takes a force of will (exercised daily) to choice a different path, a path that is viewed, socially and religiously, as deviant. As a choice-feminist, I believe that all women should have the freedom to choose their paths, but I recognize that, even in this day and age, that freedom is often illusory. Am I willing to give up my professional life at the expense of my womanhood? Am I willing to deny my femininity and undermine the basic tenants of my religion to pursue personal and professional satisfaction. I am not arguing that woman cannot achieve professional success and also raise children. My life is filled with women who are living examples of that daily tight rope walk. I know the choices are not as binary as I paint them, but I would like to lay bare the pressures women feel to make choices, choices that society does not place the same pressure on men to make.

So other than the fact that I am often confronted with the question of children, what inspired this diatribe? Initially, Nancy Rome’s piece in The Washington Post inspired me to reflect on women who were childless by choice (or not) in the Jewish world. For a psychological perspective on the effects of not choosing children in a pronatalist society, I read Larissa Remennick study on childless Jewish Israeli women, who also have the double-pressure of a country that privileges progeny and a religion that promotes procreation as a primary mitzvah. Remennick’s research echoed Rome’s article (and confirmed some of my fears):

Infertility became a "master status" for these women, undermining any other merits and achievements they might have. Most women fully internalized and endorsed the pronatalist discourse by way of pursuing long-term and burdensome infertility treatments, at any personal cost. The paper argues that resistance to stigma of infertility is only possible where women dare question the motherhood imperative, which is clearly not the case with most Israelis.

On top of the Biblical imperative for Jewish women, there’s the current Jewish population crisis, detailed in the UJC’s report on marriage and fertility rates. The report concludes that fertility rates are too low to replace the Jewish population, noting that “Because proportionally more Jewish than U.S. women have attained higher education, the connection between education and fertility disproportionately affects the Jewish population.” As if I weren’t already feeling guilty.

For those of you who still don’t see the undue pressure on women to choose family, read Judith R. Baskin’s paper on Rabbinic Reflections on the Barren Wife. I know I’m beating a dead horse asserting that Judaism promotes procreation, but what I’m trying to stress in bringing in these sources is that, while ideally a partnership between men and women (or women and women or men and men, but we’re dealing with the pressure of hetero-normative ideals here), the explicit imperative for having children is aimed at women, the pressure is placed on women. To the extent that having children is still viewed traditionally as women’s work and men’s choice (and, yes, DK, I know that biology places the burden on women for childbirth, I did take sex ed and I do have a uterus), women are placed perpetually in a position of making concessions. Don’t get me wrong, we all choose ultimately whether to produce fruit from our loins (or not), but in order to make that choice, we must also be aware of the way in which our world, our nation, our society, and our religion shape that choice.


Anonymous said...

A couple of comments:

1) It is only fair to note the extent to which society has begun to understand and try to work around the concessions women are forced to make. It is viewed as regrettable that women are forced to choose between a career and a family - and never before in American society has it been as possible for a woman to successfully pursue both. Of course, pursuing a career while having young children often means hiring a nanny or some other form of (usually female) childcare... one of the ironies is that this part of the feminist revolution came on the backs of low-paid (often immigrant) women.

2) You said:

Having children is still viewed traditionally as women’s work and men’s choice.

But there is a flipside to this. While "the explicit imperative for having children is aimed at women", the explicit imperative for being the breadwinner and providing for a family is aimed at men. Having children may be viewed as women's work and men's choice; but conversely, having a career is viewed as a man's work and a woman's choice.

You could even argue that women are more liberated from their traditional roles than men are. If a woman wants to go right back to work and continue her career shortly after giving birth, this is now relatively accepted. However, if a man wants to take time away from his career, stay at home, and raise the kids - this is often mocked or ridiculed.

Today, society is far more comfortable with working moms than stay-at-home dads.

harley said...


Anonymous said...

Food for thought: social pressures are only pressures to the extent we allow them to be.


Jack's Shack said...

Making babies is fun,but being a father is even better. Well, most of the time.

Smeliana said...

"Pronatalist" is an excellent word. You should team up with my sister and talk about her theory of the "marriage conspiracy."