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
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
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
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.