Why I Waited To Have Children: A Meditation on the Myth of Selfless Jewish Mothers
My husband and I wanted kids. We just didn’t want them now. But the longer we delayed, the more we risked missing our chance.
As a 38-year-old woman—OK, almost 39—who has been with my husband for eight years, I have become accustomed to the surprised, pitying, and blank-faced responses from neighbors, cab drivers, hair stylists, and clients when they ask if we have children and I tell them no, we do not. And that’s to say nothing of the aunts, uncles, cousins, and even some friends who for years have begun conversations with, “So … any news?” I never divulged our reasons, but I assumed that they assumed the worst: that my husband and I wanted children desperately, but alas, had not been blessed by the fertility gods. Perhaps others surmised that we were one of those strange, sphinx-like couples who simply did not want kids. The truth was somewhere in between: We wanted kids at some point, but we didn’t want them now.
This may not seem like a radical stance Berkeley or Brooklyn, where my husband and I used to live. Anyone with an Internet connection knows that so-called “delayed motherhood” is a thing for our generation; As Time magazine recently reported in a controversial cover story, the birthrate in the United States is at the lowest in recorded American history. But as my early 30s turned to my mid-30s turned to my late-30s, even friends among the yuppie/hipster delegation—those proud denizens of Brooklyn and lower Manhattan who, like us, had cohabitated for years before making it official well into their 30s—announced pregnancies soon after their honeymoons and promptly ensconced themselves in the project of reproductive nesting.
And some of them were becoming worried about our indecision. It was one thing to show up fashionably late to the reproductive lottery; it was another to tempt fate. One friend who was struggling with infertility pulled me aside a few years ago and told me that if we had even the slightest intention of having a baby, we must start trying right away. Our waiting had begun to distress even those who long believed in waiting.
Then we moved to Jerusalem, where “delayed parenting” remains an oxymoron. Childbearing here bears the contours of a competitive sport with the highest of stakes. In certain communities in this notoriously fragmented city, Jewish and Muslim alike, the notion of parenthood has little to do with personal choice and more to do with unspoken communal obligation, laden with spiritual, demographic, and political import. As strange as we may have seemed to friends and family in the United States, we were even more inscrutable, and in some ways more isolated, in our adopted home.
We did not plan to wait as long as we did. We never had the talk about whether we wanted kids because we didn’t need to; it went without saying that we did, eventually. Having grown up in an observant Jewish family and attended religious schools all my life, I had many friends who’d not only begun marrying in their early 20s, but procreating as well, which means that instead of receiving wedding invitations in the mail, we now receive bar- and bat mitzvah announcements.
And yet, month after month, year after year, waiting seemed like a good idea. There were things we wanted to do together: travel to Italy (which we did this past winter) or pay off our student loans (still working on it). I wanted to finish my novel (halfway through) and take up yoga (going on three years of practice). My husband wanted to wait until he felt more settled in his career and we were ready to buy a car (check and check). Then there were the things we each wanted the other to do: I wanted him to start going to the gym, he wanted me to address my bouts of anxiety. But as our delay progressed and we hit various markers along the way, I started to wonder if waiting wasn’t just a cover for a deep-seated ambivalence about the whole enterprise. Was I really fit to be a mother? Was I meant to be a mother? Did I really want to give up all my freedom?
Our ambivalence was nothing against the concept of kids. We are goo-goo-ga-ga for the little people. We gush over our nieces and nephews when we’re with them and repeat their funniest turns of phrase to each other when we are not (“Maayan said, ‘Yesternight, I couldn’t sleep.’ ‘Yesternight’?!”). When we go over to the homes of our friends who have kids (which is most of them), my husband and I get down on the floor and do puzzles with them or read them books or listen as they “play guitar.”
My friends assure me that nothing has made them happier than being parents. Accomplished, capable women with advanced degrees, successful careers, and happy marriages, they have hinted, and at times stated outright, that having a baby answers the existential question of what exactly this life is about like nothing else can. You’ll see, you’ll be fine is a common refrain. The sacrifices that seem so daunting now will become second nature is another. And the ever-popular: You’ll never regret it.
It did not escape our notice that countless of our friends had embarked on the journey toward parenthood with less built-in compatibility, smaller apartments, and lower salaries than we had. There was something else holding us back—something that could not so easily be attributed to external factors—and that thing was something we shared: a belief in the non-primacy of parenthood in living a purposeful life. We knew ourselves well enough to know that a child would become the center of our world, but we also knew that we have our own purposes to fulfill and that honoring that sense of purpose within ourselves was something we needed in order to be able to look ourselves in the mirror—and to look any child we might eventually have in the eyes.
Growing up, each time that my mother got pregnant—I’m the oldest of five—she assured me that “every new baby brings its own blessing.” I was never sure what to make of that since the only blessing I was interested in was the one that would enable me to have my own room, something that each new baby made less and less likely. In fact, the only blessings that the arrival of a new sister or brother every two to three years meant, as far as I could tell, were the blessings of more dirty diapers, more crying, and darker circles under my mother’s eyes, not to mention less time for me. My mother was and is a beautiful woman, witty and full of life, but during those years of intensive mothering, all I could see were her maternity clothes and nursing pads, her continuous cleaning of the Cheerios-encrusted high chair. Although my mother was by no means a single parent, because my parents’ marriage adhered strictly to traditional gender roles, to my eyes, she may as well have been.
It probably comes as no surprise, then, that from a young age, I promised myself that my fate would be different. I made copious mental notes and engraved them in my brain, chief among them: Children tie you down. Children are a trap. I remember telling my fifth-grade boyfriend that I had no intention of ever becoming a mother; he begged me to reconsider. “But you’d be a great mom,” he said, trying to convince me. I knew he was trying to be nice, but in my mind, it only proved he didn’t get it. I broke up with him the next day.
Everyone knows that the sine qua non of Jewish mothers is their selflessness. Jewish mothers are said to give and give and give and then hold their breath (instead of taking one), and give some more. My mother, for one, endured an unhappy marriage for many years because she didn’t want her children to suffer the pangs of divorce. Another woman I know, who has endured various surgeries and hospitalizations due to complications resulting from obesity, will tell you that she was unable to prioritize her own health because she was so busy prioritizing her family. Over the years, friends have regaled me with tales of their own mothers’ “selflessness”: the embittered psychologist who took on extra clients so her children could attend private school (which she never fails to remind them); the depressed suburban mom who insisted she could not afford therapy for herself but ended up paying twice as much when both her teenage daughters became depressed. In my highly scientific data-collection over the past 30-odd years, I have noticed that it can be very difficult to separate selflessness from its pious cousin, martyrdom. And in a similarly scientific observation, I would suggest that contrary to popular cultural constructions, such martyrdom does not make you a better mother but instead is a primary conduit for passing on the problems of one generation to the next.
Is it even accurate to call motherhood “selfless”? Almost every relationship requires mutual respect, negotiation, and compromise. Yet motherhood has always struck me as more unilateral than bilateral (at least for the first 18 years). Even if you’re not a because-I-said-so kind of parent, the mother-child dynamic is one of the few in which you are the epicenter of the other’s universe simply by virtue of the fact that you exist. You are, without any additional effort on your part, the standard bearer—whatever course your offspring ultimately take, it will always be, in part, a reaction to the course you have set.
But that is only part of the story. Having children demands sacrifices not only of the mother (and father), but on the part of any children already in the mix—sacrifices that are forced on them without consultation. There is usually a self-evident quality attributed to the retrospective rightness of these types of personal sacrifices. Most women suffer from the culturally embedded mantra: When in doubt, sacrifice. It will always be worth it, the logic goes. You will be rewarded with approval and honor. It’s the most ennobling option available.
I was not easily convinced.
As my 30s wore on, though, I started wondering if putting off parenthood wasn’t something we would come to regret. After all, there were no guarantees that the stork would be ready just because we’d finally decided that we were. And when I saw the pure sweetness in my niece’s face or the serenity that seemed to encompass my best friend as she breastfed her newborn on my couch, I wondered if we were simply being reckless. Or that in prioritizing my relationship with my husband, not to mention my relationship with myself, I was committing a sin far graver than tempting fate. I was being selfish. And if this was true, then what did that say about my qualifications to one day become a Jewish mother?
Then, one fine autumn morning last year, my husband landed in the emergency room with a life-threatening tumor. In those dark hours, one thought occurred to me again and again: I want to embrace life. And not just embrace it, I want to house it, nurture it, participate in its regeneration. In the weeks that preceded his illness, we were both feeling more ready than we ever had, but there was something about seeing the person who is closest to me slipping in and out of consciousness that suddenly gripped me with the overwhelming urge to create something with him, something from nothing. Finally, our ambivalence abated and we were ready. The waiting was over.
Now that I’m pregnant, I feel my life distilled down to its most non-negotiable essentials. My main objectives on any given day are to eat well, make sure I get enough rest, and squeeze in some exercise. Yes, I still have to work, get the laundry done, and answer emails. But somehow the simplicity and straightforwardness of my main objective during these nine months—to do everything within my power to ensure a healthy environment for my baby-to-be—has eclipsed all else and that, rather than filling me with a sense of dread or burden or my old pal anxiety, has, much to my own shock, filled me with something akin to peace. You could argue that I would have felt this whenever I got pregnant. But I know it’s because I waited until I was ready. If that makes me selfish, so be it.
As my pregnant belly and I made our way down the steps of our apartment building recently, I ran into our neighbor, a mother and grandmother several times over. “How are you feeling?” she asked, the standard greeting upon seeing a woman waddling from side to side. “I feel good,” I told her, which was the truth ever since my morning (a k a all-day-and-all-night) sickness receded. Without planning it, something else came out of my mouth: “I feel happy.”
Like this article? Sign up for our Daily Digest to get Tablet Magazine’s new content in your inbox each morning.
The Talmud is not a literary text, yet its role in maintaining the continuity of Jewish history is undeniable