I’m Not Going to Be a Mom — But My Jewish Life Would Still Make My Grandparents Proud

As the granddaughter of Holocaust survivors, I have complicated feelings about my hysterectomy, but I'm proud of myself for the life I've built.

I dreamed about throwing a going away party for my uterus before my hysterectomy. An Instagram post inspired the idea — as I scrolled through cute dog memes and wellness infographics, a clip played on my phone of a blonde woman from Detroit, laughing in a garage as her friends drunkenly destroyed a hot pink womb-shaped pinata to a fitting soundtrack of N’Sync’s “Bye Bye Bye.” I let myself imagine: What if that was me? But like most social gatherings during the height of the pandemic, a triumphant farewell to the organ that caused me debilitating pain didn’t pan out. Instead, the surgery passed quietly, except for a brief acknowledgment from the countdown clock app I’d installed on my phone to mark the occasion in giddy anticipation for a better quality of life.

Given my celebratory attitude, you might think the operation was an easy choice. Perhaps you assume I said a breezy good riddance to my uterus and moved on quickly, free of pain and full of life. You would be wrong.

The truth is, the physical relief my hysterectomy provided will never erase my heartbreak over the potential that sterility has thwarted.

I’ll never be the overly anxious but cool Jewish mother I know I could be — one who would bring her children to composting workshops on Tu Bishvat, mess up our kitchen together while baking our Shavuot cheesecake or go as a family to pick up trash in our neighborhood as part of our commitment to tikkun olam.

My anguish isn’t just about missing out on the joys of parenthood. Nor is it about the fact that I’ll definitely never get to be The Loving Bubbie, doling out crumbling mun cookies to my grandchildren as they climb all over my plastic-covered couch, poppy seeds spilling on the floor. I do mourn the loss of both those potential identities — but more than that, I mourn what the me I already am can’t achieve.

I’ve spent many nights sitting up in bed sobbing, my husband rubbing my back as I ramble incoherently about feeling like a failure. While it might not seem logical, some days I truly believe this outcome is my fault, as if I’m responsible for my disease-ridden uterus full of adenomyosis, ovaries destroyed by deeply infiltrating endometriosis and the genetic muscle disease rendering me physically incapable of raising a child even if I didn’t birth them myself.

It would be hard for anyone in my situation not to see themselves as the ultimate disappointment when our North American culture tells women daily that our most important job is being a mother. But being permanently infertile while also the granddaughter of two Holocaust survivors? Oy vey. That’s a recipe for intense survivor’s guilt.

My maternal grandparents died when I was still a child. Unfortunately, Young Bev was more preoccupied with chatting with her friends online and running around the neighborhood cul-de-sac than asking her grandparents questions about their Shoah experiences. Even if I had been emotionally mature enough to ask, my grandmother primarily spoke Yiddish and my grasp of the dialect stopped at a handful of words like “shayna punim” and “tuchus.” Needless to say, I didn’t learn much about their past directly from conversations with them.

All I know is contained within a precious 10-page typed document my Zayde created in 1998 to summarize his wartime memories. In there, he shares about my great-aunt Perl’s newborn baby, who tragically froze to death while they were all living together in the forest after joining a group of partisans.

This heartbreaking story reverberated in my brain post-hysterectomy, a talisman I latched onto to punish myself for giving up too easily in comparison.

Logically, I know I’m being unnecessarily unkind to myself. But it’s not just my brain that’s fixating on child bearing, or rather, the fact that I no longer can. The Jewish community is also significantly focused on the idea of procreating as a means of replenishing our people, understandable after millennia of vicious antisemitism. But that focal point has created an almost suffocating communal pressure that was always present at my Jewish Sunday school, the Shabbatons, my group Bat Mitzvah course, my sleepaway camp in southern Quebec and at countless brises and baby namings. I’ve picked at far too many bagels during Kaddish while a rabbi praised a new set of parents for honoring the most important mitzvah to “be fruitful and multiply,” inadvertently highlighting my deficiency for not raising proud Jews to continue our lineage.

I know that it’s not my responsibility to compensate for my family’s suffering with children, or at all, really. And just because I won’t be raising a child, it doesn’t mean I’m not honoring my heritage. Just because I still experience disappointment and sadness about my hysterectomy, it doesn’t mean I made the wrong decision.

But now that I know I won’t be having a child, I’m focusing on what I should do to fill my life with meaning. I want to keep my family’s traditions alive, even though I’m not particularly observant and identify as a Jew more ethnically and culturally than religiously.

So I work hard to extend my family outside of the nuclear, and root my Jewish identity deeply in those connections. I deliver vividly purple ube-flavored hamantaschen to my friends on Purim, I “repair-the-world” through disability activism, and I help organize gatherings of friends and strangers to make challah on occasional Thursdays — all despite the fact that I struggle deeply with health problems that make getting out of bed miserable some days.

And — perhaps most profoundly — I make room for awe.

The other night, I was watching a movie after dinner when my friend texted me about a rare geomagnetic storm that would make it possible to see the Northern Lights where I live in Southern Ontario. Within minutes, my husband and I were excitedly packing an overnight bag, booking a motel and driving out of the city to escape the light pollution for a better view.

Later, as I lay on a green plaid blanket in the middle of a dead-end rural road, staring at a starry sky as large swathes of light surreally danced across it, I realized: I don’t need a party or a piñata to celebrate my hysterectomy; it’s okay to feel complicated about it. And I don’t need to figure out exactly what I have to do to make my life “meaningful” or make my grandparents proud. I am already living an extraordinarily meaningful life, filled with impromptu journeys and a dedication to squeezing out as much zest as I can — I’m proud of myself, and that’s more than enough.

It’s clear I’m doing the work of bringing forward the resilience and strength of my ancestors, it’ll just look different from my expectations. I won’t be following a certain path. But that doesn’t have to be scary! It will be a glorious, spontaneous adventure.

Bev Herscovitch

Bev Herscovitch (she/her) is a Montreal-born communications professional, freelance writer and disability activist who lives in Toronto, Ontario, with her partner and their adorable brown-and-white terrier.

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