I have been ambivalent about many things—mostly shows on Netflix which I’m told I “have to watch,” excessively popular books that are supposed to change my life, and assorted food crazes (hello, coconut water).
I have not ever been ambivalent about having children. The answer has always been no. The closest I came to something like wanting them was in my early 20s, when I thought I’d become a rabbi. There were many reasons I cut and run from that career choice, including the fact that I did not love learning Torah or think it was that interesting, but when I get really real with myself, I can admit that it was also because I knew of no other women who planned to be rabbis who didn’t want to have kids, and I wasn’t committed enough to the project of rabbinical school, or what came after, to be a maverick, at least not in that way.
Because I’ve always been sure about not having kids, the idea that you could not know if you want them always seemed inconceivable to me. I fell hard for the depiction of people with uteruses as either being baby crazed from the jump or, like me, adamantly childfree since the moment we realized not having kids was an option. There is, of course, a continuum in regard to procreating, and it turns out that more people than I thought are living in the grey spaces.
I recently spoke with some women about what it’s like to be ambivalent about having kids when you also spend significant time in Jewish communities. There’s been a lot of racket about Jewish women having kids later in life and then running into fertility issues, which, of course, has been turned around on us. It’s our fault that we want crazy stuff like graduate school, or travel, or just…not kids yet. In Ann Friedman’s essay, which ran in The Cut in 2014, she proposes that it’s not that women are putting having kids off, but that we’re trying to figure out if we want them in the first place, and even if we do, if it’s such a great idea to bring kids into this current iteration of the world.
For a while, I was super vocal about being childfree. I wrote about it in Jewish publications, where I got yelled at by readers—that I was finishing Hitler’s job, that it was a good thing I wasn’t going to breed because I was a horrifying feminist she-beast, and also that I should shut up about not wanting kids because no one cared. I did stop writing about it, at least from a Jewish perspective, but not because I believed any of those things were true. Really, I was just exhausted.
Being ambivalent, though, is a different story, a different kind of exhaustion. It’s assumed in Jewish communities that you do want kids, and at a certain point, everyone around you starts having them, and those who don’t have them yet are planning for their eventuality. Or are they? I spoke with one woman, about to turn 30, who attends a traditional egalitarian minyan (prayer group). She doesn’t feel like she can talk about knowing if she wants kids or not in that space, she told me. It made me wonder how many other women in communities like hers don’t know, and if the relentless pressure to pair up and multiply has silenced them from talking about their conflicts.
When L and I talked about not knowing, she admitted to feeling pressured to figure it out sooner rather than later, both because of the reproductive life span, and because of the changing populations of her Jewish communities, one of which is becoming a place where she and her husband, who don’t have kids, are the anomaly. If you know that you want kids, or you know that you don’t, there are road maps for that, there are questions to be asked, especially in regard to practicing Judaism.
The more folks I talked to about not being sure either way, the more I felt assured that not all Jewish communities are the same. I knew this already, on some level, but after spending most of my observant life in a certain kind of Jewish prayer space, I had become convinced that there was no Jewish space that was tolerant of either the childfree or the not knowers. It was easier to talk about not being sure you believe in God than saying you don’t know if you want kids or, gasp, didn’t want them at all.
“My Jewish world is SO ‘come as you are,’” said my friend J. “It’s very queer and interfaith and treif [not kosher] and not so much on the pressures to fit in the right ways.” It’s not Jews who are pushing her to decide if she wants kids; her conflict stems from the idea that everyone else is figuring it out—why can’t she?
G told me that she can talk about being unsure with her chosen Jewish community, but she can’t talk about it with her mom, and she avoids the subject of kids altogether when she’s at the synagogue she grew up in. “I think the folks in my current community are a lot more my friends than the folks in my childhood community are. Those are people that I would never see or make plans with outside of shul, but I hang out with these people. So I think my relationships with them are a lot more real and trusting.”
The conclusion I’ve come to after my brief exploration—that these conversations are hard to have—may seem rather limp. It’s not. Because both not knowing if you want kids and knowing that you don’t want them are seen as beyond the pale in the mainstream Jewish community; those of us on this island need each other.
Six-ish years ago, when I realized I no longer wanted to be observant, I thought that meant I didn’t need to know that there were other childfree Jews out there, but I was wrong. There is strength in being able to process how it feels to be where you are, especially if you’re constantly being told you shouldn’t be that way. I spend a lot of time wishing we could send up a signal, a light or a symbol, to let others know who we are, so we can find each other. While we’re figuring out what that thing could be, consider this an invitation.