Orna Donath - Daniel Tchetchik - August 2011
Orna Donath. A groundbreaking study. Photo by Daniel Tchetchik
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Habekhira Behayim Bli Yeladim Beyisrael

(Taking a Choice: Being Childless in Israel), by Orna Donath. Yadioth Books Hakibbitz Hameuchad (Hebrew) 246 pages, NIS 98

Are you allowed to publish books like this in Israel?” was the biting comment of S., an Israeli relative and friend who lives in London, who like Orna Donath and the subjects of her pioneering study, has chosen not to become a parent. “Isn’t it illegal?” he continued in the same tone of voice.

Undeniably, the childbirth-promoting country that is Israel harbors an especially intolerant attitude toward people who do not wish to be parents. After all, they are defying the ancient commandment of “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the land.” By virtue of the demographic reality in Israel, anyone who makes this choice is perceived not only to be flouting human nature and Judaism, but also as taking a stand against society and the state.

There are few countries in which every newborn is not only a future citizen, but also a datum in the demographic struggle, not to mention a soldier. “So what do you have there this time, a paratrooper or a company clerk?” I was asked by an acquaintance with a sense of gallows humor when he once encountered me on the street with a baby sling-strapped around my chest. Fifty or 60 years earlier, and with no humorous intent, David Ben-Gurion declared, “Raising childbirth rates is essential for the existence of the State of Israel, and any Jewish woman who does not bring at least four children into the world ... is being unfaithful to the Jewish mission.”

“In every quarter,” Orna Donath begins, with forthright candor, “I was told that I must be a mother, because ‘there doesn’t exist a woman who doesn’t want to be’ ... but I, it turns out, do exist, and I do not want children. So if I do not want children and I do exist, then I am evidently a freak of nature or am emotionally crippled or psychologically defective. Something evidently went wrong in me somewhere along the way.”

Reports of similar experiences − reflective of society’s lack of sympathy − are voiced by her interview subjects and from contributions to an online forum on the Tapuz web portal called, “Women who do not want to give birth to children.” Indeed, most of the contributors are women ‏(though the forum extends to male participants too‏): they who are the masters of their wombs, they who possess the biological clock, who are creatures of a bittersweet culture. “They are the ones who are being asked to make the big changes in their lives, and it is they who are the targets of most of the critical barbs,” writes Donath.

Donath’s study is the first of its kind in Israel, and as such it serves as a sort of initial excavation of an archaeological site. The researcher has left no stone unturned in her digging, labeling and cataloging, and now await more exacting investigation. In its four chapters and introduction, the book offers a broad body of knowledge that explores the choice of a life without children, its causes, roots and the implications it has for the individual and society in Israel and in the Western world. Donath examines the history of human reproduction and how it is directed by governmental forces, as well as the concept of childhood and its evolution, from the times when it was customary to bury children in the backyard, as if they were dogs or cats, and not mourn for them, to the contemporary sanctification and glorification of childhood − an era in which, according to scholars quoted in the study, “Parents are subject to pressure that never existed before.”

One of the more fascinating issues is how the phenomenon of “life without children” is represented in the vernacular. Donath points out the problematic aspect inherent in the words “without,” which refers to a lack or deprivation, and “anti,” which exists in the familiar academic concept of anti-natalism − the counterculture of non-parenthood. Donath and many members of the forum express reservations about any label that incorporates the notion of absence or lack, or that is oppositional ‏(in other words, defining something as being the negative derivative of something else‏) or any allusion to the absolute negation of children. One of the prejudices described in the book considers individuals who have chosen not to be parents to be child-haters.

On the contrary, many of them are not only sensitive, intelligent people who are involved socially and are highly self-aware, but who also love children − in their work, for example, or as devoted aunts and uncles. Only a minority of them view children as a “jumble of diapers, tears and snot,” as one of the forum’s participants put it. Therefore, “non-natalism,” in the form of “non-conformism,” and “non-parentism” are Donath’s preferred terms for the phenomenon, terms that have gained relatively high levels of support among forum members.

 

‘A beautiful girl like you’

The book’s big question, with a capital Q, is, of course, the one that is asked of non-parents morning, noon and night, by every passing cab driver or grocery store clerk: But why? What is the reason? How is it that a beautiful girl like you didn’t marry? The book’s second chapter addresses this issue. Donath’s conclusions, drawn from surveys of slightly fewer than 90 women and men ‏(most of them educated, Ashkenazi heterosexuals‏), is that aside from rational reasons ‏(the expense of parenting, the desire for freedom and independence, the irreversibility of the situation‏), the fundamental explanation that comes before anything else is individual nature, that is, “the absence of need, desire, instinct or impulse to be a parent.”

Moreover, among many non-parents, the lack of interest in having children is described as a non-issue. “It comes from a very clean place,” explains Lior Rotem, one of the major contributors to the on-line forum. “It’s not a decision, not a choice, not an ideology. All it is is a sort of quiet and calm awareness.” Another member of the forum explains: “I never gave any thought to it ... just as I haven’t thought of converting to Islam, for example.”

Tamar, 31, one of the interview subjects, drives home the point: “For me, it’s as if you were asking why I don’t bring home an elephant. Or why I don’t study something that I have no connection to and that would take me four hours to do each day .... I have no need for it in my life.” One of the astounding facts that even the subjects of the study found incredible is the inability of most of them to cite any specific time or date when they spoke with their partners about the decision not to be parents. “It just didn’t come up,” is the answer repeated in various forms.

Nevertheless, the author notes, the mere need for a forum that serves as a support group indicates that the choice of a lifestyle without children cannot be construed as a “non-issue,” because society doesn’t allow it to be one. Nearly all of the interview subjects refer to heavy family and social pressures, hostility, patronizing attitudes
‏(“When you grow up, you’ll understand,” one of the interviewees was once told‏), derision and other forms of denigration of their lifestyle and identity − to the extent of depicting them as deviates. “This entire abnormal forum is in need of therapy. You are sick in the head,” writes one visitor to the Internet forum. One of the more startling lines in the book is a quote from Prof. Shlomo Mashiach, the messiah of fertility treatment in Israel: “Who among us would be willing to not have a child? No one. Maybe one minuscule fragment of the population, and they are disturbed.”

It seems that in Israel, despite the changes that are affecting the institution of the family and in spite of the first buds of change ‏(fewer recommendations to forum members to commit suicide‏), we still have a long way to go until individuals’ right to choose an alternative life is fully recognized.

 

Legitimate lifestyle

The significance, then, of “Taking a Choice,” is the support it offers to those who are grappling with the question of non-parenthood, and perhaps even more than that, revelation and explanation of the phenomenon and its dimensions, making it accessible and presenting it as a legitimate lifestyle. Indeed, on its cover, the author declares her hope that the book will serve “those who feel that their lack of desire to be parents is being silenced,” and that it will also be read by “those who feel that the choice of a life without children is a lunatic act worthy of condemnation.” The book is dedicated to those who have chosen not to bring children into the world, to those who are undecided, and “to parents who have chosen the other course, and are interested in peering through the window opened in the book to a lifestyle that is different from their own. This window,” writes Donath, “may also provide a mirror reflecting the image of their choice of a life with children.”

There’s truth in this statement. As a mother of three ‏(pleased to meet you, “reproductive conformism” is my academic name‏), I found Donath’s book not only infused with knowledge and insight, and quite moving, but also inspiring self-reflection: about my parents, about my bachelor brother and his cats and about myself as the mother of three. I was amazed, and am still amazed, by the book’s subtitle, “Being Childfree in Israel,” which suggests an illustration of a place without children, a sort of land strictly for grown-ups. In this context, and in the wake of a decidedly unscientific analysis of statements of the interviewees in the book, most of whom, it seems, are deterred by the notion of raising small children, it dawned on me that when most people think of “children,” they are actually thinking of very young ones; that the majority of us, when we long for a child, actually long for a baby or a small child who will hold our hand. This child may steal precious time from us, measured in years, but nevertheless gradually, when the child grows up, and for certain when he or she leaves home, we regain that “lost time.” What was missing for me in Donath’s study − and this is a consequence of the homogeneous Israeli research sample − was the voice of more than two adult persons, possessing perspective, who had completed a full cycle of non-parenthood life.

Shoham Smith, a writer and critic, is a frequent contributor to Haaretz Books.