The mother of my classmate from Bnei Brak told my mother once that she gets pregnant every year to enjoy a vacation in the convalescent facility after the birth. My mother had "only" five children then, en route to a complement of seven. My friend's mother had 12 children, one after another. As a child, I spent quite a bit of time in their home. It was a happy time among the mountains of laundry and stained furniture. And I really did notice that every once in a while her mother disappeared for a few days - apparently to spend her annual vacation in the maternity ward.

Perhaps this is a sad joke, but it reflects the difficult lives of mothers who have many children. One can also learn from a prolific mother's candor that ultra-Orthodox women have various considerations, not always rational ones, behind their motivation to keep on giving birth for as long as they remain fertile. Child allowances have not been one of these considerations, even at their peak level. At least not for women.

Perhaps the ultra-Orthodox rabbis were the ones who raised the banner of the ideal "be fruitful and multiply," but the ultra-Orthodox women took this upon themselves - the result of the effective and systematic education of girls. The women are also the ones who have slackened the reins in recent years.

At the Beit Yaakov network of girls' schools, each future ultra-Orthodox mother learns that her only mission is to provide for the husband, who studies Torah, and to give birth. The economic worries are numbed by the saying that everything is in the hands of Heaven. But as we know, ultra-Orthodox society is not built on ideals only.

A big family brings social status, so the number of children becomes an object of competition for the women. In what way can ambitious women excel? In their meager homes? In talents they cannot exercise? Giving birth to many children, therefore, has become an alternative to a career. If seven children is the fashion, someone who gives birth to 10 or 12 becomes an object of admiration. Women look at their friends and make calculations. You must get pregnant quickly so that your sister or neighbor will not "catch" you. (This is the common expression).

And you also have to be a balabusta. Seven children, a tip-top home, a cake in the oven for guests. On the other hand, ultra-Orthodox women have been taught not to complain. They do not show the varicose veins in their legs or the endless fatigue. At most, they cry silently in their pillow. Give birth and cry.

The trend of lower birthrates, which is still at an early stage, is part of the drive toward normality becoming evident in ultra-Orthodox society in recent years. This includes the rise of a bourgeois class, exposure to leisure culture, and brand-name consumerism. All this has led to the creation of a different, more relaxed style of ultra-Orthodoxy, even in the streams that are more closed. The cutback in child allowances is another factor, in the sense that the ultra-Orthodox are today more aware of their economic situation and reject poverty as a value. But this is certainly not the whole story.

The women are the key. They can decide that they will go to a convalescent facility not only when giving birth. They have other channels of excellence besides having babies. They can pursue academic studies, open a chain of clothing stores, or become managers and attorneys. Here a new feminine model is being born, the career woman, and it is even permeating the most conservative segments of the population. Phenomena related to exposure to higher education and modernization have quickly followed: later marriages and more unmarried women, and an increase in the divorce rate. Psychological insights about the pressures involved in marriage and raising children are also entering ultra-Orthodox women's conceptual world.

All these are contributing to a slowdown in the birth rate. An ultra-Orthodox attorney, who studied at the ultra-Orthodox campus of the Kiryat Ono Academic College, could not remember this week which women in her class were pregnant during the three years of study. "Women understand that it is possible to wait longer between one child and the next," she says.