Over the last few years, Orna Donath has turned into a professional iconoclast, challenging some of Israel’s most sacred cows. In a country where parenthood is virtually a societal imperative, she published a book in 2011 called “Taking a Choice: Being Childless in Israel,” and went on to write a doctoral thesis about women who regret having become mothers. As if it weren’t bad enough that she was shirking her duty in the country’s all-important demographic war – now she has the gall to claim there are women who are sorry they became mothers? Just what kind of woman is she?
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Next month, Random House in Germany will publish Donath’s book “Regretting Motherhood,” which is based upon her dissertation. When she was interviewed by a German paper last spring, the subject aroused so much interest that it stayed in the headlines for nearly two months, spawning stories in all the country’s major newspapers, as well as much discussion on television, radio and social media – under the hashtag #regrettingmotherhood. From there the stormy debate spread to Sweden, Estonia, Switzerland, Finland and Austria.
Evidently, even in European countries, where women who choose not to become mothers are not as rare as in Israel, a hierarchy still exists between non-mother and mother, as the author explains. Donath, 39, lives with her male partner and says she has known since she was young that she never wanted to become a mother.
Even in cases where a woman did not start out with that intention or desire, her choice not to bear children may be perceived as an act of opposition to what is widely expected of women. In addition, says Donath in an interview with Haaretz, regret itself, and not just about motherhood, can be perceived as undermining the social fabric and can become an object of societal condemnation.
Donath explains: “Regret is welcomed when it comes after crimes and sins, because it’s perceived as evidence that someone has a conscience and morals – that they are taking responsibility. But when regret is unrelated to any crime, it’s a socially controversial emotional position: On the one hand, it’s admired so long as the ‘I regret ’ is expressed in connection with an action or statement that fits in with the spirit of the times – i.e., ‘I regret that I don’t exercise more.’ On the other hand, in a society that’s constantly urging us to move ahead and to improve ourselves, regret is perceived as uncalled-for whining, as an indication that one is just treading water. After all, ‘one mustn’t cry over spilt milk.’ The message that’s conveyed to us is that we should leave the past behind and move on.
“The way I see it, the attempt to create a life devoid of regret amounts to a wish for an emotional sterility that’s inhuman. Recognizing the mistakes that we’ve made is an inseparable part of a life that has a beating heart, even when it’s not possible to fix or change what’s already been done. Crying over spilt milk enables us to understand where we’ve come from, how we got to where we are, who we are now and where we’re going.
“And just as important, it’s the crying that enables us to ask: Whose hand was it that spilled the milk? Was it really only mine? Or did society’s hand, perhaps, also play an active part in it? The purpose of these questions isn’t to promote a total shirking of personal responsibility, but rather to add another variable to the equation – in this case, the society in which we live. It also has a role in the decisions we make and in our current situation, no matter how much we’re told that people write their own life stories all by themselves.
“Sociologist Avery Gordon wrote: ‘We need to know where we live in order to imagine living elsewhere. We need to imagine living elsewhere before we can live there.’ And regret, although and because it can be painful, is like a ferry that leads us to the ‘road not taken’ on the personal level, but at the same time can also point out the paths that society closed off to us, and didn’t let us take, as if they were never an option to begin with.”
While regret in general may be controversial, regret over motherhood is certainly considered beyond the pale: Motherhood is supposed to be beyond the human spectrum of regret.
“It’s dangerous to society for women to look back and conclude that motherhood wasn’t worthwhile,” says Donath. “So the safest thing is for the message to be hammered in over and over, that no matter what – even if someone is suffering post-partum depression, say – there will be a happy ending. That even if it’s hard at first, ultimately every woman will conclude that motherhood was worth it. A society that needs as many mothers as possible from the ‘right group’ can’t afford to acknowledge that just as in any other realm of life in which we may experience regret – education, employment, marriage, divorce, plastic surgery, health issues and more – childbirth and motherhood may also be subject to regret. And it’s the children and the women themselves who are paying the price, when from the start the women aren’t afforded the chance to really consider whether they have the desire or ability to raise and care for children, and possibly to decide against it.”
Regret involves thinking about the past, sometimes returning to it again and again. It arises from a circular attitude toward time, from a recognition that the past isn’t necessarily always behind us; that it can come back, more than once, to invade the present. This attitude is at odds with the modern Western notion of time as wholly linear, as a forward-pointing arrow.
And like anything else, perceptions of time can also be gender-related. Donath cites feminist theorist Julia Kristeva’s observation that a linear sense of time reflects male perceptions of it, while circular time is accords with nature and is associated with women. According to psychology professor Janice Haaken, while patriarchal imperatives dictate forgetting and avoiding looking at that which is considered forbidden, dangerous or disturbing – the female viewpoint, which seeks to observe and confront difficulty, and remember it, becomes a collection of all that “dangerous” content and thus upsets patriarchal law.
Simone de Beauvoir, however, saw the female tendency to look back, since there may be little to look forward to, as evidence of women’s marginal place in society, as if they can’t help but behave that way.
The differences between these perspectives recalls the argument over whether women ought to show that “they can do everything just like men can,” in other words, to adopt male values and equate that which is considered feminine with weakness, or, by contrast, see strength and blessing in the feminine.
“Generally speaking, I’m against the idea that says either you’re a woman through and through, or you’re like a man,” says Donath. “What’s lacking is a way to escape this either-or approach and an understanding that there can be a multiplicity of different female identities.
“One example of this commonly held dichotomy says that if you don’t want to be a mother, then you must surely be a ‘career woman.’ Most of the women I’ve met over the last decade who don’t want to be mothers are not career women nor do they wish to be. They just need or want to earn a living. But in a society that’s continually categorizing us, the assumption is that whoever doesn’t want to be a mother must surely aspire to be ‘like a man.’ As if there are no other alternatives whatsoever. But there are. There are mothers who wholeheartedly want to be at home with their children, but that doesn’t mean at all that they’ve ‘given up on themselves’; there are mothers who have no choice except to go out to work; and there are women who don’t want to be mothers and feel that just for that reason they are freed from the need to pursue a career.”
To go back to Kristeva, isn’t it a determinist over-generalization to say that linear progress is masculine and circularity is feminine?
“Like other writers in the field, I don’t take this to mean that all men seek to progress linearly and all women march in circles, but there are outlooks that are associated with ‘masculinity’ and others that are associated with ‘femininity.’ But that doesn’t mean that men can’t also harbor ‘feminine’ outlooks and women can’t have ‘masculine’ ones.
“I think it would be false to ignore that we’re still living in a society that ascribes rationality and ‘common sense’ – those traits that ostensibly enable us to ‘move forward’ – to men and masculinity, while women are ascribed turbulent and uncontrollable emotions that supposedly cause them to get stuck and ‘spin their wheels.’ And it would be false to act as if reward and punishment are not meted out accordingly. It sometimes seems that there is a very fine line between falling into the trap of determinism and falling into the trap of liberalism that insistently turns a blind eye to society’s role in all this.”
We must return to de Beauvoir, who said motherhood is a key factor in the oppression of women. That was followed, in the 1990s, by the emergence of cultural feminism, which, unlike its liberal antecedent, emphasized the differences between women and men, and left open the possibility of seeing strength in motherhood, in the ability to bring new life into the world.
Donath: “De Beauvoir’s criticism about women being turned into mothers applied to a very particular social context. She was not totally against motherhood, as long as certain other conditions pertained, such as the community also being involved in raising and protecting the children. I feel like taking my hat off to her practically every day, even though I disagree with her in two ways at least: First, I don’t think that in a reality in which, then as now, women are perceived as ‘other’ – motherhood is necessarily an illusion for them. If we don’t define ‘male values’ as something to which all are bound to aspire, then it’s not a failure if mothers don’t achieve them.
“Second, I don’t think that conditions are always the heart of the matter. I’ve met plenty of women who, even if they had had the ‘optimal’ conditions for raising kids – that is, financial resources, an involved partner, maximum schedule flexibility and the knowledge that they can protect the lives of their sons and daughters – they still wouldn’t have wanted to become mothers.
“I think it’s a good thing that there is a position that says childbirth and motherhood are the essence of a woman’s world and are what enable her to fully express herself, because as I said, we are lacking a multiplicity of female identities in which every woman can find herself. As long as it doesn’t remain the only position and as long as everyone isn’t required to toe the line with it, at the risk of being considered something less than a ‘real woman’ if they don’t [become mothers] – then why not?”
What’s it like to be known as someone who is shattering the Israeli holy of holies? Not surprisingly, Donath is drawing plenty of fire (although her book has not yet been published here), but she isn’t overly fazed by it. “The most interesting reactions are the ones that tell me I need to move on already, that I should stop focusing on this issue over and over again. I think it’s a wonderful example of the way the order to move on often really reflects the opposite wish – to return to the days when no one talked about things that weren’t pleasant to hear, so that things could stay the same and continue to serve all those who benefit from them. Besides the fact that I don’t sanctify progress for progress’ sake, I wonder why I have to ‘move on’ to somewhere. Has society truly changed?”