Even as a child, Lina knew that she didn’t want children; Hagar Feldman opted to have her tubes tied; Antoinette had children – and regrets it. These and other women are a rare breed in Israel, where women typically bear 3.1 children on average, almost double the average of 1.7 children in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development countries. The fertility rate in Israel is higher than in Saudi Arabia (2.4 children per woman), Peru (2.3) and Mexico (2.1).
This is not a random occurrence, nor one due solely to the high birth rate in certain communities, such as the ultra-Orthodox or Bedouin: It is a principle.
“Since Israel’s establishment, motherhood has been the mission of the Jewish woman. It’s axiomatic, the point of departure, the cornerstone of her place in society,” says Dr. Sharon Geva, a historian and the author of a newly published book, “Women in the State of Israel: The Early Years” (in Hebrew).
The country’s high fertility rate also stems from a deliberate policy, which the health system has boosted for decades. Today Israel is apparently the only country providing unlimited public funding for fertility treatment and in vitro fertilization for women up to age 45, for their first and second child.
It seems that the majority of Israeli women are comfortable with this situation. But is there not a minority who object to it? Before the more existential situation posed by the outbreak of the coronavirus, Haaretz spoke with six women about their decision not to have children, and to another who realized after having them that she never wanted to be a mother. (Some names have been changed for privacy.)
Rona, 45, from Ashdod
“Religious women treat having children as their obligation to the homeland – a religious duty before God, and a moral one before the nation. ‘Be fruitful and multiply’ is part of the culture.
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“When I was an adolescent, I assumed I’d marry and have children. Then, when I was 27, it became more real. My partner wanted to get married. That was fine, because I loved him. But suddenly he started talking about a child, and that made me weigh things more seriously. A friend said, ‘Think carefully about whether it suits you.’ I realized that it didn’t. Without any connection to him or the consequences.”
“I take commitments seriously, and didn’t want to take that burden on myself. I never decided that I wouldn’t have children, but I did say to myself, ‘I don’t want them right now.’ Today I’m 45 and happy. I didn’t have the need so many people talk about.
“A lot of people don’t think about their choices, about what’s right for them; they do things because society does. I’m happy I don’t have children, that they don’t have to do army service or live in our violent society. Maybe if I lived abroad it would be different.”
What about regret?
“I wasn’t willing to bear a human being just because ‘I might regret it.’ That’s not responsible or ethical. The thought that I’d have a child and he wouldn’t be happy is unbearable.”
Why did you decide he wouldn’t be happy?
“Because people aren’t always happy. I wasn’t about to involve another human being in that story.”
One assumption is that the Israeli women who chose not to become mothers are typically well-off and/or live in the “intellectual” Tel Aviv bubble.
“That is totally inaccurate,” says sociologist Orna Donath, whose 2017 book, “Regretting Motherhood,” has been translated into 13 languages. “Women who do not want to be mothers are found in all groups, regardless of ethnic, national or geographical factors,” Dr. Dornath notes. “The ability to voice that opinion and to be non-mothers is distributed among various communities.”
Donath also rebuts the theory that there’s a connection between higher education and the decision not to procreate: “It’s often assumed that women who didn’t have children entered academia and ‘were brainwashed with feminism,’ political awareness. But many made the decision earlier. I myself felt that way from the age of 16, before I knew what feminism was. The theory about education is a reaction based on moral panic, that tries to explain how this happens.”
Lina, 32, from Lod
“I decided when I was 4 or 5 that I didn’t want kids. I also said I didn’t want to get married but I changed my mind. I got married, but meanwhile got more support for opting out of motherhood.
“I told my parents and they got used to the idea, but I later found that they’d been waiting for me to change my mind. That surprised me. I’m an only child. My parents always said parenting was challenging. I asked my mom once if she wanted children, and she replied, ‘It’s not that I wanted, I needed to do it.’ Maybe it was hard for her to live for herself and thought that if she had a child she could live for him. Others ask, ‘What do you live for, if not for children?’ But a child is not the reason for your existence. He won’t make your troubles disappear; at most he will be a distraction.”
Why don’t you want children?
“I’m not suited to it. I’m impatient, I need my freedom. I see the destruction humanity has caused to the environment. So I think the most humane thing would be for most people not to have children.”
At present, a global pandemic is now bringing home powerfully the fact of the fragility of our existence on this planet. Indeed, a number of groups argue that human procreation must end or at least be curtailed. The anti-natalist and BirthStrikers movements urge young people not to become parents for ecological reasons.
A 2017 study in the journal Environmental Research Letters claimed that the best way to help the fight against climate change is by having one less child than planned.
Gina, 47, from Tel Aviv, originally from an Arab village in the center of the country
“Even before high school, three men ‘asked for my hand,’ as the stupid phrase goes. I said no – I’m going to university.”
When did you realize you didn’t want to be a mother?
“My political awareness helped me see the link between having children and control, bodily discipline and women’s oppression. When I realized the existence of the occupation, I understood that there are other oppressed groups – single mothers, Mizrahim, refugees – that as women we’re subjected to violence. Women are murdered for ‘family honor’ in Palestinian society.
“Where I grew up, you see your girlfriends getting married at 17; they don’t ask questions. In my family, my aunts and others fought to go to university; I knew early on that I wanted to as well. Leaving the village, meeting other people and politics influenced [my decision]. We must ask ourselves if we want children and if we do, whether we want it in the framework of marriage.”
Why not have a child out of wedlock?
“It’s dangerous. If I were in Germany I could. But here [i.e., in Israeli Arab society], where there’s so much violence against women, a rumor can do you in.”
So you’re not against having a child, you’re against the whole package, including marriage?
“Biologically, I don’t feel the need to be a mother. But, yes, I see it as an economic package: You get married and have children, because that’s what’s expected; they ground you into the marriage. We need to be aware of this and understand how we can fight it and raise our daughters – and our sons – differently.”
Do you live with fear?
“Yes, every day. Many Palestinian women do. The knife is here [pointing to her throat], not metaphorically but in reality.”
What do your parents say?
“We usually don’t talk about it.”
‘Just two kids?’
During Israel’s early years, “a woman’s role was not only to bear children but also to educate them in the values of the emergent society,” Geva, the historian, notes. “Of course, the Holocaust was always in the background ... A high fertility rate was viewed as proof of the Jewish people’s resurgence.”
Women who arrived in Israel after the Shoah but were unable to conceive after the trauma they suffered “were treated as flawed women,” Geva adds.
At the same time, there was harsh controversy over abortions, which were illegal. “That debate,” Geva says, “was conducted mainly by men, including physicians,” who argued that a Jewish woman who chooses to terminate a pregnancy is causing harm to the Jewish people, compounding the losses of the Holocaust and depriving the army of soldiers.
Geva adds. “I don’t know if there’s another country where people ask, ‘Only two children?’ Why ‘only’?”
Liorit Mirman, 42, from Tel Aviv, programmer
“‘An Ashkenazi woman? Granddaughter of Holocaust survivors?’ It’s our role to give raise new generations after those that perished. Why is it obvious that having children is the only decision to make? Why is the default to create another person and take lifelong responsibility for him? As a young adult I figured I’d have kids, but later found the idea less appealing. My sister is also ‘voluntarily childless.’ I decided that it restricts freedom, and I also never really liked children much. She doesn’t believe she’s capable of giving a child what she thinks he deserves.”
What do your parents say?
“My father is in a relationship with a woman who has a million grandchildren, so he feels like a grandpa. My mother always wanted to them, but I want to believe that I wasn’t brought into the world to give my parents satisfaction.”
There are an estimated 300,000 frozen embryos in Israel, maintained at the state’s expense. No one knows what to do with them; there is no clear policy. Most couples who froze them for later use during IVF have since raised families, but can’t bring themselves to thaw out – and destroy – them. Those frozen for IVF cannot be thawed without the parents’ permission. And donating embryos is not possible.
Hagar Feldman, 40, dog trainer and snake wrangler
“When I think of children, I’m reminded of that cartoon of a prisoner with an iron ball shackled to his leg. Half a year ago I had a salpingectomy [removal of fallopian tubes]. After a lot of hassle, I found a doctor who agreed to do it privately.”
Why did you take such a drastic step?
“My womb is still there, and the ovaries, so if… I ever change my mind, I can still give birth. It will just have to be with IVF and not naturally. That’s also the reason the physician agreed to do the surgery: because I was nearly 40, I probably won’t change my mind and anyway it was unlikely that I’ll become pregnant.”
Why did you want the operation?
“Because none of the contraceptive means available are good. A condom isn’t suitable for age 40, and pills have a big influence, like all hormones. I had a referral for the surgery in the public health system, but without the authorization of a mental health expert, that you’re not fit to be a parent, no one will talk to you.”
Is it the Israeli model of the family that bothers you?
“No. The decision not to have children is mine. It stems from my wish to live the way I want. It helped me to learn that there are others like me, that it’s an international thing. Before I felt there was something screwed up. Now I know I’m not crazy.”
Get thee to a nunnery
For her part, historian Tamar Herzig, director of Tel Aviv University’s Curiel Institute for European Studies, says that “Jewish culture in medieval and Renaissance Europe did not afford women any option or framework for not becoming wives and mothers.”
Prof. Herzig also believes that the importance of motherhood in present-day Israeli culture is closely intertwined with Diaspora tradition, and notes that by contrast, Western Christendom has always provided a legitimate, even admirable refuge for a non-maternal existence: the convent.
She is currently researching stories of young Jewish women who left home, converted to Christianity and became nuns, in past centuries. “There is testimony about Jewish girls and adolescents who were envious of the convent option.”
Moreover, Herzig says, since Jewish women were historically confined to the wife-and-mother role, “we rarely hear of any who left behind written works or art, in contrast to Christianity. Some of them, such as Catherine of Siena in the 14th century, also exercised significant public influence.”
Bracha Bard, 35, from Tel Aviv, CEO of the feminist nonprofit Kulan, organizer of the Israeli SlutWalk, bisexual
“We need to understand that we will not win: There will always be inhuman expectations of women, and parenthood is an excellent example of a situation that is prone to failure but that we’re still expected to undertake.”
Why did you decide not to have children?
“I was born in [the West Bank settlement of] Kfar Etzion and attended a religious school, even though I was never observant. For most of my life it seemed obvious to me that I would want kids. At 25 I went to Australia and worked with children there; there’s a lot more money and social welfare there, and less cultural conflict. I thought, I’d be happy to have children there.
“Back here, I worked as a nanny in [upscale] Savyon and saw the never-ending conflict between raising children and having careers. At 29 I went to university and embarked on a process that ended with my freeing myself of the notion that ‘I’ll probably have kids really soon.’
“I’m now very independent and I also see myself as someone who does what she wants. Many women in Israel don’t know, until they’re told, that they can be normal and happy even without being a mother. I realize that I can’t be sure of anything, so my declaration about not wanting children is right for now.”
Do you think you might have regrets?
“So I’ll regret it, big deal. Why is it so important for people that I should become a mother? Why does it upset people when you raise another possibility? Why do they feel it’s necessary to ask, ‘What if you’ll regret it?’ That’s a totally illegitimate question!
“I want to lead a revolution in Israel, to make it possible for girls to stand up for what they want ... I can either give birth to one girl, or have the time to wage a struggle on behalf of thousands of girls.
“The real injustice is the situation where children are brought into the world by women who know that they don’t want them, and did not make that decision. I believe that most women will have children even if we tell them that it’s legitimate not to; very few people will opt voluntarily for childlessness. I’d like to believe we will build a better society if every child is truly wanted. That is probably the most important thing we can do in life.”
Myths about instinct
What about human nature? Aren’t we wired to ensure human survival above all? Supporters of the “voluntarily childless” movement refute the evolutionary argument that every person, especially every woman, has deep yearning for a child at a certain age.
“Women testify to the yearning for a child and say they feel it, and it’s important for their voice to be heard without doubting it,” sociologist Donath says, and immediately adds, “But does that yearning exist in everyone? Definitely not, and that’s the point: You can’t say you don’t have that need. If you don’t feel it now, it will come.”
Antoinette, mother of two from the center of the country; calls herself a regretful mother and writes about it on Facebook under a pseudonym
“I grew up in an egalitarian home, but my sister and I were bombarded with ‘Get married already’ and ‘Find a husband.’ It sank in. I had a baby at 29 and at first everything was fine. It was easy; I knew I was a good mother. My partner and I had problems, but after a few years we decided to have another child. And then it wasn’t easy.
“After the divorce many things happened. My mother fell ill and died, relations with my ex deteriorated, I had a demanding job and I was violently raped. Gradually, I realized that I didn’t want the mother role. I’m crazy about my kids, but I don’t want them with me all the time. I have no patience for it. All the parenting, taking care and preparing food – it’s not relevant to who I am.
“All those things happened and I realized that it’s too much for me. I am in a state of collapse. I can’t bear the huge burden of motherhood.”
If you’d realized it was possible not to be a mother, would you have stopped to think about it?
“Obviously. I wouldn’t have had children. I really am a good mother, I love them, but I force myself to be there. It’s hard for me to do things with them, and harder to overcome the depression, because I’m constantly thinking I don’t have a life.”
Do you feel you have to hide your regret?
“Of course – in a second, they’d send in the social services. If I were sure my children would never discover it, I would live with my regret more openly.”
There seems to be a very small of Israeli women escaping the judgement of their milieu in this realm. (Men, too, are subjected to social/cultural pressure to be fruitful and multiply, but to a different degree and in other ways.) Still, is there really a mother in Israel who can’t understand a woman who says it’s not for her?
On social media today, along with the slow lifting of the taboo on choosing to be childlessness, an important conversation is underway about how tough parenting is in Israel and the difficulty of talking about that publicly. Even though people on both sides of the divide may mock one another and treat each other as enemies, they are part of a welcome awakening, although it hasn’t yet found a real place outside Facebook groups.
If ultimately every woman asks herself at some point in life whether she wants to be a mother or not, and if either answer will be considered legitimate – that will be another small step in the right direction.