Seeing Privilege As A Pain

Sometimes a first-person account is just so sad you could cry. And when the writer seems oblivious to the sadness, well, then it’s sadder still.

The Jewish Telegraphic Agency recently offered a piece written by a Jewish woman explaining her and her husband’s decision to forgo having children.

“As a Conservative Jew raised in the Midwest,” she writes, “I always assumed I’d have kids…. In my mind, being a grown-up meant having children.”

During her college days, she stopped in at the Brown University Hillel House and met a young man. Eventually they began to date.

When marriage came up, they discussed how “religiously” to raise their children, and found that they had different opinions. Her partner wanted to observe the Sabbath but she did not. And, if they each did his or her own thing she feared the “inevitable” questions their children would have about their mother’s level of observance.

Then, she writes, “It occurred to me that our potential problems would vanish if we just skipped parenthood.” Problem – at least if she could get her boyfriend on board – solved.

As it happened, after the young man became her husband, he began “losing his religion.” They were busy with their careers and, she writes, “reproducing was the farthest thing from my mind.” Then she found websites of people who had decided not to have children, and shared them with her husband. They laughed together “at jokes about sleep-deprived parents and children misbehaving in public.”

So other people, too, they realized, “lacked the drive to make and raise babies, and were they ever happy,” the woman recounts. “They described enticing benefits, one of which particularly stood out for me: having their beloved to themselves and cultivating a devoted, satisfying relationship.”

And so she and her husband decided that “life would be better without kids.”

The couple’s mothers were not happy, as one might expect. His was the daughter of Holocaust survivors, and had told her son in his youth that “If you don’t raise Jewish children, you’re letting Hitler win.”

“There is no coming back from aiding Hitler,” observes the writer, and “so we all avoid the topic.”

But, she insists, she and her husband are happy. They have each other entirely to themselves, without any pesky little people intruding on their relationship. And they owe it all to Judaism, the writer explains, without which she and her husband would never have met at that Hillel House.

“Ironically,” she concludes, “if it weren’t for Judaism… it may never have occurred to me not to have children at all.”

The writer knows, of course, and acknowledges, that Judaism favors children; indeed, she may even know, there is a Torah commandment to be fruitful. But she and her partner have made a conscious decision to reject their religious heritage.

What’s more, the husband and wife are depriving themselves not only of an important mitzvah, and not only of the life beyond death that is a son or daughter, but of the sublime joy of being parents. Sleepless nights and misbehaved children? Some of the most difficult or embarrassing parental situations, any parent could tell the writer, morph with time into some of the most meaningful, even wonderful, memories imaginable.

Is it hard? Of course. What worthwhile endeavor isn’t?

Do parents experience trying times? Yes. Life is trying; that’s its point.

Will it all have been worth it, in fact many millions of times over? Yes again.

And if the writer and her husband really think that their relationship to each other would suffer, rather than be strengthened, by their sharing the privilege of forging a new generation, they are astoundingly naïve. The greatest boon for any relationship is not a shared taste in music, nor a shared desire for childlessness; it is a shared challenging but meaningful endeavor. And when the endeavor is something as momentous as creating and guiding new lives, the bond that can result is most powerful.

Time will tell whether the writer’s and her husband’s bond of mutual desire for childlessness will itself prove sufficiently strong to maintain their relationship. But one thing is certain. The couple’s assumption that the mutual nurturing of a new generation is a mere pain rather than an unparalleled privilege is a sad mistake.

Made all the more sad by the couple’s utter unawareness of the fact.

© 2013 Rabbi Avi Shafran

(For a decade-old essay about the Jewish choice to have children, please click here.)

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