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November 21, 2013 By:
Be Jewish and Multiply? Perhaps Not
NEW YORK — On a flight from New York to visit my parents in Chicago, I sat beside my husband, his hand on top of mine. We gazed into each other’s eyes and laughed about how much we were going to miss our cats. A flight attendant came over and offered us a free bottle of champagne.
“Enjoy your honeymoon,” she said.
We had been married for 13 years.
Five years later we are more in love than ever. Our secret: We don’t have children.
As a Conservative Jew raised in the Midwest, I always assumed I’d have kids. While still in elementary school, I wrote down names I liked, and when I was upset I added to a running list called “Outrageous Things My Parents Did to Me That I Will Never Do to My Children.” In my mind, being a grown-up meant having children.
Every week at Sabbath services children were showcased, called up to the bimah to bless the candles and plastic cups of grape juice while the adults grinned from the pews. I understood that we, the children, were the Jewish community’s crowning achievement.
I identified as a member of that community even when, as a teenager, I lost my faith in God and concluded that Judaism was sexist. Still, when I started college at Brown University in 1990, I agreed to my mother’s request that I visit the Hillel House, the Jewish student union. I became a fixture there.
The day before classes started my sophomore year, I climbed upstairs to the social area for a welcome-back visit. In the middle of the vast room, bathed in the sunlight from a wall of windows, stood a New Guy: jovial, dark-eyed, and boasting a thick, curly, black ponytail. My stomach lurched. I sidled up to join his conversation with another student.
His name was Aviv. He was back from a year off college, which he spent playing in a band in Boulder. He had been educated at an Orthodox yeshiva, but I assumed the ponytail and sojourn in Colorado signaled a move away from all that.
Eventually we started dating. Three years later, when Microsoft hired him, we moved together to Seattle and talked marriage. I didn’t yearn for kids but they seemed the thing to do, so we debated how religiously to raise them.
Aviv wanted to observe the Sabbath. We decided that Aviv would remain observant and I would join in only as I chose, despite the inevitable question from our future children, “Why doesn’t Mommy go to synagogue with us?”
It occurred to me that our potential problems would vanish if we just skipped parenthood, but I didn’t dwell because it seemed a ridiculous notion.
One day during our first year of marriage, we were talking about my plan to fight gender discrimination as a lawyer. Aviv, who had moved into a new position at work, said, “I don’t want to stay home. I want a career, too.”
“Wait. Don’t you want to raise the kids?” I asked. That was what we had originally planned.
“No. I don’t think so.”
What were we going to do with kids neither of us wanted to raise, but both of us wanted raised in a particular way?
“Maybe we shouldn’t have children at all,” I said. I felt a weight lifting.
I also felt like a failure. What happy, successful, Jewish woman wouldn’t want children? What would people think of me, of us? I had never encountered anyone who chose not to parent. Was I crazy?
Meanwhile, Aviv was losing his religion. Three years into our marriage he left it behind entirely. That erased our major differences over raising kids, but by then reproducing was the farthest thing from my mind. Entering my third year of law school, I was consumed with classes and post-graduation employment prospects. After that I started practicing law and slogging up a steep learning curve.
I discovered once I had time to breathe, the option of skipping parenthood had sunk roots in my mind. Aviv and I had been married for six years when I found myself searching the web for “people without children.” I discovered childfree websites -- other people like me existed! They, too, understood that children were a life-changing responsibility, that having them should be a careful decision and shouldn’t just happen. They, too, lacked the drive to make and raise babies, and were they ever happy. They described enticing benefits, one of which particularly stood out for me: having their beloved to themselves and cultivating a devoted, satisfying relationship.
I asked Aviv to look at some of the websites, hoping he would come to the conclusion I was finding alluring, though hard to accept: Life would be better without kids.
He scrolled through the online conversations, laughing at jokes about sleep-deprived parents and children misbehaving in public.
One day a cousin asked when we were having kids. “We aren’t!” we said together. Somehow we had grown certain. We were childfree.
We have never regretted that choice, which is more common now than it was when we made it, but we feel bad about disappointing our mothers. Mine repeatedly warned that I would regret my decision and miss out on great happiness. Contemplating an extended trip to Israel, she sighed pointedly, “I might as well go. It’s not like anyone here needs me.” Knowing I let her down hurts, but not as much as it would to live a life I don’t want.
Aviv’s mother, the daughter of Holocaust survivors whose grandparents were murdered before she was born, prizes a large, close family above all. As he grew up she told him, “If you don’t raise Jewish children, you’re letting Hitler win.” There is no coming back from aiding Hitler, so we all avoid the topic.
If it weren’t for Judaism I never would have met Aviv, struggled with our religious differences and, as a result, entertained the heretical notion of skipping parenthood to escape the conflict. Ironically, if it weren’t for Judaism -- a faith and heritage that enshrines family -- it may never have occurred to me not to have children at all.
Piper Hoffman is a writer and lawyer in Brooklyn, where she blogs at ChoosingChildfree.com and PiperHoffman.com. She is writing a book about choosing not to have kids.