One evening in the summer of 1980, Esther Dellheim*, a 37-year-old writer, unmarried and living in New York City, spent several hours composing a short letter to her parents. She was two months pregnant, she told them, and planning to keep the baby. She heard nothing for several days. Then two letters arrived. She opened her father’s first.
“Dear Esther —” he wrote. “This letter is written with much concern and affection. Your decision to have a child seems to me questionable from a social and economic point of view. A fatherless child socially creates problems of recognition and acceptance (especially if the child is a girl). It seems to me unfair to impose such a burden on your unborn child. Then, again, the cost of rearing a child today is a burden which I feel should be carefully evaluated before you make a final decision. Have you considered what you are undertaking in view of the fact that you would be the child’s sole source of support?”
Her mother was blunter. She spoke of her “deep distress” and suggested an abortion.
Dellheim was stubborn. She wanted a family and thought this might be her last chance. She loved the baby’s father, even though she knew there was no chance that he would marry her. Well-educated, resilient and physically strong, somehow she thought she could pull this off.
One night, seven months later, she set off for the hospital. A woman friend stayed with her until she was wheeled to the operating room for an emergency Cesarean section. Within the hour, her daughter, Janet, was born. Less than four weeks later, she was back in the hospital when Janet nearly died in her arms. For the first year of her life, the baby had to be monitored day and night. Somehow, with no help from family and little support from friends, mother and daughter survived.
“Both of my parents really came to love my daughter,” Dellheim says. “My father is dead now, but he got a lot of pleasure from her in the last years of his life. As for my mother, I think she’s probably forgotten that she ever advised me to get an abortion. My parents weren’t completely wrong about the problems. It has been very difficult for me financially—but worth it. I love being Janet’s mother. ”
What Dellheim’s parents were wrong about, and what neither they nor she could have imagined, was the extent to which their daughter’s decision to raise a child alone would become more common over the next ten to fifteen years— and even, in some parts of the country, commonplace— among middle-class and upper-middle-class Jewish women.
One American child in four is born to an unmarried mother, single mothers are older and richer than before, according to a 1995 U.S. Census Bureau report, and the percentage of births is rising significantly among affluent, white, well-educated working women.
Jewish women are the most highly educated in the country, acquiring that education and embarking on professional life may pre-empt the decades of their twenties and early thirties. By the time a woman realizes that she wishes to become a parent, the pool of eligible partners has diminished, so if she really wants to become a mother, she may have to do so alone.
Who are these mothers without partners?
About the same time as Dellheim gave birth, Jane Mattes, an unmarried 37-year-old psychotherapist, had been thinking about adopting when she found herself pregnant. She had been dating the baby’s father, an unmarried man in his 50’s, for about three years, “and knew he wasn’t interested in commitment. He said good-bye and good luck.” Nevertheless, she thought that the pregnancy was “a blessing in disguise. My time was running out.”
Although Mattes knew no one else who had done what she was doing, she decided to go ahead. “I told my mother that I was pregnant after the amnio. She asked me, ‘What should I tell my friends?’ I said, ‘Tell them the truth.'” After her initial surprise, her mother was “thrilled,” Mattes recalls. “She told me that she was afraid that she would never be a grandmother. My cousins, aunts, and uncles were also very supportive.”
That was a good thing. Mattes says in retrospect, because despite her mother’s willingness to baby-sit two or three nights a week, she found herself unprepared for motherhood. “Motherhood and the realities of it are kept secret,” she says, “how difficult it is, how stressful—how you feel when you can’t get a good night’s sleep, how much of an impact children make on your life.”
Mattes wondered whether what she was experiencing was inherent in parenthood, or was caused by her being the sole parent. She decided to find out. “When my son was 10 months old, I put out the word to people I knew that anyone who was a single mother, or considering becoming one, could come to my house for coffee and cake on a Sunday. Eight women showed up. Some were pregnant, some had newborns, and two or three were just thinking about it.”
Single Mothers by Choice was born, now an international organization with 2000 members, 22 local chapters, a newsletter and a presence on the Internet. In 1994, Mattes published Single Mothers by Choice (Times Books), which has been translated into German and Japanese. She hastens to point out, however, that “though the birth rate for single women between 30 and 40 increased over 300 percent in the last 10 years, middle- and upper-middle-class single mothers still represent a minuscule portion of the population.”
Mattes speculates that “there used to be a lot of pressure to marry, whether you felt it was ideal or not, because there was no other option if you wanted a child. Also, it was difficult to be single in a married people’s world. Women are now saying that they’re less willing to compromise.”
Some women are also earning more, which gives them the financial wherewithal to undertake the expensive proposition of raising a child alone. According to Mattes, the median income of the women in Single Mothers by Choice is $42,000, higher than the median income for men in the United States. Most women in the group are white-collar workers and many have professional jobs. Their average age is 35, with more women in their 40’s than their 20’s. A few of the younger women are hoping to have two children. “Most of these women are well off,” says Mattes. “They either have an inheritance or are earning high salaries.”
Whether by adoption or birth (20 percent of the women in the organization adopt). Mattes points out that for most becoming a mother is a carefully considered decision. “These days, very few would accidentally go out and get pregnant,” she says. Most of the birth mothers conceive through donor insemination or with long-term partners.
Are these women flaunting the “family values” that former vice president Dan Quayle upheld when he excoriated TV’s Murphy Brown for her “out-of-wedlock” child? On the contrary, says Mattes. “When asked why they wanted a baby, 99 percent of these women say it was because they wanted a family.”
Giving up on the dream of couplehood
Lena Straus*, a single Manhattan psychoanalyst and adoptive parent, believes, like Mattes, that “most single parents enter into motherhood differently. We have to be fully responsible. There has to be a certain clarity.” In addition, she says, “You have to work through the loss of what you once dreamed.”
Straus, 49, had always assumed that she would marry and have children. But as a baby boomer, she grew up in an era where being married wasn’t defined as the most important thing to do. “In my early 40’s, I broke up with someone with whom I had a serious relationship,” she says. “A month later, I woke up from a dream and sat bolt upright in bed and thinking, ‘If your life were the same 10 years from now, what would you regret?’ Then, I said out loud, ‘Not having a baby.’ ‘Then you’ll adopt one.’ The next morning, I woke up feeling wonderful and different. I had a mission. I was incredibly directed.
“Adopting didn’t have an impulsive feel to it. In the epiphany of waking up from this dream, four years of struggle—where was I going with my life? what had meaning?— came to an end.”
With characteristic energy, Straus found an adoption agency that did not object to single-mother adoptions. She met her child’s birth mother and paid some of the expenses of her pregnancy; seven months later, she brought her two-day- old daughter home.
Straus’s own father died when she was four. “Knowing the limitations of a single parent household,” it had never been her intention to raise a child by herself. “Before I could do it,” she says, “I had to be willing to say to the world that I had not been able to accomplish all that I had wanted. At 40, you finally can face the things you are frightened of or didn’t do well — because if you could have done them well, you would have done them. Coming to terms with that allowed me to have what I really wanted.”
Unlike Dellheim and Mattes, Straus is a religiously observant Jew. When her daughter—who is not biologically Jewish—was two, Straus took her to the mikvah for a Conservative conversion in the presence of three rabbis, and a naming ceremony. Her commitment to Judaism seems to give an added dimension and purpose to being a mother. “It’s an incredible experience to raise your child spiritually,” she says. “We celebrate every holiday at my house— Simchat Torah, Purim, Hanukkah. I have had a children’s seder for two years with 30 people. I was brought up in a very joyous, observant Jewish home. That alone brings joy to my heart, that I can bring that to my daughter.
“I see myself as pivotal and central, I’m not on a bandwagon to say that anyone can become a single mother or that it’s easy—only that it’s wonderful and possible. I create miracles in my life and I know I can.”
“Born from my heart”
Sounding rushed and a little breathless, Miriam Hipsh calls one morning to say that she has only a few minutes to talk because she is taking her 21-month-old daughter to a play group. A few days later, she is still unable to talk because a friend is visiting and the baby is up, but she is expecting a babysitter around 3:30 and maybe she can call back then. When she does, the sounds of a child’s voice come through the telephone.
Miriam and her daughter, Dorothy Sofia Wu Qing Hipsh, live in two tiny rooms on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, “a deal,” she says, that she can hardly afford to give up, and which she describes as looking like “one big playroom.” She and Wu Qing sleep in one room but, Miriam says cheerfully, “we’re doing fine.”
Hipsh publishes a newspaper written by teenage girls, working at home so that she can be with Wu Qing as much as possible. Nothing, she says, is more important to her than her daughter.
“There were years when I didn’t think about having a child,” she says. “I thought my life was complete, though now, when I look back, it seems empty. I was working with mentally ill homeless people and writing. I was busy. I had a lot of boyfriends, but the right man never came along.” When she was 45 years old, Hipsch’s mother died. Her voice softens and becomes almost teary when she speaks of her. “I loved her a lot. She felt I would be missing something terribly important if I didn’t become a mother. She never let up talking to me about it.
“I said kaddish for her,” she remembers. “During that process, I really made up my mind that I wanted a child, but I knew I would have to wait until the year of mourning was over before doing something about it. Emotionally, it was enough to deal with the loss of my mother. One day, I was looking at a picture of her when she was around 7, with her sisters and a brother. I knew I wanted to pass it on.”
Around that time, Hipsh fell in love and tried to get pregnant, but she knew that the chances were slim. Not long afterwards, she went through menopause and the relationship ended. She attended meetings of Single Mothers by Choice, where she met Lena Straus, who, among others, encouraged her in her decision.
Hipsh had traveled to China in 1985. She knew about the Chinese policy that foreign adoptive parents must be at least 35 years old and that the one-child-per-family policy had created a surfeit of unwanted girls. When she decided to adopt, she went to an agency that handles international adoptions. Thirteen months later, when Wu Qing was six months old, the adoption was completed.
“She’s completely my Jewish-Chinese-American girl,” Hipsh says. “She was born from my heart.”
Although there have been problems—”You never have enough help. That can be tough. Diarrhea at midnight. You’re always the one that cleans it up”—Hipsh says that “being a mother is more fun and more wonderful than I thought it would be. I didn’t know it would be sublime. I’m really happy with Wu Qing.”
Just before her daughter’s first birthday, Hipsh took the baby back to Kansas, where she was brought up and where her three sisters still live. Surrounded by family, they went to a mikvah and a synagogue for a conversion and naming ceremony. Hipsh gave Wu Qing the Hebrew name “Devorah Sarah.”
When asked what it is about Judaism that she wants to pass on to her daughter, she says, “Social consciousness. The ethics. The holiday traditions and the people. There are Jews all over the world of every race and color.”
“I don’t want to wait for a man to want me”
Beverly Schneider is a woman independent in thought and action. In her twenties she traveled to South America and to Egypt by herself Then she bought a co-op with the money she was earning as a manager for the Housing Authority of the City of Los Angeles. So it was entirely in character when, at 28, she decided to become a single mother. “I wanted to take charge of my life,” she says. “I fell in love with several men and would have liked to marry them, but they didn’t want to marry me. It was taxing. Exhausting. I thought that it was unlikely that I would be married anytime soon. I said to myself, T am going to pursue what is within my reach: being a mother.’ A woman’s fertile years are limited, and I wanted a child.”
Some of Schneider’s language echoes in the words of another Los Angeles mother, Deborah Oles, an unmarried Orthodox physician in her forties who adopted her son, Yehuda, a year and a half ago. “I certainly want the companionship of marriage, but I also want children. I thought I would take control of my life and not put all that power into the hands of men, waiting for one to want me. I did what I had to do to have a family.”
“Why is it negative for a single woman who has high motivation and resources to have a child and become a parent?” Beverly Schneider asks rhetorically. “If you’re widowed or divorced and have a child, then you didn’t mean it, so it’s O.K. If you have a child alone or by accident, then it’s not O.K. That didn’t make sense to me. So I decided, I’m going to proceed. I’m going to set aside what appear to be the norms of society, because they don’t make sense.”
Although mentally prepared for “a lot of strange looks and judgment,” Schneider found that during her pregnancy —the result of one of her short-lived relationships—she “got lots of positive feedback, caring and support. People said to me, ‘If I hadn’t gotten married, I would have done the same thing.'”
At first, however, her parents were “disappointed that I didn’t wait until I was married. But I realized that / had had a few years in which to give up the dream of the perfect romance and family life. They didn’t have any time to work through their dreams for me. After their initial reaction, they were very protective.”
Schneider is not an observant Jew. “I thought that having a child was very much related to my feelings about being a Jew. Family life and motherhood are connected to what’s important in Jewish life. For me, being Jewish means a set of values and a sense of family.”
Looking for Daddy
The family structure is revealed in implicit ways for some women. One answering machine announces: “Hello. You’ve reached Debbi and Rebecca. Please leave a message.” Debbi Gallanter, the mother, is a fund-raiser for the Women’s Division of United Jewish Appeal; Judaism plays a central role in her life.
Gallanter explains that, because of intermarriage, of the 16 children in Rebecca’s generation in her extended family her six-year-old daughter is the only one being raised as a Jew. It makes her decision to have a child and to raise her Jewishly seem even more urgent.
“I could have married a hundred times, but they were non-Jewish guys,” she says. “In college, I was interested in ending the war in Viet Nam. I was not interested in getting married. Afterwards, I dated mostly non-Jews.”
A close friend of Gallanter’s who was married and pregnant with her second child said, “Don’t do it!” when she spoke of having a child or adopting. Her friend told her, “It’s too hard without a spouse,” but Gallanter said, ‘The alternative was not acceptable to me. To go through life without a child.’ About a year after that, I was pregnant.”
Although she considered artificial insemination, she was in “an on-again, off-again relationship” with a Jewish doctor. As she explains it, “I realized that we would probably never get married. I told him that I wanted to have a child. Would he be willing to father the child? At first, he laughed at me. Then, I said, ‘I’m 100 percent serious. You wouldn’t have any obligation. I wouldn’t ask you for any money.’
“Emotionally, I had some difficulty with artificial insemination. I was more comfortable having a face and an understanding of who this person was. When I got pregnant, he got angry. We spoke once or twice during my pregnancy, on my initiation. We spoke once after the baby was born; I had some medical questions to ask him. He was very nice, and gave me all the information, but he basically said, ‘I don’t want any responsibility. I’m not ready for this.’
“The thing that kills me about this—that really upsets me—is that his parents are Holocaust survivors, and he’s an only child. You would think that they would just be aching for this child. I feel bad for them. I don’t even know if they’re still alive. I also don’t understand how someone can dismiss their own child so easily. Why am I beating myself over the head with this? I can’t make somebody do what they don’t want to do.”
Gallanter’s father died when she was 17, and her mother remarried. Gallanter and Rebecca live with her mother and step-father in what she describes as a “Cape Cod house” in New Jersey. They have their own sleeping quarters, but the four of them share meals. Because Gallanter often works late and travels, her mother’s willingness to care for Rebecca is both welcome and essential.
Nevertheless, Gallanter can’t help wishing that she had a place of her own and regrets the promise that she made to Rebecca’s father that she would never come to him for financial assistance. She would like to send her daughter to Jewish day school but can’t afford it.
When Gallanter told her colleagues at the UJA that she was pregnant, she got a “wonderful reception. I would have never, ever, ever expected it,” she says. “Everybody thought it was the most wonderful thing to do and that I should have done it long ago. I didn’t tell the lay leaders in the Women’s Division for the longest time—but they turned out to be my biggest supporters.When my daughter was born, the UPS man came every day with packages and gifts and clothes and toys. It was unbelievable.”
As Rebecca gets older, Gallanter finds it increasingly important to know other mothers and children in the same circumstances. Single Mothers by Choice provides both of them with a peer group.
“Even now, my daughter will say to me, ‘Why don’t I have a daddy? Why didn’t you wait to get married before you had me?'” Gallanter says. “Then I say, ‘Nicole doesn’t have a daddy. And Alexandra doesn’t have a daddy.’ And I go through all these other children as part of the explanation—because she continually brings it up. I tell her that her father and I were dating, and that when I had a baby, I wanted to raise the baby and to love the baby, but he was not ready to do that. She kind of accepts that. She says that she wants to go see her father when she gets older. I tell her that when the time comes, I will help her.”
“Other women marry just for the package”
Susan Goldberg* describes herself as “the world’s longest ‘thinker.’ I thought about this for five years before I actually did it,” she says of her decision to have a child through artificial insemination.
Goldberg, who works as a Jewish educator in Florida, was 41 when her son was born. “I knew that I wanted a child,” she says, “and Prince Charming wasn’t coming along very fast. But I did not know one person who had done this. I read an article about it in a magazine, and then I traveled to New York to meet Jane Mattes and her colleagues. I was very concerned about what everybody would say. What will they think?
“I can’t tell you the number of women who have taken me aside and said, ‘I wish I had done what you did,'” she reports. “They are in marriages that are less than satisfactory just so they could have the package. As much as I would love to give my child a dad, I won’t make certain compromises. My parents love each other, but my mother has subjugated herself to my father. I wouldn’t do that.”
Years before Goldberg got pregnant, she told her parents that she was thinking about it. Her father said it was irresponsible. “But,” she says, “he made a total turnaround when there was a real child. He supports us emotionally and financially. My mother was always as helpful as could be.”
Goldberg is active in her local chapter of Single Mothers by Choice. “We seem to be a club of Jewish women,” she says. “There’s a greater preponderance than in the general population. I’ve often thought about why this is so. In our group, most people are psychologists, physicians, attorneys. Once, we had a woman who said she was a maid—but that was very unusual. There was another woman in the group who does odd jobs to support herself. My heart goes out to these people. It’s very hard for them to make this choice.”
A Holocaust survivor daughter anticipates motherhood
Recently when Serene Kleinman had to buy a new car, she opted for a four-door—easier to get an infant seat in and out. Within months, she expects to get a phone call that will send her on her way to Russia to become a mother.
Kleinman, a 43-year-old computer consultant who lives in a suburb of New York City, says, “I wanted children, and I found myself waiting a long time for Mr. Right to show up. In fact,” she adds dryly, “Mr. Wrong hasn’t shown up either.”
Much to her surprise, her family and friends have been very supportive of her decision to adopt. Her mother will probably travel to Russia with her. Her parents, who are Holocaust survivors, live in Brooklyn as does one of her siblings. All have said they will help her in any way they can. One of her sister-in-laws has told her, “If you need some money, let us know. It will be a gift—not a loan. You don’t buy babies.”
Financially, Kleinman would be considered secure. She owns a townhouse and has a consulting contract that will see her through the next year and a half. Nevertheless, she feels “very apprehensive.” Then she adds, “I’ve been told that pregnant women often feel this way, too. I guess it takes nine months to make a mother, no matter how you do it.”
A man she knows questioned her decision to bring up a child with only one parent. “Will she be better off with one parent or no parents?” Kleinman retorted. Then she added, “And she’ll have grandparents, aunts and uncles and cousins. That’s more than I had.”
Kleinman’s parents came from Poland. Her mother was one of ten children, her father, one of four. Her parents, who met in a displaced persons camp, were the only ones in their families to survive the war.
Kleinman plans to give her daughter the Yiddish names “Zlata Zipporah” after two of her aunts who were killed. She is still thinking about her daughter’s English name. At the moment, she is considering Sarah Nicole. “Nicole is like Nicholas,” she says. “It sounds a little Russian to me. My daughter will have to learn about her roots, too.”
She is very conscious of being the daughter of Holocaust survivors; in her mind, saving a child is connected with the world permitting so many Jewish children to perish. “I want to save a child who wouldn’t get saved otherwise,” she says.
Friends: the supporting cast
For most of her life, Audrey Leibowitz* has depended on her friends for emotional support. Now she plans to do it again. A 43-year-old lesbian and practitioner of psychotherapy with a Master’s Degree in Social Work, she is co-owner of a multi-therapist practice in an affluent town in New Jersey. Next month, she’ll begin the process of becoming pregnant through artificial insemination.
“I can hardly wait for supporting another life inside of mine,” she says. “I want to pass my genes along. We have this one shot here on this planet. This is one of the experiences of being here, and I want it.”
All of Liebowitz’s potential donors have been identified as Jewish or have backgrounds that indicate that they might be Jewish. “This is really important to me,” she says. “I want someone smart, playful in sports, with some interest in the arts.”
One of the potential donors mentioned on his fact sheet that his grandparents died in the Holocaust. While Liebowitz finds this to be a disadvantage because it means that there is less medical background information, she is very moved at the idea of bearing a child that descends from this family.
When she decided to get pregnant, Liebowitz told her parents right away. “My mother would rather not discuss it,” she says. “She doesn’t think I’m real wise in trying to do this. She had a hard time parenting. She comes from an era where the man didn’t help. She had to work and raise two children. My father is kind of an invalid and is home-bound. He hasn’t brought it up. But my brother seems supportive and interested in how I’m going to do it.”
So, as she often has in the past, Liebowitz will turn for most of her emotional support to her circle of friends, which she calls her “family of choice.”
“One of my dear friends is willing to hear my complaining when I go through the mood changes that accompany the hormones they shoot you up with to enhance your fertility. And I have six people who want to be in the labor room with me. I don’t have blood family up here. In the absence of family, my child will struggle with community.”
Liebowitz, who owns a two-family house in a neighborhood that she chose because it is predominantly Jewish, says that she will join a synagogue after her baby is born. “It’s only lately that I’ve had a resurgence of my desire to affiliate,” she says. “I’ve always felt Jewish in my heart but not committed to some of the rituals that I find contradictory and punitive. It’s important to me to raise a child with values that match how I live. The historic significance of being a Jew is important to me. That’s my driving force for raising my child Jewish—more than my traditional Conservative upbringing.”
And the kids…?
Questions often arise about how the children will fare in these unconventional family configurations. In the newsletter of Single Mothers by Choice [September 1994], Jane Mattes mentions a recent study from Nova Scotia indicating that “the educational level of the mother is the most important predictor of the child’s future well-being, not whether she is married or single.” If this study is correct, it would stand to reason that Jewish women are likely to be good parents, even if they go it alone. New research being conducted by psychologist Ann Wimpfheimer will provide more data on a population that has not yet been well studied. Wimpheimer notes that earlier research on the lives of children in households headed by unpartnered women has looked at mothers who are much younger, much poorer, and with considerably less education and fewer skills than the biological children of these single, middle-class mothers. Wimpfheimer, a PhD candidate, indicates that the children she has studied, aged 2 to 6, show no behavioral or developmental differences from their peers raised in two-parent families. “Especially when the kids are young, if the mother is secure, the children are secure,” says Wimpfheimer. “But we don’t know when they reach beyond their early teens what their issues will be—especially those conceived through artificial insemination” where the donor is not in a parental relationship with them. Herself widowed 5 years ago and raising two children alone, Wimpfheimer says that her research was motivated in part by a desire to find out about “how attachment issues work themselves out for children raised by only one parent.”
But as one of the women interviewed for this article said, “Don’t call me a “Single Mother by Choice.’ I didn’t choose to be a single mother. I would much rather have been married. But I couldn’t find a mate and I wanted to be a parent. At least, I have my child.” Mattes says that 98 percent of the women in Single Mothers by Choice would agree with this statement. Asked by a talk show to come up with single mothers who didn’t wish to be married or have a partner, she said, “I can’t. I don’t know any.”
Terese Loeb Kreutzer’s articles have appeared in The New York Times, Newsday, and The Boston Herald. She is also a video producer, a graphic designer, and a single mother.
Theology Dovetails with the Urge to Have a Child
by Susan Weidman Schneider
For ten years, Orthodox feminist writer Blu Greenberg, a delegate to the 1995 World Population Conference in Cairo, has been telling her lecture audiences that unmarried Jewish women should be encouraged to find ways to have children, even when no marriage partner is in sight.
“I’m not recommending this as a first choice,” she says, “but the community needs to be supportive and understanding of the woman, who should not be punished twice—to go through life without the steady love of the right mate, and then to go through life without having a child.
“For Jewish women, what propels this decision is often both personal and communal. The deeply ingrained desire to have a family is almost a part of your Jewish genetic makeup. I don’t know that there is any other religion whose foundation stories are so tied up with family living—they reverberate through the generations into the hearts of individual women. Genesis, for example, is about flawed relationships, but always anchored in family life.
“The Jewish ethic is to have a child, to nurture and raise the next generation. In a certain sense it comes with the belief that part of your job in life is to improve the world, to repair the world. The tasks you can’t do in your lifetime you pass on to your children and they to their children—the theological model and the family model dovetail perfectly.”
Greenberg’s synthesis explains why Orthodox synagogue Beth Jacob in L.A. was so welcoming when member Deborah Oles, a single physician, adopted her son in 1994. “Clearly,” says Oles, herself the daughter of a rabbi, “since it’s okay according to halachah* (Jewish law), it’s fine from the community’s standpoint.” Despite the warmth she feels, the contrast between Oles’s place in shul before and after becoming a parent is striking. She says, “My status has changed tremendously. Normally, I’d be sitting alone on Shabbos; now suddenly I have invitations. I now feel much more a part of the community, which is wonderful. But on the other hand, didn’t I need to have Shabbos meals with people before? Didn’t I need people to talk to me after shul before I became a mother? I’m the same person.
“I believe in two-parent families, but it hasn’t happened for me. I would like it to happen, but I think,” Oles continues, “that the 90’s teach us, as well as Judaism, actually, that women have to do what they need to do for themselves.”
In Israel, single men, too, yearn to be parents
by Susan Weidman Schneider
When The New York Times, the L.A. Times, the U.S. Census Bureau and the Jerusalem Post all published—within weeks of each other this past winter— reports on the rising birth rate among single, white, middle-class, educated women, the numbers simply corroborated what many women in their thirties and forties and fifties had been spotting among their friends and acquaintances. One woman reports that in the past couple of months she has seen a proud great-aunt display an adoption notice sent by an unmarried niece in a distant city, received a birth announcement from a single former colleague, and an invitation to a baby naming ceremony with no father’s name on it. It seems that almost everyone knows an unpartnered woman who has at least considered the option of single motherhood.
Turns out that this is a worldwide phenomenon and— interestingly—not, as one might have surmised, in depressed economies or among uneducated women. Columbia University social work professor Sheila B. Kamerman points out in a recent letter to The New York Times that the reason for this increase in advanced industrialized countries is women’s increased participation in the labor force—a finding that suggests, strongly, that liberated from needing financial support from a husband or partner, women are free to choose motherhood independent of marriage.
“And Jewish women are in the forefront of this, as they are with everything,” says Orthodox feminist writer Blu Greenberg. Some data from the major 1990 National Jewish Population Survey, though it has not been fully analyzed, suggests that perhaps one-quarter of the Jewish households headed by women may be families consisting of a never-married mother who is raising her child alone.
In Israel, where single mothers have long been a familiar component of the social structure, one recent study used as its basis the lives of 3000 “mature, unwed mothers.” and a news report claims an increase of 15% each year in the rate of single women between 20 and 30 becoming mothers. The phenomenon is perhaps more common in Israel for several reasons. Aside from the absence in Jewish law of any sanctions against unwed motherhood, the whole country Is very child-oriented, so that social stigma actually attaches to those who do not have children rather than (as sometimes seems the case in America) against those who do. Especially in Israel, founded, in a sense, on the ashes of the Holocaust, every Jewish birth is demographically desired, welcome and precious. And the country’s many wars have meant that, sadly, young widows raising children alone are a common sight, even as war losses themselves have diminished the number of adult men available for marriage in every generation.
Partly because of Israel’s pronounced pro-natalism, we should probably have expected to see sooner or later the news reported in The Jerusalem Post in February that an organization has been set up in Tel Aviv to match unpartnered women with men eager to become fathers—The Center for Alternative Parenting. The intent is not matrimony; all the men are gay. And like most of the Jewish single mothers by choice in the U.S., these unmarried parents are urban professionals. But in Israel the men, like the women, yearn to become parents.
This is definitely not an anonymous sperm donation; the organization encourages the pair to bond and to develop a contract for raising and supporting the child. There is apparently no other matching organization like this anywhere in the world, where one of the stated goals is to build a network of supports for the baby that includes extended family members on both sides.
The Jerusalem Post mentions a woman who, after becoming pregnant by artificial insemination through the Center, met and married another man in her ninth month of pregnancy. Acknowledging the odd (but not wholly unexpected) psychological realism in this, Racheli Bar-Or, co-founder of the Center, says simply, “Deciding to have a child opens you to a wide range of emotional possibilities.”