A Life Unexpected: The Childless Woman

August 21, 2014

11 min read


Even though I married later in life, I anticipated having children. I still can’t believe it’s not going to happen. I wasn’t prepared for this.

In the child-centered religious world, a childless woman comes face to face every day with reminders of what she lacks – at every school bus stop, supermarket, clothing store, synagogue, Torah class; in every Jewish newspaper, magazine and inevitably, every conversation. I longed to speak to others like myself – at once fully connected to the religious community, and galaxies apart.

I sought childless women who had passed the point of trying to conceive. Potential contacts expressed reluctance about approaching a childless friend, neighbor or aunt. They said it was a “touchy” subject. Nevertheless, several women came forward to speak about their journeys. Most of them chose to remain anonymous.

The reasons for their inability to bear children varied. Either they married late or had medical issues. Some experienced failed adoptions; for others, such a route wasn’t an option. Their common bond was their pain and the hard-won wisdom born from living without that which one wants most.

“Although I’m no longer ashamed of what God has decided for me, I still dream about babies.”

“Since I was very young, I dreamt I was going to have ten kids,” says Bracha, in her sixties. “God decided that would not be my path. As difficult as it is to accept, ‘no’ is a full sentence.” Like many of us, Bracha sought medical help and prayed; like all of us, she cried.

The sense of urgency hit some of the women while they were still single. “My dates would always want to know if I could have children,” says Tziporah, a Brooklyn therapist in her sixties who married in her late forties. “I felt shame associated with it. Although I’m no longer ashamed of what God has decided for me,” she says, “I still dream about babies.”

Finding Ways to Create Life

If Orthodox society defines motherhood as the essence of a Jewish woman’s identity, who is she without a family to raise? It’s a question we ask ourselves constantly.

Our lives don’t include the thrill of due dates, a baby’s first kick, birthday parties, PTA, bar/bat mitzvot, visiting day, school plays, children’s weddings and grandchildren. We have to consciously construct our days – and our nachas.

In lieu of the daily demands of motherhood, we experience an unremitting clamor for meaning. Irrespective of what our Plan B is, it has to fill us body and soul, in a way that only something as eternal as giving to others can.

The women I spoke with contribute generously to the community as educators, doctors, therapists, life-coaches or youth group leaders. No matter how rewarding the work, at the end of the day, they remain childless. Keeping one’s spirits up takes continuous effort, coping tools and a lot of spiritual creativity.

Although she finds her job as a kindergarten teacher gratifying, Yidis, fifty-three, admits she struggles every day to stay afloat. “I keep myself very busy. I ask myself, ‘What’s my mission at this very moment?’”

One of those trying moments led to a life-changing brainstorm. Fifteen summers ago, Yidis gazed outside her window to find a large assembly of neighbors, all mothers, happily chatting as their children played. “I thought, ‘Yidis, you have two choices: you can either go insane or you can do something productive.’” She chose the latter, launching a Torah learning center for Jewish women of all backgrounds. “You have to pour the angst into something else.”

Bracha “refused to wallow in pain.” A certified life-coach, she’s also an advocate and group leader for Sister to Sister (a resource and support network for single mothers and their children), and volunteers for an organization that assists parents of children with learning challenges. “I pleaded with God that I’d be able to enjoy other’s children, to listen to them, laugh with them. I don’t want to be shut out of that experience.”

Unlike our parental peers, we need to seek out opportunities to express our mothering instincts.

“I learned that there are many ways women can give to the world.”

“My husband is the ‘candy man’ at our shul,” says Sarah, an Internet marketer in her sixties, married for twenty-three years. “So, I’m Mrs. Candy Man.” The couple has hosted scores of grateful single men and women for Shabbat. “We’re known for taking people in at the last minute,” says Sarah, who was single for many years. “No one should eat alone.”

“I learned that there are many ways women can give to the world,” says Tziporah. “One primary way for me is through my relationship with my husband. I’ve watched him develop and I feel our love for each other grow.”

Lessons in Sensitivity

Women love to talk about their lives. If they are parents, they talk about their children – incessantly. “It’s not that they are doing it to hurt anyone,” says Chana, fifty-four, married thirty years, the only woman in her small Jewish community without children. “People just don’t take that extra step to stop and think, ‘If I say this, will it affect the next person?’ I just try to listen and push my pain aside.”

Leah, a physician and Torah teacher, dreads communal gatherings. “A few weeks ago, at our Friday night learning group, someone was kvelling about her large family. The following week, someone else went on and on about a new grandchild. I want to hear about people’s children and grandchildren, but when the gushing goes overboard, it gets very difficult.”

Weddings and bar mitzvot present a particularly uncomfortable social venue for the childless. Caught up in the life-cycle celebration, mothers around the tables launch into conversations about pregnancies, schools, seminaries and matchmaking, oblivious to the childless seated among them. “When I find I can’t turn the talk around, I get up and dance with the children,” says Bracha. “One time I gave one of the little girls a hug and she asked if I had a boo-boo; she felt a tear on my cheek. I said I had something in my eye. I don’t think I fooled her.”

As with any person outside of what the community deems the norm, the childless woman learns, albeit the hard way, to become more considerate of other people’s vulnerabilities. “When I’m with friends who are single, I’m careful not to say ‘my husband,’” relates Bracha. “I say his name instead. I think it’s less hurtful.”

Living as a chronic “have-not” could easily thrust childless women into victim mode. Some choose to see it as an opportunity to exercise their gratitude muscles.

Adina, a retired art teacher, decided to shift her focus from what she lacked to what she had: free time. “No one gets everything in this life. So I went for what’s most important – becoming the best me.” She attends Torah classes regularly and started the We Are Doing A-OK project, an initiative involving women doing acts of kindness (A.O.K.). “It takes seeing the thousands of things God gives you. You have to get into the kishkes of how blessed you are. Get to know who you are, what you can do, your limitless potential; it’s constant work.”

Without the busyness of parenthood, childless women often develop a heightened awareness of the time passing. “Children help you forget that you are going to die,” says Naomi, a computer scientist. “You see them as a part of you that lives on. I feel like I have more of a reminder that I’m here by myself and it’s all up to me. Consequently, I’ve developed a sense of gratitude for just being alive every day.”

While vacationing with her husband, Yidis caught a powerful glimpse of the childless woman’s unique role.

We were out in a boat. The tour guide pointed out a black bird, a cormorant. It stood on a rock with its arms spread, airing out its wings. He explained the cormorant is different from other birds; the feathers are not as water resistant as other birds’. Consequently, it can dive very deep. Because of its denser bones, it can only fly over the surface of the water. I thought, “What if this cormorant spent its days looking up at the other birds and thinking: ‘Look at them soaring and swirling in the sky, having a blast. What happened to me?’” He’d be one miserable cormorant. But, if he were to say to himself, “God gave me this particular ability to go way beneath the surface of the water and bring up things that no other creature can,” he’d have a completely different perspective. A smart cormorant thinks about the gifts God gave him.

Not assigned the typical job description of a religious Jewish woman, we have to ask God what He wants from us every day, and in every situation.

My most intense “God-what-do-you-want-from-me?” moments arise at brises, bar mitzvot and weddings. It requires Herculean effort to accept my feelings of jealousy and loss, while sharing in the joy of families building the future of the Jewish people. I focus on the spiritual reality behind my tug-of-war. Here’s my golden opportunity to ace a challenge and break through to my higher self. I don’t always succeed; the battle continues.

As a family therapist, Tziporah sees how parents who seem to “have it all” also need to consciously work on becoming the people they are meant to become. “So you have a family. Meanwhile one of the children is in trouble at school and your husband cannot help but scream at the kid. We’re all here to maximize who we are.”

Sometimes it takes a childless woman to help mothers appreciate their blessings.

Zehava, an artist in her sixties, stopped by a kosher pizza shop for a midday bite. She smiled as she noticed a young mother enter with her four-year-old daughter in tow. Her expression quickly changed as the mother plopped her daughter down and shoved a slice of pizza in front of her, all the while yammering on her cell phone.

“The poor girl kept looking up at her mother, then nibbling at her pizza,” says Zehava. She saw another mother walk in with four children and sit at a nearby table. This mother interacted with each of her children, asking them what they wanted, telling them stories and eliciting laughter. “The other girl stared at those kids the entire time,” says Zehava, “like, ‘why can’t I have that?’ Before I left, I went over to the woman on the cell phone and said, ‘Excuse me, I couldn’t help but observe that the entire time you were here with your daughter, you didn’t say one word to her. If you don’t start paying more attention to her, she’s going to need therapy.’ It’s a privilege to have children. I want to put it out there: cherish the gifts you have.”

Leaving Their Mark

As a ba’alat teshuvah (returnee to Torah observance) born to Holocaust survivors, I’m saddened. Instead of reconnecting the shattered link to thousands of years of tradition and self-sacrifice, it all ends with me.

Arianna, in her fifties, asks, “Who will say Kaddish and Yizkor for me?”

Although we may not see the fruits of our labors in the obvious ways that mothers do, we continue to give birth to positivity despite our seeming void.

“You have more children than you know how to count.”

During the throes of infertility treatments, Bracha consulted with a revered rabbi. Sensing his compassion, she broke down crying. “He actually laughed. I asked him why he was laughing. He said, ‘You have more children than you know how to count.’” His words confused her at the time.

She’s no longer confused.

“God wants me to make an impact on this world in the best way I know how,” says Bracha. “If someone does a positive act because of my example, then I had a baby. That person who received the kindness is going to take it forward forever. Like the Rebbe said, I have more children than I know how to count.”

Ultimately, after 120 years, whether we’ve had children or not, we all leave this world with only ourselves and the relationship we’ve forged with God.

“This journey has drawn me closer to God,” says Tziporah. “The more I trust Him and open up to His will, the less I feel like He’s angry with me and rejecting me. I know that whatever challenge I have today, that’s the one I’m supposed to meet. When I remember to turn it over to Him, the day goes beautifully.”

Reprinted with permission from Jewish Action summer 2014 (5774) http://www.ou.org/jewish_action/issues/summer-20145774

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