A Life Unexpected: Frum and Childless

by | in Faith

childless

“. . . and the childless one should not say, ‘Look, I am a shriveled tree.’ For this is what Hashem said to the barren ones who observe My Sabbaths and choose what I desire and hold tightly onto My covenant: In My house and within My walls I will give to them a place of honor and renown, which is better than sons and daughters. I will give them eternal renown, which will never be expired” (Isaiah 56:3-5).

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 frum world, a childless woman comes face to face every day with reminders of what she lacks—at every school bus stop, supermarket, clothing store, shul, shiur, simchah; in every Jewish newspaper, every magazine and inevitably, every conversation. I longed to speak to others like myself—at once fully connected to the frum community, and galaxies apart.

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

“Since I was very young, I dreamt I was going to have ten kids,” says Bracha Melzer (her real name), in her sixties and living in Brooklyn. “Hashem 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. She says that letting go of the hope of ever having children proved the hardest part.

For Chana, fifty-four, married thirty years and the daughter of a Holocaust survivor who lost most of his family, [the hardest part] was relinquishing the expectation of continuing the family line. “It was really devastating for me,” says Chana, the only woman in her small Jewish community without children.

The sense of urgency hit some of the women while they were still single. “[As I got older,] 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 Hashem has decided for me,” she says, “I still dream about babies.”

Finding Ways to Create Life
If frum society defines motherhood as the essence of a Jewish woman’s identity, then who is she without a family to raise? It’s a question we ask ourselves constantly. We have to.

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

In lieu of the daily demands of motherhood, we experience an unremitting clamor for meaning. And 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, these women 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 highly gratifying, Yidis, fifty-three and living in New England, admits she struggles every day to stay afloat. “I keep myself very busy,” she says. “Otherwise, I’m smack in the middle of the yetzer hara’s playground. When I find I’m going down the wrong path, I ask myself, ‘What’s my mission now, 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, on lawn chairs happily chatting as their children played. “I thought to myself, ‘Yidis, you have two choices: you can either go insane or you can do something productive,’” she relates. She chose the latter, launching a Torah learning center for secular and newly frum Jewish women. “You have to pour the angst into something else,” says Yidis.

Bracha “refused to wallow in the pain.” A certified life-coach, she’s also an advocate and group leader for Sister to Sister (a resource and support network for frum single mothers and their children), and she volunteers for an organization that assists parents of children with learning challenges. “I pleaded with Hashem that I should be able to really enjoy children,” she says, “to listen to them, laugh with them, be able to call friends and ask how their children are doing. It takes work, but children are part and parcel of the world, and I don’t want to be shut out of that experience.”

Unlike our parental peers, we need to actively seek out opportunities to express our mothering instincts. The childless Jewish woman’s need to nurture finds its way to receptive hearts of children of all ages.

“My husband is the ‘candy man’ at our shul,” says Sarah, an Internet marketer in her sixties, married for twenty-three years and living on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. “So, I’m Mrs. Candy Man. The kids come in droves. They get upset when we’re away.” Over the years, the couple has hosted scores of grateful single men and women for Shabbat. “We’re well-known in the community for taking people in at the last minute,” says Sarah, who was single for many years. “No one should eat alone.”

“I learned from a rebbetzin that there are many ways women can give to the world,” says Tziporah. “[One primary way for me to do so is through] my relationship with my husband. I’ve watched him develop and I feel our love for each other grow. That’s the foundation of my life.”

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. “People just don’t take that extra step to stop and think, ‘If I say this, how is it going to affect the next person?’ I just try to listen and push my pain aside.”

“Children are part and parcel of the world, and I don’t want to be shut out of that experience.”

Leah, a physician and Torah teacher living on the West Coast, finds certain communal gatherings challenging. “A few weeks ago, at our Friday night Tehillim 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.”

Chatunot and bar mitzvot present a particularly uncomfortable social venue for the childless. Caught up in the life-cycle celebration, mothers around each table launch into conversations about pregnancies, schools, seminaries and shidduchim, oblivious to the childless seated among them. “When I find I can’t turn the conversation 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.”

Many women turn these trying experiences into lessons in sensitivity. As with any person outside of what the frum society 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.”

Yom Tov Without Children
Every year before Pesach, Chana pleads with Hashem, “Please don’t let us be alone for Sedarim.” Inevitably, they’re invited out; she finds that it’s a mixed blessing.

“Every time we go to someone else’s home, I see them with their large families, together for all the yamim tovim; I get such pangs,” she laments. “I will never have that.” On Simchat Torah, while mothers watch their children dancing with their fathers, for the childless woman, it can feel heartbreakingly lonely in the women’s section. “At Purim events, parents and kids get together and I feel like I have no reason to be there,” says Chana.

When Pesach comes around, Sarah and her husband opt for programs overseas. They’ve been to Sicily, Sardinia and Puerto Rico and Croatia—among other locations. “We meet a lot of people, hear great Torah lectures.”

Others prefer to stay home. “We have a full yom tov table both nights,” says Dassi, an attorney in her fifties living in Manhattan. “Our guests ask the Four Questions in different languages. You can create a whole new way of enjoying the holiday.”

Bracha and her husband agree; they invite Russian immigrants and those without spouses to their Sedarim.

Sharing the Wisdom
As with any chronic “have-not” situation, childlessness could easily thrust women into victim mode. Some choose to see it as an opportunity to exercise their gratitude muscles.

Adina Fischlewitz (her real name), a former art teacher from Queens, New York, 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 shiurim regularly, joined a mussar vaad and launched the We Are Doing A-OK project, an initiative involving women doing acts of kindness (A.O.K.) for others in their communities. “It takes looking around you and seeing the thousands of things Hashem gives you,” she says. “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 a constant avodah.”

Without the busyness and distractions of parenthood, childless women often develop a heightened awareness of the passage of time. “Children help you forget that you are going to die,” says Naomi, a computer scientist from Manhattan. “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.”

Different Path/Unique Purpose
A childless woman sees herself on the periphery of mainstream frum life. She was born a woman, with a woman’s nature and inclinations, so why does her life look so different from most of her peers?

“I don’t know things that other women know,” says Tziporah. “That is probably the most challenging part—not having any idea of what it means to have [a child] grow inside of you, watching him or her grow up and later separate from you. That’s a huge part of the human experience that I don’t know anything about . . . It makes me feel not quite part of the human race.”

While vacationing with her husband in Maine, 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 looked awfully silly standing on a rock with its arms [spread] out, airing out its wings, like it was airing out its underarms. He explained the cormorant is different from other birds; the feathers are not as water resistant as [those of] other birds. Because of that, it can dive very, very deep.

Because it has a heavier structure [denser bones than most other birds], it’s not able to fly as high as other birds; 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: ‘Boy, I can’t fly like that. Look at them soaring and swirling in the upper skies, having a blast. What happened to me?’” If he were to spend his days like that, he’d be one miserable cormorant. But, if he were to say to himself, “Hashem gave me this particular ability to go deeper than any other bird, to go way beneath the surface and to bring up things that no other creature can,” he would have a completely different perspective. A smart cormorant thinks about the gifts God gave him.

Not assigned the typical job description of a frum 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 britot, bar mitzvot and chatunot. It requires Herculean effort to accept my feelings of jealousy and loss, while sharing in the simchah of other families building Klal Yisrael. I focus on the spiritual reality behind my tug-of-war. Here’s my golden opportunity to ace a nisayon 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 each day on becoming the people they are meant to become. “So you have a large family, a normal Jewish life. Meanwhile one of the children is in trouble at school and your husband cannot help but scream at the kid,” says Tziporah. “We’re all here to maximize who we are.”

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

Zehava is a Brooklyn-based artist in her sixties, originally from the Southwest. One day, she stopped by a local 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.’ I was rude to her; I was so annoyed. It’s a zechut to have children. I want to put it out there: cherish the gifts you have.”

Leaving Their Mark
As a ba’alat teshuvah born to Holocaust survivors, I’m baffled and saddened. Instead of reconnecting the shattered link to thousands of years of mesorah and mesirut nefesh, it all ends with me. The majority of the women I interviewed named this as the most difficult aspect of their nisayon.

“There are different kinds of pain,” says Bracha. “The kind when you’re married and it doesn’t work out, when you lose a child or when you are [an older single] waiting to get married. For me, [the deepest pain] was the realization that I was the end of the line; there would be no one to carry on after 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.

During the throes of infertility treatments, Bracha consulted with the Bostoner Rebbe. Sensing his compassion, she broke down crying. “He actually laughed,” she says. “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.

Now, she’s no longer confused.

“Hashem 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 Hashem.

“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.”

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Bayla Sheva Brenner is senior writer in the OU Communications and Marketing Department.

 

This article was featured in Jewish Action Summer 2014.

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