“Being a diplomat is no career for a woman who wants to have a family,” said the consul.
“By the time you’re ready to get married he’ll be married,” said my mother.
“Don’t put off having children,” said the prominent professor.
Jane Eisner’s recent editorial Marriage Agenda brought back me to the 80s and 90s. As I finished high school, made my way through college and began graduate school, my elders were filled with advice about family planning. In the Jewish community, where concerns of assimilation reached a fever pitch, there was a very strong chorus that promoted marriage and childbearing. Eisner’s piece, which laments the high rates of intermarriage, the delaying of marriage, or even choosing not getting married sounded eerily like a retro recording of days gone by.
As a young woman, I followed the wisdom I received. I was married by 25 and had my first child in my twenties and my second by 32. I did miscarry but I was young and healthy and conception followed with ease. In my 40s, I have healthy older children and a strong marriage.
But to suggest that this has been an easy path or one that comes without costs is foolish. I was still very much figuring out who I wanted to be when I met the man I married. Instead of going off to Israel and entering rabbinical school, I stayed in the United States. Coming to understand myself in relationship to him would mean nearly a decade before I realized my desire to go to rabbinic school. And realizing that dream –while raising two small children-took a toll on our marriage. Having our children before our careers were launched was financially challenging. Studies have shown that delaying childbearing for educated professionals correlates with significantly higher lifetime earning potential. As we face paying for college this is something I worry about. I do not regret my choices but am realistic about the trade offs. It is too simplistic to recommend that we encourage marriage and early childbearing.
In 1984, my teacher and mentor feminist historian Paula Hyman called on the Jewish community to set up day care and find other ways of supporting families. Had her suggestions been implemented, we may have chosen to have two more kids or we may have set up college funds. Paula did support me when I chose to get pregnant as a graduate student at Yale, but not all my professors –even the female ones –even the Jewish ones- felt the same way. Recently, listening to several feminist thinkers debate the pros and cons of delaying parenthood on my local NPR station, it was once again clear to me that larger societal changes need to take place in order for people to feel like marriage and/or parenting are not in opposition to careers or professional life. I agree that it is helpful to be clear about the challenges of ‘having it all’ but let us not return to an era that suggests that marriage and babies are the solution. We need to recognize that family life is not the only way people make significant contributions to society and encourage involvement in Jewish life no matter marital/partnership/family status. All choices come at a price.
Buried in Eisner’s piece is a critique of the Jewish community for paying too much attention to Israel engagement and not enough on marriage and parenting. I wish she had fully developed her vision of policy changes that the Jewish community might push for more broadly.
For those who do want families, we need paid parental leave –for all parents regardless of gender or marital status. We need to help make day care affordable. We need preventative health care and flex time for soccer matches and science fairs. We need equal pay for women and men. We need reasonable expectations instead of 80 hour work weeks. It is easy to play the blame game or to wallow in regret, but if we are really interested in supporting Jewish family life then we need to roll up our sleeves, engage with public policy, open our wallets, think creatively, and work for broad systemic change.