This piece was inspired by a previous blog.
I rolled my eyes and exhaled sharply.
“What? What did I say?”
Motherhood is hard. And I don’t just mean raising the babies. I mean having them. I mean trying to have them. And yes, raising them after all that is hard, too.
After finishing up a recent Shabbat meal, my pregnant friend Rivkah* began to vent her frustrations with pregnancy and motherhood. All the women gathered to listen on the couch. And after we’d all done the requisite “oohhing” and “ahhing” and thanking G-d for everything, we all began to discuss the anxieties that can come with impending motherhood.
Rivkah’s fidgeted restlessly as she talked about feeling nauseous all the time and losing weight from being unable to keep anything down. She had fears for the pregnancy, fears for the birth, fears and more fears. She was speaking to a captive audience who understood her fears. The other women, who rounded out the conversation, included Michal*, a recent mother and Esther*, who had recently endured a miscarriage.
I mostly listened thinking that it was refreshing to hear the women talk about their anxiety openly, while reflecting on my own mixed feelings about growing a big belly, becoming someone’s mom and being able to afford it…not just financially, but mentally and emotionally. No one ever seems to discuss those issues. They worry that talking about any negative aspects will “jinx” their current or future pregnancies. Or more likely it’s that as women we know that we’re expected to cope with motherhood and we try to do it as gracefully as possible.
And there’s just so much pressure in the Jewish community to have babies.
The first year we were married, people (men and women) would ask constantly whether or not I was trying to get pregnant or already pregnant. And if the answer was “no” and “no,” people hummed around me with sympathy and well wishes for a baby.
I have startled more than one Shabbat guest with the pronouncement that my husband and I were putting off having children in the near future.
Looks of dismay ensued.
“But, of course, you want to have a baby!” the guests would insist.
Of course, no one bothered to ask why were putting it off. And I worried that if I told them that they would walk away from our conversation thinking that it had been okay to bring up the subject of pregnancy.
After all, didn’t I want to be part of the box they wanted me to fit into, the box they thought I should fit in? Now that I’d finally checked off the married box, didn’t I want to work on putting a checkmark next to “married with children”? But things aren’t that simple. Not for me and not for many women out there.
When I ask other Jewish women if they feel pressured, their eyes grow wide before it all pours out. They’re under constant interrogation from the community, having heard “Are you pregnant?” often from close relatives and relative strangers. They talk about money trouble, finishing their Master’s degrees (sometimes, Bachelor’s degrees) or establishing their careers, and the constant fear that they won’t be able to manage juggling anything more.
And everywhere, someone is lurking, ready to pounce on them and apply pressure.
The husbands live in a bubble.
“Honey, did anyone ask you if we were pregnant?” I asked unraveling my headscarf as my husband Yehuda locked the door behind him after we returned from a Shabbat dinner.
Yehuda wrinkled his nose in disgust as he undid his tie. “Who would ask that?”
“Oh, you know, everyone,” I exaggerated quietly. I realized I’d lost count (on both hands) of the times someone had asked me about my “status.”
No one (except for his father, J.) had asked my husband if we were trying to get pregnant. And my father-in-law didn’t really ask, he hollered.
“Get pregnant already!” J. ordered cheerfully.
Still, my husband was sure that only I was obsessed with the state of my reproductive system.
Without his sympathy, I began to seethe. It struck me as…well, impolite, that people would ask about such a personal subject. I had grown up in a culture where there wasn’t too much that was considered “TMI” (too much information) but it seemed like there was an endless list of topics unacceptable for Jewish discussions. So, why wasn’t pregnancy an off-limits topic, too?
I approached my single friend Josh to talk about it.
“Look, I get people blessing me with marriage out of nowhere at Shabbat meals,” Josh instant messaged sympathetically. “I totally understand.”
He’d learned his lesson after a fight with a Kollel wife left him assured that blessing couples with babies was a “no-no.” As he told me his side of the story, I wondered about the Kollel wife’s reasons for giving him this sage advice.
At the pool at my local gym, my Aqua Fitness instructor Arelis, a feisty mocha-skinned Dominican woman, wanted to discuss my career goals.
“Why don’t you have a baby?” she asked raising her hands over her head in a stretch.
“Um, because I’m recovering from an illness,” I replied furrowing my eyebrows.
“Yes, but you could have a baby in the meantime,” she enthused.
I stalked home afterwards to type my fury out on my computer.
“Don’t ask me about my uterus…please” shouted the title of my latest blog.
Disabled? Unemployed? Well, why aren’t you working on getting pregnant?! Oh, yes, because what with not being able to take care of myself, beginning eighteen or so years of taking care of someone else would be a breeze!
The keys clicked and clacked furiously as I wrote in exclamations, “Did you hear that, people? It’s my uterus and it’s VIP! You’re not invited!”
And then I was blindsided by an angel of hope.
At another Shabbat meal, a married woman whispered conspiratorially in my ear that people would stop asking about my womb once my husband and I survived our first anniversary.
“Why?” I asked in confusion.
“Because they’ll think you’re having problems,” she whispered back.
“Problems?” I murmured mystified.
And she was right.
After our first anniversary, the questions stopped abruptly. But only to be replaced by questioning glances. If I gained a little weight or wore an unflattering dress, people would stare at my stomach and cock their heads to the side inquisitively.
With an exasperated shake of the head, I would mutter: “No. I’m not pregnant!”
Now and then, a sad look would overtake my interrogators and they would sigh sympathetically about how hard it was to “get pregnant.” Without any coercion on my part, people started to believe we were “having trouble.” And though I wasn’t, I was suddenly aware that I was surrounded by a world of women who were.
When my best friend Esther told me recently that someone asked if she had “a bun in the oven,” I cringed. My beautiful best friend is one of those women who has been having trouble. Esther has had three consecutive miscarriages. She tells me that she hates the assumptions people make.
“After one year of marriage, you must be pregnant. But no one assumes that there are miscarriages. That there are those of us struggling to afford to eat, much less bring children in the world to struggle with us,” Esther said, her voice heady with emotion.
I tell her that people associate pregnancy with happiness.
She replies, “I associate pregnancy with fear. I am scared to death of it.”
I tell her that I feel the same way.
I cannot think of pregnancy without remembering my mentally ill mother who beat me with belts, shoes, telephone cords and metal poles.
I cannot think of pregnancy without imagining myself writhing in pain from the chronic pain and fatigue of fibromyalgia and depression. I would be forced to forgo medications that ward off mental and physical agony in an effort to put the baby’s needs before my own. But really, are my fears, my status, anybody’s business at the Shabbos table?
One out of four women miscarries, I learned, after another whisper told me that a woman in the community had delivered a stillborn baby. Suddenly, there were whispers everywhere about previously private miscarriages. Behind closed doors, women began sharing stories about “trying for months” and falling into deep depressive episodes. I had never imagined that so many women could be suffering silently.
The idea that any of these could be asked “Are you pregnant?” in the midst of their suffering became a horror that overwhelmed me.
And the suffering was everywhere. A New York Times feature on women who had battled infertility and lost only compounded my horror further. People were still asking them questions, too. “When are you going to adopt?” It was too much. I found myself wincing as I paged through an article in a women’s magazine where a father detailed the painful process and expense of fertility treatments.
I think that people ask because they think it’s a safe subject.
Somewhere along the line, asking someone who’s married about impending pregnancy became no more socially incongruous than asking what someone does for a living (a subject now surely imperiled by the economy). This social norm probably isn’t deterred any by the latest newsstand feature that details the every lump and bump of Hollywood So-and-So’s pregnancy and then Hollywood So-and-So, Jr.’s first days.
But it’s not a safe subject. Not when more and more couples everywhere are struggling with the subject. Not when we realize that often questions born out of natural curiosity can be hurtful and even traumatic.
So I’m waving a “PRIVATE” sign around my uterus for myself and for anyone who’s with me. I offer that it’s time we make asking about pregnancy and talking about having children inappropriate for polite conversation. We shouldn’t make people share any more about the subject than they would feel comfortable doing so. We should tiptoe around it like we would any other loaded topic.
I guess, I’m saying that it’s time to start asking again about the weather.
*Names have been changed.