This is Growing Faith , a column about parenting and faith coauthored by Saadia Faruqi and Shoshana Kordova.
Saadia: When I got married in 1998, my father turned to my mother and said: “Congratulations on becoming a grandmother.” He was joking, of course, but the joke held a kernel of cultural truth: The sole purpose of getting married in many Muslim cultures is to have children and carry on the family name. Have you had a similar experience?
Shoshana: I would say most Orthodox married couples I know do have kids shortly after getting married, but it’s often within a couple of years, not right away. That’s within the modern Orthodox world, though, which has one foot in Orthodoxy and one foot in the wider world. Haredi (or ultra-Orthodox) couples tend to start earlier and have more kids, and both groups have a higher-than-average birth rate in Israel.
Saadia: I saw this cultural compulsion for children everywhere I looked. My parents celebrated their first wedding anniversary after I was born, which as a child I calculated with a feeling of horror: I was conceived three months after their marriage. My sister was born fourteen months after me, which meant my mother was pregnant again five months after my birth. Ouch!
This topic became my personal research project when I was a teenager. I’d ask family friends and relatives when they’d had their first child, and the consensus was pretty obvious: ASAP. I thought this was a Pakistani phenomenon until I came to America and found many others involved in this frantic race to have children: Indians, Bangladeshis, Middle Eastern people. Sound familiar to you, Shoshana?
Shoshana: I would definitely say that in my experience, Jews are pretty obsessed with children and family, and that’s reflected in communal pressure. Like with most other things in Orthodox Jewish life, sex and birth control are also regulated to varying degrees by rabbinic rulings, though there are a lot of different opinions even within the Orthodox world and in any case each couple ultimately makes decisions their own way.
On top of that, there are all kinds of superstitious folk traditions, what’s called a segula, for getting pregnant. We had our first child about four years after we got married, considered a longer-than-usual wait, and my husband and I joked that we had found a new segula for getting pregnant. It started with an unusually contentious experience I had at the mikva, or ritual bath, where many married Orthodox women take a dunk between having their periods and resuming “marital relations.”
The last time I was there before getting pregnant with my oldest, I had a fight with the bath attendant because after I had spent ages combing my hair to get out all the knots, in keeping with the dunking rules, she took one look at me and seemed to get it into her head that my hair would magically stop being curly if only I would comb it even more thoroughly. She tried to send me back into the preparation room to comb my hair again, but I refused, and we had a whole argument until she finally agreed to let me into the mikva. My husband and I came to the tongue-in-cheek conclusion that this must mean fighting with the mikva lady was a segula for getting pregnant . . . well, that plus going off birth control.
Saadia: We also waited several years before having kids. I was in college when I got married, and then after graduation I wanted to work. My husband and I lived in Florida, content to travel and enjoy each other’s company. We weren’t overcome by a need to have children, possibly because we lived alone with no extended family around us. There was literally nobody to remind us that the biological clock was ticking or that we were failing our duty as Muslims.
Then we moved to Houston and everything changed. We became part of a mosque community that was traditional and conservative. The first question people asked us: How come you don’t have kids? I was constantly amazed that people did not hesitate to pry into our personal matters, and that the ones who did so were essentially strangers. I mean, it shouldn’t matter whether my child-free years were chosen or foisted on me; it’s no one else’s business. Our families—parents, siblings—never asked us about it, but the ladies at the mosque were not shy.
Shoshana: My family mostly didn’t say anything either. But there was one memorable time when my father started nudging me about when we were going to have kids. I was trying to be civil, so I told him “Thank you for your input,” and he retorted: “I don’t care about the input, I care about the output!”
I was actually already in the early stages of pregnancy with my first when we had that conversation, but I didn’t say anything until I was further along, partly because I didn’t want to feel pushed into announcing before I was ready and partly because I liked the (somewhat superstitious) tradition of not announcing your pregnancy until the end of the first trimester. But I also understand why some women have been speaking out against this practice, which can make it harder for people to get support if something goes wrong with the pregnancy.
I can imagine how hurtful seemingly well-intended comments about having a baby can be if you’re dealing with fertility issues and people pour salt in the wound. I think a good rule is to just never ask or comment about why someone doesn’t have kids.
Saadia: I wish the people I knew would have adhered to that rule! I had so many lines thrown my way by well-meaning community members:
“You need to hurry up and have kids. Stop working so much.”
“Are you practicing family planning? Those pills make it really hard to get pregnant even when you stop taking them.”
“You should lose weight. It will be easier to get pregnant.”
“You shouldn’t stress. Stress causes hormones that make it difficult to get pregnant.”
“Have you ever tried herbal remedies? Homoeopathy? Acupuncture?”
“We are praying for you, dear.”
“I am so worried about you. I pray that Allah gives you lots of babies.”
“What’s the matter with you? Did you try going to a doctor?”
Yes, these comments were real, and they were usually thrown at me in passing without any sort of conversation around it. Just people I hardly knew sending me the message that I was incomplete without a child, or two or three. I was failing as a woman, as a Muslim, as a human being.
I began to feel down about myself, constantly worrying about the fact that we didn’t have children yet. My husband couldn’t understand what I was upset about, but then he wasn’t subjected to the constant psychological pressure of the women around me.
Shoshana: Oh no! That sounds really hard to deal with. And all too common in Jewish communities, too! I know a lot of people who have gotten extremely intrusive comments like that, but either I’ve blocked mine out or I was lucky enough to avoid them for the most part.
I did feel weirded out when I found my name on a list of people who a cousin of mine was praying for, though. It feels strange to be on someone else’s pity list when you don’t want to be. When I got pregnant with my first, I broke the news to her by telling her she could stop praying for me now.
Saadia: Seriously, the “praying for you” thing can get ridiculous!
I remember one time I was at the mosque, and after most people had prayed and left, I stayed behind to pray some additional prayers, as is my custom. I spent long minutes in prostration with my head on the floor, thanking God for all His blessings. When I completed my prayers I turned around and saw two women behind me, pitying looks on their faces: “Don’t worry, dear, we are all praying for you too. God willing, you will have a baby soon.” I was embarrassed and shocked, but mostly angry. I had not been praying for a baby. The assumption that a childless woman could not find anything else to be thankful for is preposterous and insulting. I think I told them thanks and left, but this incident stayed with me for years.
Of course, now that I have two children, the ladies of the mosque act as if they were partially responsible for that miracle. They kiss my children and pat them on the back, and always say: “We prayed for long for you two to arrive.” All I can do is grit my teeth and smile.
Shoshana: Seems like the comments keep coming, whether we haven’t had kids yet or we have. For me, once I started having kids, I felt like I went from knowing people were wondering what was taking us so long to becoming this walking stereotype of a constantly pregnant religious woman.
We ended up having four kids spaced about every two years (or a little less). It sounds pretty normal when you see a family with, say, a three-year-old and a five-year-old, but when you’re in the trenches it means you’re thinking about getting pregnant again only about a year after you gave birth, and if you are lucky enough to get several months of maternity leave (like we have here in Israel), then you’re getting pregnant again after only a few months of being back at work taking pumping breaks and storing milk in the employee fridge.
I was working at the same place when I had all four of my girls, and I was probably a little self-conscious about it because I was one of the few Orthodox people working at the country’s most secular, liberal newspaper. When I told people I was pregnant with my second, someone at work seemed blown away and asked, “How many kids are you planning to have?!” I told him I was figuring on 150.
Saadia: Yes, the comments keep coming no matter what! I honestly do think childbearing—and child-rearing—is a community act in some respect. I learned that the things you hear from others can have a subconscious impact on how many children you have, when you have them, and even how you parent them. In modern Western societies, I think having “too many” children is looked down upon, and certainly they present a challenge for mothers who want to work or study, or maybe even maintain some semblance of sanity.
Although it takes a village to raise a child, we do need to set some boundaries with our family and community members. Commenting on someone’s childless state is very much a cultural thing, and it doesn’t stop at this topic. Those same women who are asking why you don’t have children are probably also the ones telling a teenager she is too fat and she needs to lose weight or else nobody will marry her. They are the ones judging our career choices and the way we dress and the decisions we make in our own homes. They are the gossipmongers. Neither Islam nor Judaism, nor any faith that I know of, condones this.
Shoshana: What you’re saying about bearing and raising children as a community act, especially when you’re in a religious community, really resonates with me. I think a lot about the extent to which we may be subconsciously influenced by the norms around us.
For me, it felt like a really personal path to having four kids. I would say the norm in my community when I was growing up was three kids (though some families I knew had fewer and a few had more), and just as my parents’ generation was influenced by that norm, I couldn’t see having fewer than three, to the extent I had a say in the matter. And then once we had three and they were all girls, I felt compelled to keep going because I did not want to end up with a classic oldest-middle-youngest sibling dynamic like I had growing up, that situation where kids get locked into these sibling roles that can sometimes be really inhibiting or destructive. So we went ahead and had a fourth.
And now she’s four, and I look at her and can’t believe that when my first two were that age, I also had to meet the needs of a two-year-old and a newborn at the same time! But I also sometimes wonder if we would have gone for a fifth if our fourth had been a boy, to keep him from getting too spoiled or to keep him company or for some other reason I haven’t even thought of.
While figuring out how many kids to have feels like such an intensely individual decision (or series of decisions), I look around me and see so many other modern Orthodox families, including many of our friends, with four kids too. And it’s not just the folks in my neighborhood; as of 2014, the birth rate for non-Haredi Orthodox Jews in Israel was an average of 4.2. So is that all just coincidence? Was it my and my husband’s decision or wasn’t it? We’re all individuals, obviously, but we’re also part of a community, and we absorb the norms we see around us. Sometimes it can be hard to disentangle those strands of ourselves.