Feminism has expanded our vision, our consciousness, and our sense of what’s possible. And it has left an imprint on the types of questions we ask about creating families: Do we want to have children? When? How are our choices shaped by socioeconomic and legal structures as well as by personal agency? How do we as a Jewish community respond to the changing ways people seek to form families? How can the Jewish community be a resource to people who face challenges in creating families that reflect their hopes and dreams?
In 1970, Shulamit Firestone, a Jewish feminist activist, wrote The Dialectic of Sex: The Case for Feminist Revolution. At the time of publication, the primary focus of the feminist movement centered on key issues that remain unresolved today: inequalities in the workplace, reproductive freedom and choice, and an end to sexual/gendered violence.
When I read Firestone’s work 25 years ago as an undergraduate, and found out she had grown up in an observant Jewish home, I felt excited to learn about another Jewish feminist thinker with a similar background. Firestone envisioned a world in which producing and raising children could be uncoupled from women’s bodies through the use of
technology. If women could become untethered from the biological exigencies of pregnancy and unshackled from cultural expectation to fulfill the “women’s work” of raising children, then women’s liberation could truly unfold. With science, education, and feminist liberation, women would be free to pursue their dreams and ambitions. The world would look radically different.
In 2014, technology, education, and feminism have indeed changed women’s lives, but not in ways that Firestone could have predicted.
Today, especially in most Jewish communities, girls and women aspire to attain higher education and pursue meaningful employment. Marriage and children are no longer the primary status markers of women’s lives. Marriage is becoming optional in terms of forming a family; people marry later in life, if at all.1 And family structures are changing. Children are raised by single parents (by choice or circumstance), or a couple, or within extended families — with different arrangements about custody and the division of labor.2 Sometimes, stepchildren are added along the way through uncoupling and recoupling. Marriage equality is still a contested legal right in many states, but that hasn’t prevented thousands of LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer) couples from having and raising children. Some individuals and families adopt children, and if they can afford it, some enlist a range of reproductive technologies that Firestone could only have dreamt about.
Family formation is the nexus where socioeconomic class, race, relationship status, technology, and reproductive politics collide. Not surprisingly, Jews are immersed in these emotional and ethically fraught conversations. And many Jews are struggling to navigate through the complexities of infertility, assisted reproductive technologies, surrogacy, and adoption.
In the United States, where family policy is characterized by an ethos of individualism, privacy, and the market, and is less family friendly, pursuing options to address infertility depends on socioeconomic class and personal economic resources. On the other hand, in Israel, which is a pro-natalist society, with an unabashed vested interest in creating more Jews, the state organizes and enables access to reproductive technologies based on nationality rather than socioeconomic class.
We need to talk more explicitly about socioeconomic class and family formation in American Jewish communal life. The economic capital required for in vitro fertilization, adoption, and surrogacy is staggering, and most Jews and their loved ones who pursue these measures wind up depleting or exhausting their resources. Some eventually give up their dreams of having children, and then encounter the stigma of being childless-not-by-choice.
The American Jewish community expresses periodic waves of anxiety about identity, continuity, and our collective Jewish future. We also offer plenty of Jewish resources to support and encourage families with children once those children are in the world. But there’s almost no structural support to assist people who want to have children when they face biological and economic difficulties. Why don’t we offer more support to create, adopt, and welcome more Jewish children into the world?
What resources (organizational, philanthropic, educational) might we harness to support Jewish family formation when people face fertility challenges? How might we support individuals, couples, and families to cope with the staggering costs of bringing Jewish children into the world? How might we collectively recognize and address the psychological, spiritual, and financial toll of people who yearn to have children and are struggling to do so? How might we alleviate, or at least ameliorate, the suffering and sense of isolation, stigma, and uncertainty that people
We could more creatively support Jewish families — in formation — if we had a collective vision to do so, and if we set new priorities for communal resources. We can do more, and we can do it better.
1 See, for example, the work of Stephanie Coontz: stephaniecoontz.com/articles/article92.htm
2 See Judith Stacey’s recent book, Unhitched: Love, Marriage, and Family Values from West Hollywood to Western China, New York University Press, 2011.email print