A third post in 24 hours. But this one hadn’t already been sitting as a draft for weeks:
When I was a newly ordained rabbi living with my partner (and then after a couple of years, wife), we were frequently asked about starting a family. Then when we had our first child, we were pressed regularly for our plans for another child. On the birth of our second child, having two daughters, we were asked if we were going to keep trying for a son.
It reached the point that we offered to keep a public diary of what we were doing in the bedroom so that congregants could keep track of our efforts (or lack of) to conceive.
Mine is one of those jobs that comes with the expected pressures of having a family – often heard is the belief that Judaism wants its rabbis to be scholars, husbands and fathers. And through which of course it is obvious that they should also be men. Such is the late antique view of the sage in Judaism…not the 21st century, or in fact even the 20th century. However, I was lucky that with a cheeky offer of sermonic updates of our sex lives I was able to put off further prying into our intentions to start a family.
In my studies, it is clear that the bedroom is an easy obsession for those with communal coercive power and authority to interpret religious norms. It is almost as if in the absence of any real power, the rabbis imagine they exert an inordinate amount of control and interest over the bedrooms of Jews of late antiquity. Progressive Judaism, as the product of the enlightenment, recognises the sovereignty of women over their own bodies and the values of ‘a right to privacy’ and of ‘lashon hara’ (gossip) mean that it is not our place to discuss their choices.
I wasn’t sure how to put this, because it is obviously sensitive and it is something that affects so many people. And many people have been deeply pained and endure long lasting scars. In my job I have met women who wanted children and quickly conceived with a life partner, women who did not want children and quickly conceived too. Women who have agonised over seeking to have children even if they did not have a partner with whom to raise them. Women who do not want children. Women who have turned to fertility support for all sorts of reasons. Women who have endured enormous emotional struggles, often silently, with repeated cycles of hope and grief in failed cycles. I’ve met women who were bereft because they could not have children or who have lost a child. Women who have adopted. Women who have not told me because it is none of my bloody business.
But in all my meetings with all of these women, there is one thing I can say for sure: There was not one moment in which I thought “hmm, they do/don’t have children, maybe they’re not able to do their jobs or demonstrate competency in any area of life”. Because you know, I’m living in the 21st century.
I feel like it behoves us all to publicly state our outrage about the Sunday Times focus on ‘Childless [WOMEN] Politicians’, and recognise that this is only representative of the wider debate revealed by the Leadsom/May leadership race, Nicola Sturgeon’s sense of need to reveal her miscarriage – possibly in part a response to the New Statesman front page in 2015.
It’s not just a media issue though – the public bear some responsibility for their interest. Just like the public who wanted to know when/whether my wife was pregnant because (duh!) obviously the rabbi’s private life is expected to be suitable for public gossip. But I also think politicians bear a certain responsibility too. In 2012 when Jeremy Hunt took over as health secretary it felt like one of his first pronouncements was about the limit on when a termination of pregnancy should be permissible. It felt like that was his priority. It’s time a woman’s fertility, her uterus and her choices and absence of choice about parenthood were not made convenient footballs for selling papers, gaining political advantage or assuming a moral high ground.
I can’t even think of an equivalent for men – the mirroring of childless male politicians just doesn’t seem the same.
There’s an addendum to all of this too. Whilst the 21st century is an age in which, ideally, a woman’s fertility has no bearing on her professional life, there is a reality which is much harder to navigate. Societal structures are clearly not evenly balanced when it comes to aspects of career development and having a family for men and women. That would be a debate to have.