By Melanie Notkin, JTA World News Service
NEW YORK (JTA) — We had just closed our Haggadahs to begin the dinner portion of the Passover seder when the conversation abruptly, yet not surprisingly, turned to my singlehood.
There is a curiosity to some about a single, childless woman in her early 40s, and a guest at the table, a married mother of three, couldn’t hold hers in. The Four Questions all single women of a certain age know by heart were about to begin:
“You’ve never been married?” the woman asked as the youngest of her three children tugged on her sleeve and she sat him on her lap.
“No,” I responded, hoping my frank, curt answer would shorten the conversation.
“Were you ever engaged?” she continued, as if, at the very least, a broken engagement might validate my ability to commit and marry, or to be loved and desired.
“No,” I said, now with a bitter taste in my mouth.
“But you want kids, right?” she asked pointedly, while cradling her son in her arms, as if I didn’t know that it’s easier to become a mother when you have a potential father for those potential children.
“I’ve always wanted children,” I replied. “Very much.” She had no idea of the amount of salty tears I’ve cried over my childlessness, I thought to myself.
My new friend re-fastened the yarmulke on her son’s head, reminding me of the expectations of a Jewish woman to bear Jewish children. She looked up at me with the final question:
“So is it you or is it them?” She wanted to know who was to blame, but I wouldn’t take the bait.
“I just hasn’t happened, yet.” I said. “It’s no one’s fault.”
I know this is true. Childlessness at a later age is a growing trend in America, and certainly among Jewish women. Nearly 50 percent of American women are childless, up from 35 percent a generation ago in 1976. Jewish women are more likely than the average American woman to remain single and childless until their mid-30s.
That’s because Jewish women are also more likely to have a college degree and, like most college-educated American women, we are more likely to marry later. And just like our non-Jewish peers, we are also more likely to become mothers only once married — or at least living with our partner.
I never expected I’d be one of those who wouldn’t marry during my most fertile years. And while I hold no judgment on those who marry outside of Judaism, it was always a deal-breaker for me. Jewish women carry the Jewish babies, and we carry the Jewish guilt of keeping our heritage going.
Those of us, among the most well-educated, most financially independent Jewish women, who remain single and childless as our fertile years wane, are often made to feel like we’ve broken a promise to all Jews. It is our mandate: Get married to a Jewish man and have Jewish children. The unwritten promise of our having children works both ways; we expected it to happen, and others expect it of us.
Back at the seder table, the married mother still wasn’t satisfied; there must be a reason I haven’t lived up to my end of the deal.
“Were you too focused on your career?” she asked.
“I have to work, of course,” I told her, adding that I always found time for meeting men and dating. “Besides, we women are pretty good multi-taskers,” I said, nodding toward the seder hostess, a married mom who is also partner at her law firm.
“Then you must be picky,” the woman insisted. “There is no such thing as Prince Charming, you know.”
“It’s enough, dear,” her husband said, perhaps wondering if his wife thought she hadn’t been very picky in choosing him. I thought it gallant of him to try and save me from his wife’s inquisition.
“I just think that if a woman is smart and attractive, she should be married and have children,” she argued like I was no longer in the room. Turning back to me, she added: “I’m sure you have lots of dates. I hope you find one you can settle down with soon.”
“I promise,” I said, just happy we were done. But my promise wasn’t for her. It was for me. I promise to never settle to settle down. Love isn’t a gift for those who deserve it, but a reward for those who wait for it. And while the unmarried, childless woman of a certain age waits for the right relationship, she isn’t waiting for life to happen to her. She finds great meaning in her beautiful, gratifying life of other things.
Despite all my good intentions and efforts, I may never make it to the Promised Land of motherhood. And while that promise may be broken, I never will be.
Love and marriage is a promise I will always keep for myself. And as I look out over the future, I see it waiting for me there.
Melanie Notkin is the author of “Otherhood: Modern Women Finding A New Kind of Happiness” and “Savvy Auntie: The Ultimate Guide for Cool Aunts, Great-Aunts, Godmothers, and All Women Who Love Kids.” She’s the founder of the lifestyle brand Savvy Auntie.