Spend time in Israel, and before long, you’ll notice that the country is crazy for kids. Playgrounds abound, children are everywhere at all hours, and every woman in her 20s or 30s appears to be pushing a stroller, with at least a couple of children trailing after her.
The average Israeli woman today has about three children over her lifetime, nearly double the rate of the rest of the developed world. Israel also has one of the highest rates of infertility treatment. These figures are only partly accounted for ultra-Orthodox Jewish women, who have especially large families. Fertility rates among less religious, even secular Jewish women in Israel are also higher than in other industrialized countries. A recent report on Israel’s Channel 10 news titled “Four Is the New Three” suggested there is a trend for secular Jewish women in Israel to have large families, perhaps to signify wealth and status.
According to the Central Bureau of Statistics, fertility rates among Muslim Israeli women are similarly high but have actually fallen substantially, with women having on average one fewer child than they did at the turn of the millennium. For the Druze and Christian populations in Israel, birth rates have also declined slightly and sit at just over two children. Birth rates have also dropped in neighboring countries, such as Syria and Jordan. Yet in the same period, birth rates for Israeli Jewish women have ticked upward. Jewish Israelis, it seems, are especially ardent in their zeal for children.
Many reasons have been cited for the higher-than-usual degree of pro-natalism in Israel, including the Jewish command to “be fruitful and multiply,” the memory of the Holocaust, and the perceived demographic threat posed by the Palestinian population and surrounding Arab countries.
In this context, it simply isn’t acceptable for a Jewish Israeli woman to say she doesn’t want to be a mother, or perhaps even worse, that she regrets having become one.
But Orna Donath, and others are talking, making what is still considered a subversive argument in Israel: that not wanting to be a mother is perfectly acceptable. Now a sociologist at Ben Gurion University, Donath devoted her doctoral thesis to the topic, conducting in-depth interviews with Jewish Israeli women who did not want to be mothers.
More recently, she wrote Regretting Motherhood, for which she interviewed Israeli women who said that, if they had the chance to do things differently, they would not have become mothers. As with her thesis, the women, though all Jewish, came from a variety of backgrounds: religious and secular; Ashkenazi and Sephardi; upper, middle, and working class. The book has already been published in several languages, with more to come, and the English version will be out July 11.
For Donath, shining a light on these issues is essential to reduce the stigma around voluntary childlessness, especially in a country as fervently pro-natal as Israel. Women in Israel who don’t want to be mothers, she said, are routinely condemned. “The perception is that they are immature, irresponsible, narcissistic, and, most of all, not human,” she wrote in an email.
In a country where people are not shy about sharing their opinions, women who say they don’t want to be mothers get an earful. “The general reaction is that I’m nuts,” said feminist activist Bracha Barad. People react so strongly, she said, it’s as if they take her decision not to have children personally: “They feel it rocks their core beliefs.”
Maya, an Israeli woman who manages a Facebook group for people who don’t want to be parents and asked that her last name not be used, said many women are told, “It’s not natural not to want children.” Men in the group rarely hear such comments, she said, and generally, receive far less criticism than women do for not wanting to be parents.
The fact that infertility treatment is so accessible in Israel only fuels the condemnation of women who don’t want to have children, Donath argues. Under Israeli law, insurance will cover as many cycles of in vitro fertilization treatment as necessary for a woman under 45 to produce two children. This level of government funding doesn’t exist anywhere else in the world. “This policy—as much as it can be seen as beautiful because it helps women follow their dream—created a reality in which if women don’t use these technologies, then they are ‘bad women’ or not devoted enough,” Donath said.
In Israel, it is simply assumed that women want to have children, say researchers who study motherhood and fertility. “Making and raising children is a national Israeli sport,” Larissa Remennick, a sociologist at Bar-Ilan University, wrote in an email. “The wish to mother is expected by default from all women, regardless of their education, careers and other achievements,” she explained. Women who defy these rigid expectations sometimes feel like pariahs, said Maya: “It’s really hard to be the one who doesn’t want to be a mother in a country where there is a straight path from kindergarten to high school to the army to marriage to children.”
Not wanting to be a mother carries a stigma in other in other countries, said Donath, even if it is more common. When she visited Germany following the 2016 publication of Regretting Motherhood, she said, many women told her that their families disapproved of their desire not to have children. “There is still an explicit hierarchy between ‘mother’ and ‘non-mother,’” she said.
In Israel, Donath is encouraged to see people discussing voluntary childlessness more openly than in the past. “In the last few years more and more women are talking about it and are able to say that they don’t want to be mothers,” said Donath.
This shift is reflected in the language people use to talk about people who don’t want to have children, said Maya. The Hebrew word for voluntary childlessness, al-horut (literally “non-parenthood”), didn’t even exist until members on an online forum created it about 12 years ago. These days, she said, most people are familiar with the word.
Still, said Remennick, much of the conversation about motherhood and fertility in Israel remains decidedly pro-natal. “There is a stream of TV reports and documentaries that discuss why Israel is so different from other countries,” she said, “but there is little negative information on the costs of motherhood for women and problematic ramifications of large families with few resources,” such as child neglect and poverty.
Moreover, Remennick said, “it still requires a lot of courage for a woman to declare that she isn’t interested in mothering.” In more liberal circles in Israel, she said, perhaps some women feel comfortable deciding not to become mothers—or they might simply delay motherhood until an age when it becomes difficult or impossible to get pregnant.
Donath agrees that there is a lot more work to be done to change preconceived notions about motherhood. People often assume, for example, that women who don’t want to be mothers are extremely career-driven, but this isn’t always true. “I yearn for the day when women will be able not to be mothers without proving anything in return,” she said.
People should also stop assuming there is something wrong with a woman who doesn’t want to be a mother—that she had a bad relationship with her parents, or worse, a traumatic childhood—and simply see it as a legitimate choice, Maya said.
More than anything, said Donath, people need to acknowledge that women can assume a wide range of identities, which may or may not include motherhood. “Just because women have the same reproductive organs, that doesn’t mean that we all have the same dreams, fantasies, abilities, desires, and needs,” she said.
Until that acknowledgment comes, these women will keep talking—a fact that irks some. People sometimes press Donath: Why write an entire book about regretting motherhood? Shouldn’t we move forward, not dwell on the past?
But Donath insists it’s important to talk about regret in the context of motherhood. Her research has found women who don’t want to be mothers are frequently told they’ll regret the choice eventually. “At the same time, almost nobody talks about the possibility that mothers might also regret,” she said.
This error of omission has real consequences: “If the only story being told says that all women want to be mothers and all women look back and appreciate motherhood as worthwhile,” said Donath, “then society is trapped in a very damaging lie that hurts many of us,” she said, including women who may feel pressured to have children.
To counteract that damage, she and other Israeli women are telling a different story, in which women thrive without being mothers. “I keep talking about it because I think maybe somebody out there hasn’t thought of this option,” Maya said. “You don’t have to have children. You can choose to be different.”
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