Dear Rebbetzin Feige,
My wife and I have come to the conclusion that neither of us actually wants children. We simply have no desire to have them, and both of us seem to lack parental sentiments. We know we are supposed to procreate, and we are uncomfortable with rejecting teaching and tradition on this matter. We are concerned about what type of parents we would be if we were to have them. My wife grew up in a house with a singular lack of genuine parental affection (no doubt partly because her mother was too busy raising eight children on her own), and this background still causes her emotional problems. We wouldn't want to do that to children in turn.
What do you think?
Your concerns and hesitations to proceed with having a family are totally understandable given what you perceive as both your lack of parental sentiments and your wife's history of a less than emotionally satisfying and nurturing upbringing.
Unquestionably, a case can be made that children of "abusive" parents will perpetuate that behavior in the raising of their own offspring. However, as likely as that might be, it is far from a given or written in stone.
The hallmark of the human being is the ability to choose our responses regardless of past experiences.
The hallmark of the human being is free will, the ability to choose our responses regardless of past experiences. All of us have the power to break the patterns of our past. In fact, there are many instances where those who are personally familiar with pain resulting from the inadequate parenting skills of their own parents put forth greater effort to compensate for that deprivation by intense vigilance to the needs of their own children.
Awareness can give rise to deliberate and focused responses that have the potential to move us from pathology to a healthy place. Hence, "nurture" need not exclusively determine or dictate the terms of our existence. We are not rats in a Skinner Box, conditioned and programmed so that choice becomes meaningless.
Rita, a rising opera star, spent a Friday night enjoying Sabbath dinner at our home. Amidst all the exciting details of her forthcoming marriage, she shared that she had no intentions of having children. She explained that her mother had suffered a debilitating illness and had not been there for her during her formative years. Concerned about the possible genetic factor, she didn't want to place an emotionally compromised mother onto the next generation.
Looking at this bright, lovely and talented young woman I couldn't help but ask the obvious question: "In retrospect, given the deficient parenting of her mother, would she rather not have been born? Would she have preferred that her mother had made the choice not to have children?"
My brother-in-law, a prominent law professor, presented the following hypothesis in one of his ethics class: "An incarcerated prostitute suffering from venereal disease became pregnant. The father was an alcoholic whose prognosis for rehabilitation was non-existent. Would you advise an abortion?"
The class unanimously argued that an abortion was desirable. Professor Twerski then informed them that their verdict would have killed Beethoven.
Clearly, only the Master of the universe, in His inscrutable wisdom can fathom why events unfold as they do. Surely, if we were writing the script, there would be children born to the many couples who yearn so desperately and invest so much in that effort. Obviously, when that doesn't happen, painful as it is, the Almighty has determined that the gifts and talents of these people be expressed through other mediums and channels. Evidently, the Master of the universe has other designs of what their contribution to life needs to be.
You also refer to the lack of parental sentiments. There are many families who had no affinity or compelling desire for children, but the experience of actually having them changed the whole equation. Parental emotion and intuition that were heretofore unknown to them were sparked and kindled.
In a narcissistic society such as ours, it is important to evaluate, honestly and objectively, where the truth lies. Given the zeitgeist of our time, it would be easy to rationalize and interpret the inclination to be unencumbered, to be free to indulge and focus exclusively on ourselves as altruistic and idealistic concerns about competence and adequacy. Our culture is one of total preoccupation with self. Whatever encroaches on this pursuit is deemed an imposition to be avoided.
Clearly, parenting is a most challenging and demanding calling. It is consuming of time, energy and emotional input. With the advent of a family, life changes dramatically and requires many adjustments. Undoubtedly, there are unencumbered couples who are "enjoying" their status quo and don't want to rock their comfortable boat. Some will go the route of arguing the case for overpopulation and ecological concerns. In that instance, they might test the honesty of their position by considering the adoption option. There are many children out there who would benefit from a caring, nurturing home.
My dear reader correctly and sensitively intuits that for a Jew to deliberately choose to abstain from having children is not consistent with our tradition (barring physical, psychological or mental health issues that a reliable Torah authority would identify as counter indications). It is not much of a stretch to see in the natural order of God's world that the propagation of the species is mandated. Furthermore, logic and justice would dictate that it is only right that we pass on the privilege of life with which we were gifted and entrusted to the next generation.
To be cautiously apprehensive of the awesome role of parenting is legitimate. It is reminiscent of a story told of a community, who upon the passing of their elder Rabbi, sought the services of a young gifted scholar in their midst. The young man respectfully declined citing youth and inexperience. Moreover, the thought of leadership that would entail the possibility of misguiding the townspeople with ill-placed counsel threw him into a panic.
The townspeople, convinced of his sterling qualifications and moral stature, insisted that he was the worthy candidate. In view of his refusal, they decided to present the case for arbitration before the venerated Rabbi of a nearby community. The Rabbi heard the pleas of the community and then listened to the young candidate express his dread of not doing justice to so awesome a task.
The sage turned to the young man and poignantly asked, "Would you suggest that the job be given to someone who did not have the requisite awe and sense of responsibility that is required for this job?"
That reticence and hesitance that flows from an understanding of how massive a trust parenthood is, actually qualifies this couple in greater measure than those who entertain no such qualms. Concurrently, they need to know that all that is expected of any one of us is that we take life as it comes, do the best we can and pray abundantly for Heavenly assistance.
I wish them the best of everything, and shana tova!