For the first 38 years of my life, I had no desire for children.
This was an attitude I shared with most of my friends. On my bedroom dresser stood a studio portrait of "The Herd" -- the six close friends I had grown up with and me -- taken just before our graduation from high school. We were all intelligent, talented, highly motivated Jewish girls from suburban South Jersey. By the time the seven of us hit 37, only two of us were married with children.
I had spent my adult life -- from the day after I graduated college until then -- living in an ashram, a Hindu-style monastic community, so, of course, children were not an option for me. But what about my friends?
I sometimes wondered why children were nowhere on their list of priorities. We had all grown up in loving, close-knit families. In that era when divorce was still so rare as to be a shanda, a disgrace, our parents were models of harmonious, family-centered couples. Why didn't we want to emulate them?
In the beginning, it was not so much a rejection of having children as a postponement. Barbara had to first finish law school and put in a few years establishing her law career. Marlene, a card-carrying socialist, was working in the inner city saving black kids. Brenda was expressing herself in theater. Shelly was trying to implement "open classroom" techniques in her 3rd grade suburban schoolroom. There was plenty of time later to decide whether to become a mother.
I was riding on a ramshackle bus in Darjeeling, India, in the fall of my 31st year when I made my final decision not to have children. I was traveling with Jairam, the ashram's caretaker. Sitting there as the bus bumped through the streets of Darjeeling, in the foothills of the Himalayas, Jairam asked me, "So, you're satisfied never to have children?"
Having children meant leaving the ashram, being exiled from my spiritual paradise. On the other hand, I felt my biological clock winding down. In those days, few women had their first child past thirty. I did not want to leave the ashram for some unforeseen reason in my mid-thirties, only to find that I had missed my last chance to bear a child. The "never" in Jairam's question echoed in my heart.
The truth was that I was not particularly fond of children. I did not buy into the mentality that all children are innocent, sweet, and lovable just because of their juvenile status. To "love children" as a group was to me as inane as loving all New Englanders or all redheads.
I believed then in reincarnation, that souls come back into this world again and again, each time bearing the luggage of previous lifetimes. Jack the Ripper as a toddler was neither innocent nor adorable, of this I was sure. How did I know if that rambunctious five-year-old darting around with his nose running wouldn't grow up to be a murderer or rapist, or had been a Nazi the last time around? What was so endearing about a small body with a nasty occupant?
Why should I squander my education and talents on diapering babies?
Besides, in a certain sense I felt that raising children was intellectually beneath me. Any high school drop-out could procreate. I disdained parenting as a plebeian pastime. At that point, I was administering the ashram, was in charge of its considerable investments, and running its publishing department. Why should I squander my education and talents on diapering babies?
If I condescended to bear children, how many years would have to pass, how many sleepless nights endured, before I could even have an intelligent conversation with my offspring? I equated parenting with putting my intellect into suspended animation, to be thawed out only at their high school graduation. Let those cut out for "coochie, coochie, coo" wile away a decade of their lives. I despised baby talk.
Moreover, I subscribed to the Hindu-Buddhist worldview that this world is a locus of suffering. What favor was it to other souls to bring them into this vale of tears? Although I, in fact, had had as happy a childhood as anyone could have (given the inherent anguish of rejected crushes and acne), in college I had realized how miserable most human beings are. Why subject anyone, let alone my own children, to a stint in the detention facility known as this world?
So, staring out the window at the distant Himalayas, I answered Jairam with quiet conviction: "Yes, having children is not for me. My life belongs at the ashram."
At the age of 37, for unforeseen reasons [see "From India to Israel" ], I left the ashram and went to Jerusalem to study Torah. I loved the depth and profundity of my classes, the religious Jews I met -- all sincere spiritual aspirants, the spiritually quickened atmosphere of Jerusalem, and especially the wise and compassionate teachers. In the whole scene, which reminded me of India in the 60s, only one thing really bothered me: the given that everyone who could marry would marry and have children.
I balked. I had invested my entire adult life in pursuing a certain goal -- enlightenment. The ashram had taught me that children and spiritual practices were incompatible. Even here, in my rented apartment in the Old City of Jerusalem, I rose early, spent one hour doing yoga and meditating, and another two hours praying the Jewish morning prayers, meditating on the deep import of every word. This regime would be impossible with a crying baby or a meddlesome toddler. I was not willing to throw 17 years of arduous spiritual practice into the diaper pail.
In my gut I was still convinced that children and spiritual attainment were mutually exclusive.
I took my dilemma to Rabbi Yitzhak Ginsburgh, a highly respected Kabbalist whose weekly class in English I zealously attended.
"I'm afraid that if I have children, I will forfeit all my spirituality," I complained.
Rabbi Ginsburgh looked at me as if I had made a preposterous equation, as if I had said, "I am afraid that if I get a job, I'll lose all my money."
He then launched into a Kabbalistic explanation (much of which left me far behind) of why bringing souls down into this world is the spiritually highest thing that human beings can do. "Souls come from the highest of the ten sefirot -- the channels of Divine energy that are manifest in the world. When a husband and wife unite in holiness, they conceive a soul which descends from the highest of the ten sefirot, keter, or 'crown.' The level of keter is in no other way accessible to human beings."
Mulling over Rabbi Ginsburgh's words on the bus home, the one message that stuck in my head was: Yes, even a high school drop-out can bring a child down into this world. For that matter, even a high school drop-out can win the lottery. That doesn't make the jackpot any less glorious.
But I still resisted. In my gut I was still convinced that children and spiritual attainment were mutually exclusive, like children and a clean house. I decided to take my predicament to my ultimate spiritual advisor, the Hassidic Rebbe of Amshonav.
The Amshinover Rebbe embodied the spiritual greatness I was striving to attain. He meditated deeply on every word of every prayer, taking a full two hours to pray the Grace after Meals, which most Jews zip through in five minutes. So long did it take him to complete the extensive Shabbat prayers, with all his Kabbalistic meditations on every word, that he usually ended Shabbat on Tuesday.
I had seen the holy Rebbe three times before, always in the middle of the night. The procedure was to request and be granted an appointment on a particular night, then on that night, around midnight, to go to the Rebbe's tiny third floor apartment in the Jerusalem neighborhood of Bayit Vegan, and to patiently wait one's turn. At between 3 and 4 in the morning, the frosted glass doors to the dining room, where the Rebbe received his visitors, would slide open, and his attendant would gesture to me to enter.
When I requested an appointment this time, however, I was informed that the Rebbe was now seeing people only during the day and to be there promptly at 2:45 in the afternoon.
The apartment looked totally different with the Rebbe's family (7 daughters at that time) awake and about. Two daughters with long, dark braids passed me on their way to the minuscule kitchen. When the attendant ushered me into the dining room, I noticed a baby in a pink stretchy standing up in a playpen in the far corner of the room.
The Rebbe and the baby were both peering earnestly at me.
The Rebbe rushed in (he always walks fast) and sat down directly across the dining room table from me. I was ready with my question: "Wouldn't taking care of babies be an obstacle to my spiritual attainment?" But before either of us could speak, the baby in the corner started to wail.
"Excuse me," the Rebbe said, jumping up. He rushed over to the playpen, lifted up the baby, quieted her, carried her back to the table, and sat down again facing me, the baby in his lap.
"Now, what was your question?" the Rebbe asked me kindly, both he and the baby peering earnestly at me.
My question froze in my mouth. Seeing the holiest person I knew involved in the very activity I disdained made me feel that God Himself was rebutting my argument.
Despite my lingering doubts, my subconscious resistance to motherhood, I decided to take a leap of faith into the abyss of marriage and children, hoping that it would be okay. I started to go out with eligible men, embarking on a path that leads to only one destination: the chupah.
THE COPERNICAN REVOLUTION
Once I had committed myself to the path of raising a family, I became more aware of what lay behind my qualms in the first place.
It had always mystified me why my friends and I, who had enjoyed such happy home lives, should shrink from passing the favor along to another generation. I could understand abused children who vowed never to procreate. But we had been showered with all the love that unsophisticated middle class Jewish parents lavished on their offspring, plus all the material benefits and pre-Prozac security that the 1950s bestowed on its children. Why were we so averse to replicating our own experience?
It dawned on me that we couldn't replicate our own experience.
We had been the doted upon center of our parents' universe. In my case, born when my mother was 37 and my father 44, I was, like in a Hassidic tale, the beloved child of their old age. My parents adored me and my brother (21 months my senior).
My father worked a 12-hour day in the drug store to earn enough to pay for our art lessons, piano lessons, and horse-back riding lessons. (He would have sprung for voice lessons, too, had the voice teacher not announced that I was hopeless.)
My parents saved every spare penny, never going out to eat or indulging in hobbies, for our college education. My mother devoted her every waking hour to cooking the dishes we loved, making the house comfortable for us, helping us with our homework, etc., etc. I remember at the age of 12, my mother taking me shopping in Philadelphia and buying me the latest fake-fur coat, while she herself wore a cloth coat that was almost as old as I was. She betrayed no sense of martyrdom. It was truly her joy.
If I had children, far from replicating my own experience, I would be turning it inside out. Nothing less than a Copernican revolution: I had been the center of my parents' universe. Having children (I knew instinctively from my own parents) meant making them the center, and relegating myself to a faithful orbit around them.
Hardest of all, I would have to relinquish my sense of control.
My needs would be secondary to theirs. My preferences would submit to theirs. Vacations would be theme parks and kiddie amusements, not relaxing getaways in nature. Going to the beach would mean building sandcastles and jumping the waves, not reading a book and swimming out deep. Surrendering my role as protagonist in my own life would be as difficult as the prima donna stepping back to sing with the chorus while awarding the aria to her own skinny, prepubescent daughter.
Hardest of all, I would have to relinquish my sense of control. Children were unpredictable. My schedule to go to bed at 11:30 and get up at 6:30 would not assure me seven hours of sleep, not with teething toddlers, not with nightmare-plagued five-year-olds. No expensive new dress was immune to the stains of chocolate covered hands. No immaculately cleaned room would withstand ten minutes of ransacking for a misplaced toy. No carefully planned excursion would resist the sheer hell of squabbling adolescents.
I was used to life in the boardroom: polite discourse and mutual acknowledgment, presided over by reason and efficiency. Children were like life in the barnyard: dirt and pandemonium presided over by brute instinct.
As I continued to meet various eligible men, I became aware of a still deeper dread which welled up in me whenever I imagined myself as a mother. Had a Freudian psychiatrist asked me to free-associate the word, "children," I would have responded: "vulnerable little beings who can die."
For years I had had the sense, bolstered by experiences and dreams, that I was a reincarnated soul from the Holocaust. I felt like I had been through the horror of seeing my children die in front of me. The most frightening prospect of loving and devoting myself to my children was the possibility, hanging like a suspended sword, that they could die. In the end, this, more than anything, fueled my resistance to pouring my life and love into a vessel as fragile as a child.
Then one night, 14 months after I moved to Jerusalem, I had a dream where, in the recesses of my subconscious mind, I put to rest this last remaining issue. When I woke up, much to my own surprise, I sat straight up in bed and said, "Now I can get married and have children."
Two months later, I met a 39-year-old musician from California. We got married a month shy of my 39th birthday. At the age of forty, I gave birth to my first child, a daughter.
My overwhelming feelings during my first months of motherhood were delight and surprise. Holding my baby in my arms, I felt such sheer joy every day that I would break out into laughter. Not a polite snicker, but an open-mouthed, head-back laughter. Always followed by the question: "Why didn't anyone tell me it would be this wonderful?"
The first time my baby smiled, I felt like I had just won a million dollars.
The first time my baby smiled, as I carried her one day from her crib to the changing table, I felt like I had just won a million dollars. A surge of such jubilation filled me that I thought I would fly, just levitate straight off the floor.
When I would nurse my baby, I felt a sense of total contentment, of potential realized. Being replacing a lifetime of becoming.
I would wonder: How could I have ever thought that this is mindless drudgery? I felt like all my creativity was being tapped in order to distract the baby when she got fussy, to stimulate her developing brain, to avoid the pitfalls of parenting. I had administered an organization, written a 640-page book, delivered weekly lectures to adulating audiences, but nothing I had ever done gave me the sheer joy and satisfaction of raising my baby.
Nothing impinged on this heady exultation. Even when I would change her diaper, the activity which had stigmatized motherhood for me, I would be filled with wonder at how the milk which she sucked from me (itself a miraculous substance) would somehow feed all her diverse millions of cells and then be eliminated through an alimentary system so perfect and elegant in design. As I pinned her clean diaper on (I was an aficionado of cotton diapers), I would feel like I was tripping on love -- love for my baby, love for her Creator, love for my blessed, ever so blessed, life.
But together with joy and surprise was another feeling: a sense of how close I had come to missing all this. What if I had stayed at the ashram another few years? What if I had not reversed my decision not to bear children? It would have been like having a winning lottery ticket and tossing it out with the credit card receipts and scraps of paper that accumulate at the bottom of my purse. I would never have known that the jackpot was mine.