As an advice columnist for several Jewish newspapers, I have frequently seen a particularly delicate issue arise: the tensions between mother and daughter when the daughter chooses not to have children. With more women than ever choosing to remain childfree, I teamed up with a young colleague and friend, Emily Jaeger, for a sample conversation that a mother and daughter could have to explore the feelings of both generations.
When a mother is ready to become a grandmother but a daughter is not ready or interested in becoming a mother, one or both sides may feel pressured to bite their tongue. Over coffee and croissants (and a lot less baggage, since we’re not related!), Emily and I un-bit our tongues to hash out this issue in the hopes of inspiring other mothers and daughters to have similar conversations.
Me, as the mother: I want grandchildren so my genes will survive. I think you are terrific and worth replicating. As a Jew, I don’t want us to die off. I guess I’ve drunk the Kool-Aid of “Dor l’dor,” or “from generation to generation.” Reproducing isn’t our only role, but it’s an important one. Who are we to mess with nature?
Emily, as the daughter: Nature is not so clear cut! But, more important, I think you are raising an important question: Is childbirth about fulfilling both Jewish and evolutionary continuity or is it about my body as an individual? For me, childbirth isn’t my role; it’s my decision. Mother, when you fought for women’s equality and the right to choose, you were fighting because you wanted, as a woman, to have ownership over your own body. I’m not saying grandchildren are completely off the table; I am just asking for the same consideration as I make my decision. I have to be rational: As a young adult and a writer living in this day and age, I face economic challenges. Both my partner and I need to work to cover living expenses, and I’m worried about how a child will affect my time and energy to pursue my art. I am not ready to compromise my goals as a writer. I am also worried about how having a child will affect the relationship I am trying to build with my partner.
Mother: When I hear you make all the rational arguments of why not to have children—time, money, exhaustion—I agree. The problem is you are making an emotional decision with rational tools. You ask, “Why would I want to do something so messy, unpleasant, exhausting and with no guarantees?” But there are no guarantees about careers, friendships or lovers, either. Children stretch you to the ends of your being. There is nothing else you will do, no graduate degree or career path, that will force you unwillingly to learn. You will grow in good ways and bad. You will love more than you ever thought possible. If you don’t try to have children, I feel you are missing one of the most profound experiences of life. We all have the “center of the universe” complex and children momentarily make us forget that narcissism. Children make us see beyond ourselves. This self-knowledge will help you understand others. If you tried and could not conceive, I would understand and applaud you for trying. But not trying—this rankles me.
Daughter: I don’t believe that childbirth is the only way to combat narcissism and see beyond myself. I believe that community service, art, education and even leading in political office are just some of the myriad ways that I could and do see beyond myself. As a community organizer in the Jewish literary community and previously in the Peace Corps, I have had life-changing experiences of expansion of self, not just from one child, but rather from an entire community. Moving to a different country, learning a new language and then working together with Paraguayans to implement sustainable agriculture, for example, not only helped me understand others but also changed my own life goals. I would not have been able to join the Peace Corps with a young child, and, similarly, having children would limit my time and energy to contribute to the Boston community.
Mother: But unless you have children I can’t become a grandmother. Your decisions affect my status. Sure, I could love other people’s kids, and I do, but I can’t move on to the next stage, the next title, the longed-for stage of life. I know I’m not supposed to take it personally, but I wonder what I did wrong to make you think becoming a mother is not worthwhile?
Daughter: It’s not what you did wrong; it’s what you did right. Being a good parent was never about status for you. It was about love. As a young child I watched you lovingly and selflessly orient your time and energy to raising me and my siblings. I learned from you what it looks like to be a good parent, and I’m not sure that is what I want for my life right now. In the meantime, just as I could adopt kids, I urge you to look for opportunities to “adopt” grandchildren and share the love and education that you gave me growing up with children who might not have that force in their lives. Even though we don’t agree right now, I love that we are able to be honest with each other, and I hope to continue this conversation in the future.
Mother: I love you and support you, but part of being supportive is being honest. I am disappointed. I will get over it, and I feel better now that I know you have truly heard my concerns…but I still want you to have children.
Dr. Ruth Nemzoff, author of “Don’t Bite Your Tongue: How to Foster Rewarding Relationships with Your Adult Children” and “Don’t Roll Your Eyes: Making In-Laws into Family,” is a resident scholar at the Brandeis Women’s Studies Research Center. She is an advice columnist for the Jewish Journal and the Forward’s Seesaw column.
Emily Jaeger is an MFA candidate at UMass Boston and co-editor/co-founder of Window Cat Press. A Lambda Literary and Tent: Encounters with Jewish Culture fellow, her poetry has appeared in Four Way Review, Soundings East and apt, among others. Her chapbook, “The Evolution of Parasites,” was published by Sibling Rivalry Press in June 2016.