Thursday, 26 April 2012

Back to Life, Back to Reality

a rekel
Mr. CL and I visited Israel together for the first time about five years ago when we went for my brother's wedding. While waiting at the gate, a small group of very Orthodox passengers caught our attention. They really stood out. It wasn't just how they looked - the skinny men with pale complexions and wiry  beards wearing black hats and rekels, accompanied by relatively attractive women,* and a couple of babies; or that they weren't speaking English or French (it may have been Yiddish, but it was not Mr. CL's Bubbie's Yiddish). They stood out partially for that, but also because they were in a tizzy over something that they were trying explain to the airport staff. They were possibly trying to arrange separate seating - but I don't really know.

In any case, when we got our seats, a few of the women from the group were seated near us, and soon another came by to talk to her friends. She had a baby with her, and I offered her  my seat. We chatted a bit as I balanced on the arm rest. She was a pretty woman with a black bob sheitel, and looked young, around my age - I didn't think she was older than thirty. I asked her if the baby was her first. My jaw almost hit the ground when she said, "No it's my tenth" . . or eighth, or twelfth - I don't remember exactly, but it was some really big number. Then she asked me how many kids I had. I told her we didn't have kids yet. She looked at me and asked point blank, "Isn't your life meaningless without children?"

The question bothered me more than a tactless-question-from-a-stranger-on-a-plane should have. I had recently been told by my OB that I may not be able to get pregnant naturally, and, in my mind I was second guessing everything. Mr. CL and I had been together since I was 19. We dated for about six years before we got married and decided to start a family two years after that. Mr. CL is the practical one of the two of us and balances my head-in-the-clouds daydreaming disposition. He wanted to make sure we were done school, and had all of our ducks in a row before getting married, and certainly before we would start having children.  Nevertheless, after hearing the doctor's news, and plagued a bit by my mother's stories of how she struggled to get pregnant, I questioned whether we should have waited so long. Maybe we should have gotten married sooner? Maybe I would need years of fertility treatment, but had we started trying earlier I would have had kids by now?  Maybe I'd missed the boat and would not be able to ever conceive? Maybe the Aish way of life was right? I mumbled some lame answer to the woman on the plane, but her question gnawed at me the rest of the trip.

It shouldn't have. It shouldn't have for several reasons.

1) Asking about "meaningfulness" implies that the question being asked is a philosophical one, but her question was actually a psychological one. What she was really asking was how can I derive meaning or feel meaningful without children. At the time, the question stung because it hit a psychological chord, but had she asked at a different point in my life, the question would have registered as ridiculous (i.e. did she really derive her sense of meaning solely from her children?). My tacit agreement/consideration of the lady's question, stemmed from my stress around the idea of not being able to attain something that I desperately wanted, and that was also - for me- tied in with my sense of womanhood. When the doctor told me I would have trouble conceiving I felt betrayed by my body, and, a few years later, when we did struggle to conceive, that irrational feeling of betrayal reemerged.

2) We got pregnant with Mini CL right away. (Which Mr. CL attributes in part to the volume of pheromones from those ladies on the plane.) And although that doesn't change any philosophical arguments about whether or not life is more meaningful with children, psychologically it did change things for me. While pregnant, the lady's question still haunted me. (Maybe I had wasted my twenties? Maybe I would have the deep sense of fulfillment that she seemed to if I had had lots of children by now?) But, once I had had Mini CL, and the reality of all the amazing things that having a baby entails was combined with the reality of the not as amazing things (a long and excruciating labor, difficult postpartum recovery and what in retrospect I think was postpartum depression, barely functioning on little to no sleep, and not knowing when said sleep would happen, negotiating lack-of-sleep induced stress as a couple, then temper tantrums etc.) I realized that prior to having kids I had not an iota of a clue of what life was going to be like to be a as parent. Not. A. Clue. .  . . . What can I say? For us, parenthood was definitely a culture shock. On that plane, drowning in self doubt, I didn't know yet whether the mother of many role would be one that I'd love because I did not know yet what it was like to be a mother. Now that I have two kids, I have a better idea.

3) Before I go on: PLEASE do not read that the wrong way. I am EXTREMELY grateful for my kids, and love being mom to both of my wonderful, and perfect, and funny, and beautiful, and all around awesome kids . . . who are geniuses, of course!! (Even when they give me a run for my money and refuse to get into the car, or sleep through the night.) But, would I be content if  mother was the only title I earned? No. My fulfillment comes from my children AND from the other aspects of my life.Once I had my children, I was very grateful to have had them when I did. I am glad my husband in all his wisdom insisted I finish my degree before we get married, and now that my mat leave is coming to an end, I am ready - so ready - to go back to work, and am happy to have work (that I enjoy) to go back to. In other words, because things have turned out okay, and because I had romanticized life with children, and because I find fulfillment in my career, my hobbies, my interactions with family and friends, travel, and in other aspects of my life, the answer to all my "Maybe" questions on the plane is: no.

Especially now that I know the hard work it takes to raise children well - even at the best of times, I really am impressed by people who have so many children. Kudos to that lady for being able to find a deep sense of fulfillment in motherhood alone. Nevertheless, her life is not for me. And yes, I know  she is in part a product of her environment/upbringing as I am of mine, but ultimately our lives are both meaningful to us because we deem them meaningful. And, within the contexts of our lives, we assign meaning. Also, in my opinion, a sense of meaningfulness reflects a psychological state of contentment, and - psychologists correct me if I'm wrong -  most mentally healthy human beings seek contentment. And - it should go without saying - contentment is not an exclusive byproduct of having children.

The last few weeks have been hectic. In part because of Passover, and in part because Baby CL started daycare  - my big little girl! (And, in my experience, transitions from one place to another are always more labor intensive than either place alone.) Starting work will probably mean I won't be able to blog as frequently, but I am going to make an effort to keep the blog alive and post as much as I can. I hope you will continue to watch this space. On that note, the combination of being imitation-frum for Passover and starting Baby CL in daycare, got me to revisit a question I had wanted to ask the lady on the plane, but didn't have the nerve. So - yay for anonymity on the internet, and that Question! will be my next post. . . .

*Dating advice from Mr. CL - he swears by this theory: If you are a man who is below average in looks - let's say between a one  to five on a scale of ten, the best way to score a woman of average of above average looks -i.e. a seven to ten - is to become religious.


  1. CL, so true your distinction between the philosophical and psychological connotations of that question - very astute point! I think you're right that it was being asked on the personal, psychological level, but certainly it has its roots in the philosophical.

    What struck me most though about your post, is that it would be so darn easy (not to mention viscerally gratifying) to vent about what a shallow, elitist, insensitive, mind-numbingly tactless woman she was, so myopic in outlook that she couldn't for the life of her see beyond her own "4 cubits". But instead you used the incident to talk about the struggle it precipitated inside of you. Instead of going on the attack, you explored your own vulnerability and how you navigated those feelings. To me, that's the mark of a quality person!

    I had a conversation yesterday (Israel Independence Day) with someone who mentioned a Haredi rabbi they know who refuses even to "look" at an Israeli flag. My first thought was what an ungrateful, small-minded SOB! But then I said to myself, you know, I'm tired of succumbing to the knee-jerk reaction of judging people. I've gone through enough changes in my own life to know the truth of the adage of not judging someone unless you've been in their place. And the thing is, we can never be in someone's exact place. The circumstances of life, and of human psychology and consciousness, are so complex that there's simply no replicating it, no occupying the same place. (Not that I agree with the rabbi, mind you, but "disagreement" is a very different animal than judgment.)

    The woman on the plane was speaking from her reality, her life experience, her deeply ingrained set of norms and beliefs. Clearly she wants just like anyone (any non-psychopath, that is) to do the right thing, to make intelligent and sane choices, and to live a meaningful life.

    That said, I'm not a total pluralist. Yes, I think we should give as much space as possible for other people's mindsets, but I also believe there's such a thing as human advancement, and specifically as it regards attitudes, beliefs, self-awareness and awareness of others, knowledge of the world within and the world without. And to that end, I view (what appears to be) this woman's relative inability to see her own "bias of meaning" as a shortcoming, a limitation of the community she's in. It's a culture whose absolute self-assurance in its own convictions and norms is ITSELF a part of its own convictions and norms! It's not enough to think and act according to the guidelines. To be truly religious one needs to approach it with an air of complete certainty, as being the one true way. It's an approach that works wonders in terms of maintaining cohesion of the larger "communal organism", but as far as fostering awareness and advance of the individuals within that organism, I see it as a very limiting factor.

    Another great post!

  2. Thanks so much, AJ!! Much appreciate the comments!

  3. Glad you're back! I totally understand why you would have to curtail your blogging schedule, but I'll look forward to whatever you manage to post!

    1. Thanks so much, tesyaa!! I always enjoy your comments too!!

  4. I know it's not the question you raise - but when I was having fertility issues (multiple miscarriages), I eventually figured out that, instead of wasting emotional strength on forced smiles, anyone who asked deeply personal questions about my childbearing status deserved to watch me burst into tears.

  5. >For us, parenthood was definitely a culture shock.

    Is there anyone that it's not? The first time around, everything is new and extremely difficult. But I think everything worth while in life is difficult

  6. My answer to this rude woman (other than to stop sticking her nose into other people's business) is that I feel sorry for her children. It is not their job to give her life meaning. What a burden to place on a kid. (of course though, if she has many children, the burden on any one child is much smaller). I think its important for people to develop a sense of fulfillment with life BEFORE having kids. (Unfortunately I had to get pregnant first before coming to this realization.... hope will be able to work this out in a way that my relationship with my kid won't be terribly impacted.)Secondly from a philosopiical perspective, if life isn't meaningful, than giving life to more people, your kids, isn't essentially meaningful either, just a form of distraction.


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