Hasidic Women Feel Pressure for Children, But Fathers Fret About Providing

No Easy Way for Observant Dads To Limit Family Size

A Father’s Burden: The ultra-Orthodox population in Brooklyn has skyrocketed in recent years because of large families.
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A Father’s Burden: The ultra-Orthodox population in Brooklyn has skyrocketed in recent years because of large families.

By Shulem Deen

Published March 22, 2013.
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He promptly proceeded to explain what’s what. “Condoms are never permitted. But she can use spermicide gel, contraceptive pills, or an IUD.” He gave me the rundown on how they all worked, as if he were a doctor. Then he added the qualifier: “She can use it for a year or two. Then come back and we’ll discuss it further.”

I left almost gleeful. This was easy. All I’d had to do was put it on her.

The rabbi’s ruling was suspiciously vague, though. Halacha is often concerned with very precise measurements; times (for prayer and start of Shabbat), distances (for things like an eruv techumin), size, weight, and volume (for things like a kiddush cup or an etrog). Rarely does Halacha give the kind of leeway he gave. “A year or two.” As if to say: Wink, wink, this one’s kinda up to you.

And that’s what I told my still-pious wife when the two years were up and she insisted I go back to the rabbi. I wasn’t going back, I said. We’d now been married more than a decade, and I had a decent job as a self-taught software developer for a midtown Manhattan firm. We had a house, and a car and five children who were not only true blessings but were also reasonably well provided for. I wasn’t prepared to change that.

Unlike Judy Brown and other Hasidic women who chafe under the intense pressures of motherhood, my wife wanted more. It was I who didn’t. But I sympathized with her. As Judy writes: “After a lifetime of indoctrination it is nearly impossible for most women to realize that they can be good mothers with the maternal instincts we all share with three children and no more.” The pressure to keep procreating is enormous, and my wife simply wanted to do as she was taught and as all the women around her were doing.

But not all want to do as is expected of them, and, as Judy goes on to say, “they have a right to say, ‘Enough,’ after less then six pregnancies.”

I agree. I would only add that men too have not only that right, but that responsibility. And it is time that, too, became part of the discussion.

Shulem Deen is a former Skverer Hasid and the founding editor of Unpious.com.. His book about losing his faith is forthcoming from Graywolf Press in 2014.


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