Feminist, Orthodox, Engaged and on the Pill
This post is the first in “Feminist, Orthodox and Engaged,” a series by Simi Lampert on love, sex, and betrothal in the life of a Modern Orthodox woman.
This month, 11 years after my bat mitzvah, I finally feel like a real woman. Joining the ranks of liberated women throughout the Western world, I took my very first birth control pill. Like a little child who dreams of taking the training wheels off his bike to join the upper echelons of big kids, I’d felt left out of a life-changing movement. The reasons I’m taking it might not be the typical Western experience, but I still feel a part of a larger union of women.
I haven’t needed to take the Pill yet, even though I’m 23, and that’s not because I’m not practicing safe sex. It’s because I’m not practicing any sex, and won’t until I’m married.
Right now, the main reason I am taking the pill is to prepare me for marriage, so that my cycle works with the date of my wedding; if my period is unpredictable, I could end up being in niddah (a state of ritual impurity, leaving me unable to touch my husband) on my wedding night, a nightmare for all frum brides.
Not only would I not be able to sleep with my husband that night, but since halachically we wouldn’t be married yet, we would actually have to sleep in separate beds on our wedding night. According to Jewish law, in order to be considered married we’d have to be able to, literally, consummate the marriage. For that reason alone, the birth control is worth it. It’s fairly standard practice in the Orthodox community; you get engaged, you go on birth control. Asking a friend what pill she’s on is only slightly more personal than asking to see the ring, and almost as expected.
After months of building up anticipation for this moment, the only disappointment was in the size, which, when it comes to medicine, apparently does not matter. Placing the tiny barley-sized pill next to the antibiotics I happened to be on, it was shocking to realize the pill that would warp my system, shift around my hormones, and plan my menstruation for me was tiny in comparison to the pill targeted to one enemy bacterial force.
Of course, the reality of taking the pill is a bit more of a drag than the theoretical freedom it brings. That tiny little pill has taken my body and turned it inside out in my first few weeks of taking it: my appetite’s changed, my skin is starting to revert back to how it looked during my teenage years, and, on one memorable day, I needed a king-sized Twix bar to keep from crying at the slightest provocation.
But aside from the physiological stuff, there’s something psychologically powerful about being on birth control. I suppose it’s about claiming my body as my own, even as I put foreign substances in it. I’m in control of my cycle, something which for centuries for women—and a decade for me—wasn’t a possibility.
It’s a liberating experience, around something I hadn’t even realized was shackling me. And if, after marrying one another, my husband and I decide we’re not ready to have kids yet — we might want more time to spend together, building our lives, before we start a family — I get to make that decision with something as easy as a barley-sized pill with a glass of water every night.