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No Fear of Flying Solo Women Are Reconceiving Single Motherhood as a Choice Rather Than a Sentence

Curled up on a friend’s couch, mug of tea in hand, 36-year-old Nancy Vineberg dished about the joys and trials of parenthood one recent Sunday afternoon. Nearby, her 3-year-old, Noa, played exuberantly under the supervision of a friend while Vineberg enjoyed a rare uninterrupted chat.

Like most parents of young children, Vineberg is used to juggling. And like many single parents, she’s used to doing so with the proverbial hand tied behind her back. But unlike women whose single motherhood status has resulted from divorce, accidental pregnancy or the death of a spouse, Vineberg is a single parent by choice. For her, single motherhood was a planned, conscious decision.

“I decided that it was time to have a baby,” she told the Forward, matter-of-factly. “And so, I did that.”

Vineberg, who is director of communications at the Hadassah-Brandeis Institute in Waltham, Mass., an institute devoted to “fresh ways of thinking about Jews and gender,” says her decision to have a child solo was born of her deep commitment to Jewish values and the Jewish community. “The mitzvah of having a child [and to] continue Jewish life is something that for me was important to take seriously,” she said.

Vineberg is far from alone in choosing to raise her child solo: Many single Jewish moms by choice have made their decision only after taking to heart God’s first command in the Bible: Puru U’Vu, Be fertile and increase (Genesis 1:22).

Robin Singer, 42, of Simsbury, Conn. — an accountant and the mother of Judy, 2 — also describes her decision to have a child on her own as an expression of her Judaism. “One of your jobs as a Jew is to procreate, and it seemed like such a shame that I wasn’t going to,” Singer said. “If you want to be a mom, not being married is a stupid reason not to be.”

These days, American Jewish women of childbearing age are twice as likely not to be moms as their non-Jewish counterparts, according to the recently released 2000-2001 National Jewish Population Survey. And while no statistics on the numbers of Jewish women who end up parenting solo — let alone those who choose this path — are available, according to the 2000 U.S. Census Report, 26% of children in the United States live in single-parent households.

Nestled among these other trends, American Jewish women, by all appearances, are embracing the idea of conceiving and raising children by themselves. Some women adopt, others undergo artificial insemination and still others convince a male friend to sire the child and perhaps play some role in the child’s life.

Sylvia Barack Fishman, professor of Judaic and Near Eastern studies at Brandeis and co-director of the Hadassah-Brandeis Institute, sees this choice as being part of an overall trend of “non-marriage” in the Jewish community.

“American values, which have become normative in Jewish society, include the indifference to commitment, and unwillingness to take on the roles and burdens of adulthood, which according to classical Jewish values includes establishing a family,” she said.

These same values, she added, “are much more pervasive among Jewish men then Jewish women, which is why Jewish women are choosing to create Jewish families on their own when they need to.”

Singer, who had always planned to have children, said that it was at synagogue three years ago that her road to motherhood began. At the time, she said, she found her life to be both “happy and fulfilling”: She had a good job, a host of friends and numerous interests, including Judaism. She had recently begun teaching religious school at her Reform synagogue. Even so, one Friday evening during services she found herself on the bima, “sobbing uncontrollably” as she watched her first-graders participate in the service.

Her rabbi took her aside and asked if she had considered becoming a parent on her own. “I realized then and there,” she said, “that having a child was the only way out of my pain.”

With the help of her rabbi, Singer found a sperm bank and selected an anonymous donor. “We sat in [the rabbi’s] office one morning before Shabbat services and went over their profiles,” she said. After two attempts at insemination, Singer was pregnant. Nine months later her daughter Judy, now 2, was born.

At 43, Nancy Nisselbaum of Queens, N.Y., is now the mother of 2-year-old Marshall. Nisselbaum, a magazine editor, said that having a child on her own was not something she had originally intended. Yet after a string of failed relationships, her lifelong dream of parenthood began to seem attainable only on her own. Then, she said, she “realized I was better off on my own… To me single motherhood was just another choice. It’s not forgoing the dream; it’s just a healthy choice and a wiser choice.”

Barack Fishman cautions that such choices are symptomatic of an American culture that places a premium on individuality and independence. She said while Jewish women seem to feel a commitment to raising the next Jewish generation, Jewish men do not share these values in equal numbers.

“I would say that American culture is not [a] particularly family-oriented culture, especially among the most well-educated and sophisticated strata of society,” she said. “It is not only in ‘Sex and the City’ that men and women — but especially men — seem anxious or even fearful about making lifetime commitments,” said Barack Fishman, “On top of this, the high rates of mixed marriage among American Jews today mean that many Jewish men are not siring Jewish children because they are not marrying Jewish women. Jewish women in their 30s and 40s are often faced with the choice of marrying non-Jewish men or not getting married.”

In the end, she said, women “who do not wish to marry non-Jews but who do wish to be mothers are choosing the route of having children on their own.”

But Vineberg and the other single moms made it clear that being a single mother by choice did not mean they had ruled out marriage or having more children. “I never felt like I was making the choice of one or the other,” Vineberg said.

But choices over “one or the other” are exactly what Vineberg feels she is facing as she contemplates having a second child. While the situation is not black and white, Vineberg is now weighing the financial costs of having another child — with all that educating a Jewish child entails — or to preserve her financial resources for Noa. To Vineberg, it seems an impossible choice.

“Is it more important for Noa to go to [Jewish] day school or to have a sibling? We can buy all our clothes at Target, but that $13,000 day school tuition isn’t going away,” she said.

Singer also admits to being strapped for cash. “The economic realities were way beyond what I imagined. I really thought we had a reasonable 5-year plan, but we’ve already blown through it,” Singer said. “A lot of it was my inability to cook dinner at times.”

Vineberg offers one solution that could help new parents with limited resources: The American Jewish community — concerned as it is with the falling fertility rate — could provide some financial incentives.

“I’d gladly have more kids if I could afford it, and it’s too bad that there aren’t grants for having Jewish kids, let alone raising them,” she said. “Wouldn’t it be nice if the Jewish community could adopt more pro-natalist policies — a la Canada’s family leave policy and Israel’s generous artificial insemination benefits — and think creatively about leveraging communal resources in this area?”

She added, “I don’t want it to sound as though I’m looking for someone to fund my personal choices. But, I do think that the [Jewish] community needs to address population decline on a macro/policy level, including funding policies that support population growth.”

She’s not the only one to suggest such incentives. In November 2003, philanthropist Michael Steinhardt made a controversial proposal for the Jewish community to do just this very thing. He called it a “newborn gift” to parents upon the birth of a child during a speech to the General Assembly of United Jewish Communities. And although it has met with praise from communal leaders, it looks unlikely that new parents will begin to receive checks at the maternity ward.

Still, despite the constraints of time, space and cash, the single Jewish moms who spoke to the Forward agreed that becoming a mom was the best choice they could have made.

“Had I started earlier, perhaps I would have had more kids,” said Nisselbaum “But at 43 — and in a one-bedroom apartment — one child is just fine. His bedroom is in the dining room; the dining room is in the hall.… It’s more overrun by toys these days…. But it works!”

As for Mother’s Day, Vineberg says she celebrates the holiday every day by saying the Sh’ma and thanking God “for making me a mother and blessing me with a beautiful and healthy child.” What will she do to mark the “Hallmark holiday”? Well, if it’s warm, she said, “we’ll probably be at the playground.”

Jill Suzanne Jacobs, author of “Hebrew for Dummies” (Wiley, 2003) is a writer and Jewish educator in the Boston area.

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