I have a cousin with three adult sons, the eldest of whom is now in his 30s. Though the oldest recently came close, none of them is married. Now, I don’t know the inside scoop about why the oldest son and his fiancée broke up. But I do know that his parents are hungry for grandchildren while they are young enough to be active grandparents.
I don’t blame them. My children are still too young (at the moment, 16, 10 and 9) to be thinking much about marriage, but my husband and I talk about it with them. I treat it the way I treat in-marriage, as something we regard as a priority. We talk about it much the same way we talk about reading and education and helping other people, in a matter-of-fact manner threaded through relevant conversation.
I suspect that talking with our children about what makes a good time to get married, and about marrying other Jews, puts us in the minority among the non-Orthodox.
I see reluctance among my peers to articulate any expectations with their children, whether it’s about behavior in public or Jewish practice. I believe in loving acceptance, of course, and plan to always be deeply connected with my children no matter what choices they make as adults.
But I hope my children choose to have Jewish partners and homes, and as I expressed in this recent post, my husband and I are doing what we can so that they will want to make those choices.
Being Jewish is a precious gift, one I want my children to continue to hold on to.
There’s also the issue of when to marry.
In a recent interview with The Sisterhood, Lori Gottlieb discusses the premise of her new book, “Marry Him: The Case for Settling for Mr. Good Enough,” (Dutton, 2010), and the need to be pragmatic about what you are looking for in a mate.
She insists that, “[w]e’re too picky about the things that don’t matter and not picky enough about the things that do. We get too caught up in the little specific trivial things.” The result of unrealistic expectations, she says, is that women pass by too many good potential husbands when in their 20s and 30s.
Delayed marriage, of course, generally leads to what researchers call delayed fertility, women not trying until past prime reproductive years to bear children.
Brandeis Professor Sylvia Barack Fishman, among others, has written about the impact of this trend on the American Jewish population.
It is the central paradox of modern American Jewish women’s lives: Because we value being able to fulfill our professional and creative potential, we spend our most fertile adult years working hard to establish our careers instead of finding a mate.
By the time we feel sufficiently established, it is harder to find a spouse and much harder to have the families we want.
In childbirth ed more than 16 years ago, I was, even at 29, several years younger than almost everyone else. Being in Park Slope, most of the women getting ready for first-time motherhood were in their mid- and late-30s, and many of them had struggled through miscarriage and assisted reproduction to get to that point.
As we tried to have a second and third child, I saw that each passing year made it more difficult to become and stay pregnant.
Part of the problem, I think, is that the culture in which we modern Jews live doesn’t prioritize marriage.
As J.J. Goldberg wrote, in his recent Forward column:
Face it: For the last generation or so, childbearing has been transformed in progressive culture from life’s essential duty to a lifestyle choice.
I feel fortunate to have met my husband when I was 25 and married when I was 26. After having come close to marrying a non-Jewish man and realizing what it would do to my family (particularly my Holocaust survivor-Oma), I had decided that marrying a Jew was a goal.
I only dated men who had the few things I needed in a potential mate (roughly my age, at least as tall as I am, in a professional field and Jewish). Still, it took a couple of years before the woman who set us up badgered me into accepting the blind date with S. I had hoped to make aliyah, and until I agreed to go out with S., would only date men who had the same goal. Even in New York, that was three guys. Two were Yiddish-speaking haredim, and the other was a foot shorter than me.
When I met and married S., I was still young enough to have the number of children I wanted.
So there’s too old. And then there’s too young.
Once in a while I encounter a woman my age who is already a grandmother. She’s usually either hasidic or working-class, and began having her own children before age 20. That I cannot imagine for my children.
Since my husband’s family is haredi, I’ve had a chance to see the shidduch system up close, and I can see its weak and strong points. Sometimes, if the young couple’s mothers do their vetting job with insight and sensitivity, the young man and woman seem extremely well suited to each other.
Other times, not so much. And since they usually start trying to have babies immediately, before you can say “self discovery,” the young bride is pushing a stroller with one hand and holding onto a toddler with the other, and her life’s path is set.
Shopping in Brooklyn, I frequently see incredibly young-looking Satmar women with their very young children in tow. These girl-women, who look no more than 20 or 21, chat as their little ones, who are attired in matching navy outfits, wait on line with them at The Children’s Place or Daffy’s.
Recently I saw an older teenage girl (her long, uncovered hair signaling that she was single) shepherding some younger sisters or cousins at one of these stores. I wanted to pull the girl aside and tell her, “It’s not too late for you! You can make different choices!” Of course, as my husband pointed out later, she’d probably be just as judgmental about my life as I felt of hers.
But there’s also a sweet spot, an age at which women are old enough to have lived on their own awhile and had some life and professional experience, but young enough to not likely encounter immediate fertility problems. It’s in the mid-20s.
When we muse together about their possible futures, that’s what I tell my kids.
When I was growing up I don’t remember either of these issues being discussed at home. Though we weren’t particularly religious, the idea that my sister and I would marry Jews was implicit nonetheless.
But today implicit isn’t enough. I see, among those in my generation and younger, how marrying someone Jewish often isn’t a priority, and what gets so quickly lost when they marry someone who isn’t.
We live in an age where everything that is valued is overt and “in your face.” Today articulating these values has to be, too.