Motherhood is still seen as a national duty in Israel
I recently returned to the States after three years in Israel, during which I studied the relationship between mothers and their children serving in the Israeli military. Implicit understandings of motherhood and its purpose came to the surface. More than a rigid societal norm that bolsters the nuclear family or traditional gender roles, the expectation to mother in Israel is deeply rooted in religious, historical and sociopolitical factors: the Bible mandates Jews to procreate as a response to their persecution throughout time; Israel was founded as a post-Holocaust society in imminent need of repopulation; the tension between Jews and Arabs incites competition in population growth, and; ongoing conflict within and outside of Israel’s borders necessitates a continuous influx of recruits to the Israeli military.
These factors ladder up to a conscious embrace of motherhood as the primary identity for Israeli women, a pinnacle source of joy, pride and self-realization. However, motherhood is also felt as a kind of national service, a duty to the country and its people.
Evidence of this notion of motherhood in Israeli society is prolific. Israel has the highest fertility rate in the developed world. The Israeli government funds up to eight in-vitro fertilization treatments for all women under 45. Israeli media exalts the relationship between mother and child – ads for baby formula posit child rearing as fulfilling, and a popular cellphone commercial depicts a mother on a romantic getaway overjoyed to be interrupted by her children.
The few women who choose to be a part of a growing ‘childfree’ movement – or in some cases admit to regretting bearing children – become social pariahs. This thinking remains stagnant despite the progress that has been made by Israeli women, who increasingly occupy high-ranking positions in the government, military, and bustling start-up world.
While the Israeli context is unique, the expectations to have children and to enjoy motherhood are not foreign concepts to American women. Though notions of motherhood are shifting, being a devoted mother remains a highly expected role for women. Not having children can be seen as an act of bravery rather than an ordinary response to a personal choice.
None of this, of course, is to say that motherhood is not often a beautiful journey, nor that women who do have children are unnecessarily choosing to conform. On the contrary, the point to be made is that women today experience different kinds of journeys. In an age of increasing choice, voice and opportunity, deeming a single journey ‘expected’ or ‘aspirational’ is contradictory, confusing, and more than ever before, confining.
- Article by Eden Dotan