My uterus is none of your business

By Aliza Hausman, October 2, 2008
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There is too much pressure on our women to get pregnant.

‘So, are you pregnant?" a friend asked, bouncing over to me enthusiastically.

I rolled my eyes and exhaled.

"What? What did I say?"

Motherhood is hard. And I don't just mean raising the babies. I mean having them. I mean trying to have them. There is just so much pressure in the Jewish community to have children.

The first year we were married, people - men and women - would ask constantly whether or not I was trying to get pregnant or was already pregnant. And if the answer was "no" and "no", people hummed around me with sympathy and wished me luck having a baby.

I have startled more than one Shabbat guest by telling them that my husband and I were putting off having children.

"But, of course, you want to have a baby!" the guests would insist.

No one bothered to ask why we were putting it off. And I worried that if I told them that it was because I was recovering from an illness, they would walk away thinking that it had been OK to bring up the subject.

When I ask other Jewish women if they feel pressured, it all pours out. They are under constant interrogation from the community. They talk about money trouble, finishing their master's degrees (sometimes, bachelor's degrees) or establishing their careers, and the constant fear that they won't be able to manage if they have to juggle anything more.

And everywhere - at least in my Orthodox world - someone is lurking, ready to pounce and apply pressure.

The husbands live in a bubble. No one except for his father, Jacob, had asked my husband if we were trying to get pregnant. And my father-in-law didn't really ask, he hollered: "Get pregnant already!"

So Yehuda was sure that only I was obsessed with the state of my reproductive system.

Without his sympathy, I began to seethe. It struck me as impolite that people would ask about such a personal subject.

And then I was blindsided by an angel of hope.

At another Shabbat meal, a married woman whispered conspiratorially in my ear that people would stop asking about my womb once my husband and I survived our first anniversary.

"They'll think you're having problems," she whispered.

"Problems?" I murmured, mystified.

"Getting pregnant."

And she was right.

After our first anniversary, the questions stopped abruptly - only to be replaced by questioning glances. If I gained a little weight or wore an unflattering dress, people would stare at my stomach and cock their heads to the side inquisitively.

With an exasperated shake of the head, I would mutter: "No. I'm not pregnant!"

Now and then, a sad look would overtake my interrogators and they would sigh sympathetically about how hard it was to "get pregnant". Without any signals from me, people started to believe we were "having trouble". And though I wasn't, I was suddenly aware that I was surrounded by a world of women who were.

When my best friend Esther told me that someone asked if she had "a bun in the oven", I cringed. My beautiful friend has had three consecutive miscarriages. She tells me that she hates the assumptions people make.

"After one year of marriage, you must be pregnant. But no one assumes that there are miscarriages. That there are those of us struggling to afford to eat, much less bring children in the world to struggle with us," Esther said, her voice shaky with emotion.

I tell her that people associate pregnancy with happiness. She replies, "I associate pregnancy with fear. I am scared to death of it." I tell her that I feel the same way.

I cannot think of pregnancy without imagining myself suffering from the chronic pain and fatigue of fibromyalgia and depression. I would be forced to forgo medications that ward off mental and physical agony as the baby's needs would come before my own. But really - are my fears, my status, anybody's business at the Shabbos table?

One out of four women miscarries, I learned, after another whisper told me that a woman in the community had delivered a stillborn baby. Behind closed doors, women began sharing stories about "trying for months" and falling into deep depressive episodes. I had never imagined that so many women could be suffering silently.

The horrific idea that any of them could be asked "Are you pregnant?" overwhelmed me. Somewhere along the line, asking someone who is married about impending pregnancy became no more socially incongruous than asking what someone does for a living (a subject now surely imperilled by the economy).

But it is not a safe subject. Not when more and more couples everywhere are struggling to conceive. Not when we realise that often questions born out of natural curiosity can be hurtful and even traumatic.

So I'm waving a "Private" sign around my uterus for myself and for anyone who is with me. It is time we made asking about pregnancy and talking about having children inappropriate for polite conversation. We should not make people share any more about the subject than they would feel comfortable doing. We should tiptoe around it like we would any other loaded topic.

I guess I'm saying that it's time to start asking again about the weather.

Aliza Hausman is a Latina Orthodox Jewish convert living in New York and working on a memoir. She blogs at alizahausman.net

    Last updated: 1:48pm, October 2 2008