What A Fundamentalist Community Taught Me About Queer Motherhood
When I think of motherhood, I am reminded of the great changes that have occurred in my life that have made me recognize what my values are as a queer mother. I think of my upbringing in the rigid system of the ultra-Orthodox Chasidic community in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. I think about my arranged marriage. And I wonder what life as a mother — particularly as a queer mother — would be like if I had stayed in the world of a fundamentalist community; a world specifically designed to control me.
Mothering in that world, of which I am no longer a part, means you enter into the sphere of parenthood at an extremely young age, usually around 18 or 19. And when you're that young, your understanding of motherhood relies on a system that is already in place. In this case, a Chasidic system that dictates the entirety of a person's life. And because that system also includes rigid and gendered guidelines to childbearing and child-rearing, parents are immediately told to and automatically embrace the idea that the sex their child is assigned at birth will inform how they should grow up and develop.
When I was pregnant at the age of 19, living as a dedicated member of the Chasidic community, I found out I was carrying a boy. I already knew, sitting on that table at the doctor's office, exactly how my future son's life would be. I knew that he would begin to attend an all-boys yeshiva as early as 2-and-a-half, thus beginning his strict separation from girls his age. I also knew he would only be exposed to Judaic studies, and wouldn't learn his alphabet until the age of 7 or 8.
I knew his secular education would be extremely limited in its capacity and would, therefore, limit him dramatically in the future.
I also knew that when my child would approach bar mitzvah age, at around 13, his already-limited secular studies would halt entirely, and, instead, he would be encouraged to refocus his energies solely on Judaic teachings. I knew, like the other boys his age, that he probably wouldn't graduate high school or obtain a high-school diploma. Instead, he would likely enter the world of arranged marriage at 18 or 19, like I did, and rely solely on the community to provide him with a job while he went about the work of procreating at a high rate.
This realization, on the doctor's table, gave me the understanding I needed to leave a community that had already limited my life in profound ways. Because if I stayed, I would be limiting my child's life, too.
But this was a difficult burden to bear. Within the Chasidic world, and its rigid pathways of child development and personal growth, there is hardly any room for the cultivation and formulation of unique identities. Individuality is frowned-upon, and interdependent- and group-think are fostered and encouraged, especially if someone feels or seems to feel drawn to an identity that goes against the grain of the strict community guidelines of which the Chasidic world relies.
I knew I needed to leave, but I didn't have the courage and wherewithal to take the steps necessary to leave my community at that time. Instead, I stayed, believing it would be better for my child to grow up in a two parent home, and despite knowing full-well the breadth and depth of the limitations my child would face.
When my son was around 18 months old, I realized that if I didn't take the steps necessary to leave my rigid world I wouldn't survive.
On a cold winter evening, I gave birth to my wonderful child and my then-husband and I celebrated his entrance into the world. As is customary in my Chasidic culture, we named him after my great grandfather, a quiet man who had lived through and survived the Holocaust. And, as predicted, I watched as my then-infant son was already set on a path that had been made for him by the community he was to grow up in.
Months passed and I fell into a deep depressive state. It was impossible for me to ignore the fact that I wasn't being true to myself, to who I was, or to the full potential I knew my young son had; potential that would be severely limited if I continued down the path paved for us.
When my son was around 18 months old, I realized that if I didn't take the steps necessary to leave my rigid world, I wouldn't survive.
The first step I took was coming out to myself as the queer woman I am and always have been. Once I had admitted my truth to myself, I waited for my husband to leave the house so that I could do some research. I wanted to see if there were other people out there like me; people struggling with their identity within the confines of the community I lived in. I vividly remember opening Google and typing "Jewish and gay." I can still feel the instant wave of relief that overcame me when I found multiple organizations that existed to specifically service queer Jews.
After connecting with some of the organizations and coming out to the people involved, I grew stronger and more secure in my identity. Little by little, I began taking the necessary steps to leave my world, holding fast to the reality that within that world I couldn't grow and evolve as a queer woman.
I also realized that my identity as a mother is so tightly woven into my queer identity that it's difficult to separate the two. Opening myself up to new opportunities and different ways of living provided me the chance to provide those same opportunities to my child. If I gave myself the chance to make my own choices, I could give my son that chance, too. If I allowed to live my life as my true self, and ultimately leave my old world behind, my son would have the opportunity to learn, explore, and live his life fully, too.
Now I can become comfortable with the unknown because it is, in fact, the unknown that informs us.
On a warm summer night, weeks after coming out to my husband and feeling the tension rise in our home day by day — and after heading home from yet another rejection from a potential landlord — I arrived at my close friend's home to pick up my child. My friend took one look at me and said, “You are a shadow of yourself. You need to leave your husband now or you will lose every sense of self you have.” That night, my friend encouraged me to let my husband know that I was done; I was leaving him for good; I was finished. After packing a small bag of a clothes for my child and I, I walked away from everything that I had known to be so tightly tied to my identity as a conformist.
That same friend and her husband took us into her home, saving us from homelessness and ensuring our safety as I began about the work of starting our new life.
Walking away from my arranged marriage and Chasidic community gave me a true understanding of queer motherhood. My decision so brightly contrasted the life I was meant to live versus the life I had been given a new chance to make. It made me realize that, no, I did not have to conform to just one, rigid idea of who I was or was "supposed" to be. It highlighting the truth that, no, I didn't have to allow my child to be forced to become another cog in the Chasidic Jewish cultural machine.
Instead, I was going to fight for the opportunities that existed out there... for both of us.
Now I no longer have to follow a written path for my son. Now I have the freedom to open myself up to a diverse understanding of human growth and development for my child. Now I can become comfortable with the unknown because it is, in fact, the unknown that informs us. Now I can explore a constantly growing understanding of a new way of living. And while my new life in no way minimizes the effects of having lived life in an oppressive and limited setting — I will live with those demons for the rest of my life — I have gained the ability to present my son with the opportunity, and the choice, to explore his version of the unknown, too.
If you or someone you know is seeking help for mental health concerns, visit the National Alliance on Mental Health (NAMI) website, or call 1-800-950-NAMI(6264). For confidential treatment referrals, visit the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) website, or call the National Helpline at 1-800-662-HELP(4357). In an emergency, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK(8255) or call 911.