What I Wish My Rebbetzin Had Told Me About Birth Control
It was my last learning session with my kallah teacher, the woman who was responsible to teach me all the intricate laws of taharat hamishpachah and marital intimacy– from menstruation to mikvah to the act itself. On this day, the topic was my wedding night.
I had purposefully chosen this woman to be my kallah teacher because she represented a pure, almost idyllic version of Chassidic life. Not watered-down. Completely unapologetic. And I believed (for better or for worse) she could prepare me best for this most important transition in life—she would give me an authentic, pristine perspective on marriage and sexuality. Something holy and unadulterated to counteract all the stuff the world threw at me for the last 24 years.
So here we were, talking about my upcoming wedding night, and I had a question. I was anxious, but it was now or never. I needed clarity.
“Rebbetzin… um… I’m very scared to get pregnant right away. Very scared. I feel like I need more time before I become a mother. More time to get to know my husband, you know? To adjust to married life. What are– what are your thoughts on birth control?”
She froze. Looked at me blankly and paused for a second. And then, in a tone that almost sounded rehearsed, she said: “We don’t do that. The Rebbe did not support family planning. Children are a brocha and we don’t get in the way of a blessing.”
That was it. I got my answer. I sheepishly looked away from her gaze and she resumed our conversation about my wedding night.
I left that day feeling all sorts of things—confused, ashamed, anxious. I wanted to learn from someone like her. She had shared her authentic belief, her unbridled acceptance of our Chassidic teachings, but I felt completely shut out by her one-size-fits-all approach. I was still scared as hell to become a mother.
Yet I knew that birth control was still an option if I could get a heter, a situation-specific sort of permission slip from a Rav. After talking it out with my husband-to-be, I called an esteemed Rabbi who asked me some pointed questions (Is this about finances? Do you ever want children?) before giving me his verdict.
I got the go-ahead. I was given permission to go on birth control for one year.
And the funny thing is, it didn’t necessarily feel like a victory or a relief. I still felt scared. And very guilty.
I remember feeling that somehow I had sent this message to the Cosmos that I was ungrateful and unworthy of ever becoming a mother. I was about to turn my back on my fertility and was willingly breaking the momentum of the song we’ve all sung since young: “First comes love, then comes marriage, then comes the baby carriage.” And as I looked at those little white pills in their plastic case, so artificial, I believed that somehow was about to betray my unborn child.
I never ended up taking them. I just couldn’t do it. I entered my marriage like my kallah teacher wanted—still scared, but (hesitantly) ready to let the blessings flow.
And then something happened: month after month after month I did not get pregnant.
After we were married for six months, I started to panic. Did I jinx this? Was I being punished? Why wasn’t I getting pregnant??? And so I started obsessively taking my temperature and drinking stinky Chinese herbs and making challah and praying all the while still pondering, still panicking. Did I jinx this? Was I being punished? Why wasn’t I getting pregnant???!!
I felt like I invited some sort of Gdly retribution for contemplating birth control.
Or perhaps this was not a retaliation. Perhaps I was right. I really did need more time before I got pregnant, before I became a mother. And Gd was not punishing me. In fact, He was paying attention. He was listening.
And after fourteen months of living and traveling and arguing and waiting and trying and adjusting to this new life, learning so much about ourselves and each other, I did get pregnant. And that moment of joy, staring at the plus sign, after two bottles of orange juice in a bathroom stall in the middle of Manhattan, was inexplicable. I was going to become a mother.
I wanted to go on birth control to buy myself time. And here Gd had given it to me, no questions asked. I wanted to take the reigns over my life and exchanged one type of control for another. And here He wanted me to surrender control, in body and mind. (It’s funny, how much time we spend in our lives trying to balance those seemingly polar opposites of being.)
What would have been a better journey to motherhood?
The truth is, I don’t know what it would have been like for me if I did go ahead with the birth control. Perhaps I would have actually enjoyed that first year of marriage, instead of being riddled with anxiety. Perhaps I would have focused more on my husband, his quirks, needs and wants, instead of becoming pregnant. Perhaps I would have come to peace with the idea that pressing the pause button on my fertility was not permanent. It was not a betrayal of my unborn child.
Or maybe I would have cheated myself from an opportunity to experience Gd taking care of me in the way He did. Maybe it would have taken me much longer to have a baby. Maybe I would have never delt with my fear of motherhood or experienced such excitement when I finally did become pregnant. Or maybe I would have stopped taking the pills after a couple months, gaining confidence to become a Mom.
I’ll never know.
But what I do know is that I am not alone in these musings, not alone in the challenge I faced. Somehow, there are all sorts of judgments and assumptions about women and family planning.
Why isn’t she pregnant yet? Is she waiting? Is she experiencing infertility? Is she selfish? Are they an unhappy couple? Maybe it’s because she works. Or they value their freedom too much. Too many vacations. It’s not like you can keep your figure forever! Does she not want to become a mother? There’s nothing more beautiful! Is this the influence of secular culture? What about all the teachings of our Rebbes?! Clearly, it’s not allowed, unless its a real emergency, or something.
Or, why should I ask a Rav, I doubt I can get a heter I might as well go ahead on my own. I’ve got to find a lenient Rabbi. I mean, no real, respected Rav would give me a heter. I think I could get a heter only if I just gave birth, and my child is already a toddler, so why bother?
If I get pregnant it’s obviously meant to be. Hashem will help.
Or, doesn’t she know that she doesn’t have to have a baby every year, I mean there are ways to get around it. It can’t be good for her body, can’t be too healthy, to have so many kids close together. It’s so expensive these days to have children, it’s responsible to wait. Why wouldn’t she want to have fun while she’s young, there’s plenty of time for children. It’s not like the shetl days, when people had tons of kids. We live in a different world now.
I have four healthy, special children. And I have come to terms with how beautiful it is to surrender ourselves to Hashem’s plans, to let go and receive His blessings. And how valuable it is, when needed, to exercise some control. I know there are many qualified, sensitive, committed Rabbis who are in-tune to women and their needs, while still remaining faithful to Torah law. And I know that while I’ve experienced challenging moments — crying “How can I handle another child now, oh, Gd?!” — the strength comes from somewhere, deep inside.
I think back to that day, my last class with my kallah teacher, and to her response to my honest admission of fear of becoming a mother soon after becoming a wife. And while I still respect her piety and commitment to our teachings, I do not believe there is a one-sized-fits-all approach to anything— especially not our journey to becoming mothers.
Let’s make more informed and empowered choices about our family planning.
Let’s dissolve all the assumptions and judgments we make of each other and our paths to motherhood.
Let’s open ourselves to dialogue about this sensitive issue- beyond isolated conversations with our Rabbis or Rebbetzins.
Let’s recognize that although this topic is personal, the way we think and feel about it effects our greater families and communities.
Let’s acknowledge that the goal is ultimately physically, emotionally and spiritually healthy families.
There is so much power in surrendering to Gd’s plans, exercising appropriately guided control, and feeling confident in our choices, whatever they may be. It’s time we embrace that.