Single Moms

Ask Rona Teitelman her earliest memory and she'll say it's the realization that she wanted to have children.

"It's the only thing I've always known," said the El Cerrito resident. "The rest, I'm still trying to figure out."

She began trying to get pregnant at age 34. But since she was unmarried, the usual method was not employed; instead, she visited a sperm bank.

Two years later, her son, Eli, was born.

"Absolutely, I wanted the traditional nuclear family," said Teitelman, who is office manager at U.C. Berkeley Hillel and is now 39. "But it didn't happen. And my not being married wasn't a reason not to try."

Teitelman is one of the growing number of single Jewish women who have embraced motherhood despite the fact that they have no partners.

They, like thousands of women across the country, will celebrate Mother's Day on Sunday — although celebrating motherhood seems to happen naturally, every day.

"When I was younger, I felt it was my duty to replenish the Jewish population after the Holocaust," said Judy Penso, Marin and Sonoma regional director of the Jewish Community Relations Council. "But when it actually came time, I don't know if that mattered.

"At a certain point in my life, I felt I couldn't go forward unless I had a child," added Penso, who now has a 3-year-old daughter, Amalya. "A lot of people say, 'You're so brave,' or 'You're so courageous,' but I would have been braver to face my future without a child."

Penso moved to Petaluma in the last year but when she gave birth to Amalya, she was living in Berkeley and belonged to Congregation Netivot Shalom. In both the Conservative synagogue and in her job, she said, she received nothing but warmth and support.

Both her co-workers and her board threw baby showers, and congregants brought cooked meals over, after the birth, "for I don't know how long. Everyone was really excited for me, and I haven't felt any kind of difference toward me or my child because I'm a single mom."

Penso added that living in Berkeley, "we were one of the more conventional families," but when she first moved to Petaluma, she became known as the single mother on the block.

Those interviewed who belonged to synagogues all reported feeling completely accepted and welcomed.

While Penso and Teitelman chose to become single moms, with Tessi Mann, fate intervened.

Two years ago, the then-38-year-old San Carlos resident was undergoing radiation and chemotherapy treatments for cancer. Suddenly, her 45-year-old husband died of a heart attack, leaving her with the sole responsibility for two school-age children. Her husband had a history of heart disease in his family but that didn't allay the double shock of the loss at a difficult time.

Mann, who is the mother of Phillip, almost 15, and Tiffany, 12, could not say enough about how congregants at Temple Beth Jacob in Redwood City came to her aid, helping with parental duties.

While she was ready to cancel Phillip's upcoming bar mitzvah because she felt she couldn't handle all the additional stress alone, together with spiritual leader Rabbi Nathaniel Ezray, the family decided it should go on, with temple members helping in every way they could.

Congregants and friends brought food to the family for two months, she said, and people she didn't know called to check up on her. People volunteered to drive her to her daily radiation treatments, and also to take her kids to their afternoon activities.

"For six months, other people drove my kids everywhere, and for a whole year, I could always count on people," she said.

"For a long time, I said the temple saved my life. I don't know if support from the Jewish community goes higher than that."

Because of all the help she received, Mann was able to go back to school once she was in remission.

She noted that her carpool duty has resumed but because her kids are older, they're able to help around the house. After her husband died, "we just made adjustments. [Now,] they're not babies anymore. They are a big help to me."

Mann said she has also managed to maintain the Jewishness of the household. The family lights Shabbat candles every week, she said, and her daughter's bat mitzvah is coming up in a few months.

"If anything, I've become more religious," she said, adding that after her illness, she is grateful just to see her children every day. "I'm a firmer believer and more appreciative of everything.

"The only demanding thing is the emotional. When you have a partner, you can discuss things. And helping the kids with their problems is harder when it's only you."

Naomi Jatovsky, 45, a single lesbian mom in San Francisco, agrees.

She said not having someone with whom to discuss 7-year-old Elijah late at night can sometimes be difficult. But in her case, Elijah's father is involved in his upbringing.

Rather than go the anonymous donor route, Jatovsky met a gay man through friends who also wanted a child. They "dated" for awhile, and discovered that they had common values when it came to child-rearing.

His father has Elijah 25 percent of the time, and unlike the other single mothers by choice, Jatovsky can — and does — call upon him to discuss Elijah.

She said that the Bay Area was probably more tolerant of single mothers, since people here are so open-minded in general.

"It's San Francisco, so it hasn't been an issue," said Jatovsky, a nurse practitioner whose son attends Brandeis Hillel Day School.

"When we were looking for schools, everywhere we went, we asked, 'Is it cool to be a gay family?' 'Is it cool to be a single parent?' and it seemed to be a non-issue."

Jatovsky, who lived in Israel for many years, said she felt completely accepted there as well. "There might not be a lot of diversity but it's completely accepted, even in Israel.

While Jewish law considers a child born into an adulterous relationship a mamzer, or bastard child, whose rights are then impaired, none of that applies to a child born to a single mother, Jatovsky pointed out.

Therefore, the child of a Jewish single mother is considered a totally "kosher Jew, and there's no stigma," she said.

Even without the stigma, some single mothers have some serious concerns. Anne Brandon, 51, an Oakland judge who has an 8-year-old daughter, Alexis, feels remorse that child is growing up without a doting father like she had.

"She started raising the question when she was 2," Brandon said. "Now she calls him her 'donut dad,'" rather than donor. "Sometimes she says, 'I wish I had a daddy,' and I say, 'I wish you did, too.'"

While the women who chose single motherhood said their parents may have not been so pleased with their decision at first, they all came around, some right after they were told.

Robin Bach, 49, of Concord has 5-year-old twins, Amanda and Zachary. She said that with twins, she got so little sleep in the first two years of their lives, that she barely remembers the details, and someday, she will ask a friend to fill her in on what she missed.

"Emotionally, having kids is so exhausting that I don't really spend time thinking I wish there was someone else to help me," said Bach, who is a project manager. "I feel so lucky to have the two of them, I can be in a twin sandwich."

While Bach had been unaffiliated with the Jewish community for years, she said that having children has made her realize how she would like to renew those ties.

"Before I had kids I didn't realize how strong a Jewish identity I really did have," she said. "I've talked to other parents who say religion and tradition and a sense of God becomes more important once you have kids."

All the women interviewed said that those contemplating single motherhood should be really sure they know what they are getting into. Nonetheless, the joys their children bring far outweigh the difficulties.

"I would love to have a partner to enjoy her," Brandon said of Alexis, "but I'm so happy I did this."

Penso agreed. "You have your whole life to find the right relationship, but you have a limited time to have a child," she said. Although women who choose single motherhood are most likely a bit older, and therefore, more prone to fatigue, she said she simply can't imagine life without her daughter.

"Her soul is meant to be on this earth," Penso said of Amalya. "She has a real Jewish soul."

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Alix Wall
Alix Wall

Alix Wall is a contributing editor to J. She is also the founder of the Illuminoshi: The Not-So-Secret Society of Bay Area Jewish Food Professionals and is writer/producer of a documentary-in-progress called "The Lonely Child."