Child-free by choice

On a recent Sunday evening, the table the Ohr family occupied at Fenton’s Creamery and Restaurant in Oakland was alive with childish giggles and silliness as well as sticky-sweet desserts.

It was a Kodak-moment kind of family outing, except for one minor detail: the two kids accompanying Stacey Roberts-Ohr and Andy Altman-Ohr were friends’ children, borrowed for just a few hours of fun — and that’s exactly how the Oakland couple wants it.

“When we got married, we were leaning toward not having kids but weren’t 100 percent sure. As our relationship grew, and we saw what our friends’ lives were like … the instinct [to have kids] never hit us any harder. We decided that that was not how we wanted to live our lives,” says Roberts-Ohr, 38, a social worker with the nonprofit Math Science Network.

“Our decision wasn’t because we don’t like kids; it was a decision of not wanting to be parents.”

A nice Jewish couple not wanting to be parents? Yes, and they’re in good company. According to the National Jewish Population Survey 2000-01, released last September by the United Jewish Communities, the percentage of Jewish women who are child-free is nearly double the percentage of U.S. women who do not have children — especially in the prime child-bearing years.

Until age 35, some 54 percent of all Jewish women are remaining child-free, compared with 28 percent of U.S. women in general.

The study doesn’t indicate how many of those Jewish couples are choosing to be child-free, how many are either planning to have children later or cannot have children. But with the first mitzvah in the Torah pretty obviously geared toward increasing life — “Be fruitful and multiply” (Genesis 1:28) — some wonder, can child-free people be good Jews?

Never mind the perception that they’re selfish, self-centered or a career-obsessed baby boomer who still hasn’t gotten his or her act together. Or, people to pity.

“The synagogue is about family, and the Jewish community has always been about family,” says a child-free Shelley Abramson.

She and her husband, Jack Merk, joined Congregation Beth Israel-Judea because the San Francisco Reform-Conservative synagogue goes out of its way to bring in people who don’t have children — for whatever the reason — and doesn’t just cater to the two categories she believes other synagogues focus on: seniors and families.

She wishes other synagogues would find ways to not only reach out to people who don’t have children but to singles and empty-nesters as well.

That’s what brought Nancy and Ed Mendelssohn to Keddem Congregation, a Reconstructionist congregation in Los Altos, when they got married five years ago. “They kind of think different and are more accepting of people’s situations,” says Nancy Mendelssohn, 44, who works in the psychiatric ward of a local hospital. “They’re not as judgmental as some of the bigger synagogues who ask about families.”

Says Roberts-Ohr. “When you’re Jewish, you’re expected to have a family. It’s harder to connect with the community” if you don’t.”

She and Altman-Ohr, 40, an assistant sports editor at the Oakland Tribune and former j. writer and copy editor, have been members of Temple Israel in Alameda for five years. They chose the Reform congregation because it is small and, because it has fewer families, offers a lot of programs geared toward adults.

“We know if we joined a synagogue that was humongous and the emphasis was on family, we would feel out of sorts,” says Roberts-Ohr, who heads a chapter of No Kidding, one of the many organizations that have sprouted up for child-free people.

And, unlike Jewish couples who join synagogues just so their kids can celebrate a b’nai mitzvah — and often leave before the party’s bills are paid — she, along with the other child-free couple interviewed, describes herself as deeply committed to Judaism.

“I’m far more Jewish than most people I know. I celebrate Shabbat, belong to a synagogue and go regularly, not just on the High Holidays. We host Shabbat dinners at our house. We build sukkot.”

Rabbi Jacob Traub of the Orthodox Adath Israel in San Francisco sees no problem with Jewish couples who don’t want children regardless of what the Torah tells us.

“It also commands that we live in the state of Israel and do any one of a number of things that not everyone is capable of doing,” says Traub. True, he says, it doesn’t bode well for a population already reeling from a high number of interfaith marriages and a declining birth rate but, he adds, “It would bode worse if people who had children but didn’t want them.

“It’s a mitzvah, but it’s not a mitzvah to have children you don’t want. It’s not a mitzvah to have miserable children,” Traub says.

Pushing a baby carriage and knitting little pink or blue booties wasn’t something Roberts-Ohr had been dreaming about since childhood. “I just sort of knew that having a child wasn’t something I felt really passionate about. Some people feel they are made to be parents. I never felt that way,” she says.

Unlike Roberts-Ohr, Nancy Mendelssohn didn’t always have an inkling that parenting was not for her. But as an only child who spent most of her childhood around adults and sophisticated conversation, she wasn’t particularly child-oriented. She figured she’d make the decision about parenthood when she faced it.

Because she and Ed married when they were older — she was 39 1/2, he was 47 — and were reeling with the illnesses and deaths of three out of their four parents in the first six months of their marriage, they chose to remain child-free.

She doesn’t see how that decision would make her less of a Jew. “I believe not everyone was intended to have kids. There are plenty of people who have more kids than they can afford and care for; I’m not going to get into the Jewish guilt thing,” she says.

Abramson would have liked to have had children. But by the time she and Merk met, she felt she was too old. Plus Merk, 52, who converted to Judaism when they met and married 16 years ago, feels strongly about overpopulation.

“Since I was a young person, I decided that I was not interested in having children, specifically from my own body, not necessarily no children. … That was something on a gut level that I felt then and never changed … that came from a deep knowledge of myself and the way I view the world,” says Merk, an attorney.

Abramson, who grew up Orthodox, notes that “many people who don’t have children are perceived to not love children.” And although that may be true for some, she says, it certainly isn’t true of her: she, in fact, has an 11-year-old godchild she dotes over like a mother hen. The two speak often and see each other weekly for fun and tutoring and “long conversations about life.”

“I am the unconditional love in her life, and she knows it,” says Abramson, a screenwriter. “I teach her about being spiritual. I teach her about having a heart. She shares in my life, and I happen to live a Jewish life. All of her Jewishness she gets in her life she gets from me and Jack.”

She and Merk also spend lots of time with their many nieces and nephews. “I have nothing against [children]. I know how they work, I know what they’re like, and oddly enough I was one once,” says Merk, laughing. “I would consider my life to be lacking or a lot less enjoyable if I wasn’t able to have children to the extent that I do.”

And their home is the spot many gather for a huge seder every year, helping to create what Abramson says is their own family.

The time they spend helping others is exactly what some would say are the responsibilities — and the rewards — of being Jewish and child-free.

“So the many misconceptions and stereotypes about child-free couples bother Abramson and Merk.

“You get a lot of pity. … They say things like, ‘How sad for you,’ and they make all these assumptions” that you either are physically unable to have kids or are selfish, Abramson says.

“And for women it’s harder because we are seen as failures, and men are not. … Jewish women in particular are seen as failures, because Jewish women are supposed to have children and light the Chanukah candles with them or something.”

Roberts-Ohr hates the pity thing, too. “They have a look that they feel sorry for me, that ‘you’re so good with my kids, you don’t know what you’re missing.'”

And although she hasn’t been called selfish by friends and family — an oft-heard accusation aimed at child-free folk — her family has been known to say, “You’ll be sorry when you get older. You’ll be so alone.”

Says Abramson, “When you have children you have a chance to live on. In Judaism we light a yahrzeit candle for people because they get to live on a second generation. If you don’t have someone to light a yahrzeit candle for you, you don’t get to live another generation. You get your life and that’s the end of it. That’s very sad to me. That’s why I became a screenwriter … because I wanted to live on and be remembered.”

But it’s not just pity. Many assume child-free couples can do whatever they want. “They look at you and think you are living the life they lived when they were single and young and going to bars … and that’s not the way it is,” says Abramson.

“When you make a decision to not have children, you are forced to have a deeper relationship with your spouse in a way that parents don’t … and in many ways that can be more difficult. You don’t get to hide behind your children’s activities.”

She also feels insulted when others play the “You don’t know, you’re not a parent” game. “They feel that once they give birth, it releases something in their body that makes them instantly smarter than you, and it’s really bizarre,” says Abramson.

Equally bizarre: equating having no children with clean homes. “They should have lived in my mother’s house!” she jokes.

Outside of having fewer worries than parents, she and Merk don’t see their life as having any extra benefits. But Roberts-Ohr and Altman-Ohr see their child-free life as freedom. “We’re really late sleepers, to 10, 10:30 on weekends, and our nights are completely our own,” says Roberts-Ohr.

They also like to make spur of the moment plans, like taking a drive to Sonoma for the day and deciding while there to stay overnight.

“Our time together is very special, and we didn’t want that to suffer. We’re very spontaneous. We like to do things last minute. I wouldn’t feel happy driving the car pool,” she says.

“A child-free life gives us a chance to do things we like to do,” says Nancy Mendelssohn. “We are able to exercise and keep ourselves in good health. We have time to focus on ourselves and each other.”

But all agree that their decision to be child-free has affected their social life. It’s why Roberts-Ohr, along with Nancy Mendelssohn, helped resurrect a local chapter of No Kidding — a Canadian-based organization started by Jerry Steinberg in 1984 that now boasts 88 chapters and about 10,000 child-free members around the world — a few years ago. While the group isn’t Jewish, it has a handful of active Jewish couples.

“Three of our really close friends got pregnant all around the same time, and my social life took a really big turn. I didn’t see them as frequently, and when I did it was rarely without kids,” says Roberts-Ohr. “I said to Andy, ‘It’s going to get worse.’ … It’s not that important when you’re in your 20s, but it’s really, really hard to meet child-free people” as you get older.

There aren’t any dues to join, and people show up only for the monthly activities they want to. A recent trip was a tour of the Bay Model in Sausalito followed by deckside drinks and dinner at Horizons, the San Francisco skyline clearly in view. It’s just a way to get child-free people — singles, couples, child-free by choice or not — together for fun; they don’t sit around talking about the pros and cons of their choice or bashing those who have kids.

At 38, Roberts-Ohr is well aware that the time to change her mind is rapidly ending. Sometimes, she thinks about that. “If you have a good marriage, you want to share your love with someone else,” and children are a way to do that, she acknowledges.

But even seeing a quintessential Kodak-perfect family moment — not unlike that giggly scene at Fenton’s with her friends’ 5- and 8-year-old children a few weekends back — doesn’t pull too much at her heartstrings.

“We might comment on the fact that they’re enjoying themselves, and that that looks nice,” she says, noting that sometimes she asks herself, is this the right decision?

“But this doesn’t override our decision to not have kids.”