When Emily Wolper broke her engagement six years ago, she promised herself that if the time came when she felt ready to have a child and she was still single, she’d have one on her own.
Now 37, Wolper, a college admissions consultant in Morristown, N.J., is undergoing in-vitro fertilization treatments. If all goes according to plan, Wolper will join the growing ranks of Jewish women embarking on the journey to become a single mother by choice.
“I didn’t want to find myself in my early 40s, childless, and then be in an emergency situation of trying to have children,” Wolper told JTA. “Motherhood is way too important to be dependent on finding my man. I’m still looking for him, but I’m ready to have a child.”
With studies showing American Jewish women marrying at older ages than ever, more and more of them are confronting the choice of whether to become single moms while it’s still biologically possible or continue to gamble with those chances and wait for Mr. Right.
Many mothers say the decision is the hardest part. Can they raise a child on their own? Will conservative-minded family or friends ostracize them? Later in life, will their child resent them for it?
Then there’s the cost. Aside from mothers shouldering the burden of being the sole provider, fertility treatments can cost anywhere from $10,000 to $50,000. In Israel, treatments are free for women to have two children.
Tehilla Blumenthal, an Israeli psychologist who wrote her doctoral dissertation on single Jewish mothers, says medical technology that has made it easier for older women to become pregnant has prompted a growing number of Jewish women to try single motherhood.
“For most women, the ideal is to get married and have kids,” Blumenthal said. “Their biological clocks are ticking, and these women are no longer going to sit around and wait. And when more of the Jewish community is accepting this, why should they?”
Statistics on Jewish single motherhood are hard to pinpoint, but a U.S. group called Single Mothers by Choice says that the number has jumped in recent years. Overall, 30 percent of their 15,000 members are Jewish.
“When I had my oldest son 14 years ago, I only knew of two or three women who had children on their own,” said Dvora Ross, 49, an Orthodox single mother in Israel who has had three children through artificial insemination. “Today there’s basically one kid in each class in Jerusalem. It’s growing rapidly.”
One 41-year-old Orthodox Jewish doctor in the New York area who recently gave birth to a set of twins through IVF said she was pleasantly surprised by how accepting her community has been.
“People have been really amazing,” she said. “I don’t feel different from anyone else, and I don’t see myself different from any other family. The only tough part is when people in synagogue ask me what my husband does. It’s always embarrassing for both of us.”
Rachel from California, who asked that her last name be withheld, said she had to switch her son out of several Jewish day schools after he faced frequent bullying.
“After one play date, he came home in tears because kids would taunt him about not having a father,” she said. “He never asked questions before then, but it did open a can of worms. It was heartbreaking answering him.”
Things have improved since he switched schools, she said, and Rachel is now undergoing IVF treatments to have a second child.
Wolper says it’s daunting to think about how her decision to become a single mother will affect her child, but she’s trying to stay positive.
“I think there are a lot of life circumstances where a child will have to answer difficult questions, like if they are being raised by grandparents or they have two dads,” she said. “I know life might be hard for them on the playground.”
Even in Orthodox circles, which tend to be socially traditional, there is a growing acceptance of single mothers by choice, according to Rabbi Yuval Cherlow, who is on an Israeli government ethics committee. While some rabbinic authorities object to fertility treatments for single women, others say Jewish law, or halacha, permits it.
“Ideally, it’d be best for these women to get married, to have a traditional family, but we know how important family is,” Cherlow said. “Her options might be to adopt a child or marry the first man she dates. Having a child through fertility treatment on her own seems like the best option here.”
But the Puah Institute, an infertility support center in Jerusalem that provides counseling to Jewish women and Jewish families around the world, refuses to counsel unmarried women about fertility treatments. Instead, Puah recommends that they freeze their eggs to buy themselves more time.
“Our guidance tells us to only help married people because a child should be a product of a husband and wife,” said Rabbi Gideon Weitzman, director of Puah’s English-speaking Department for Fertility and Medicine.
The freezing option has its limits, Blumenthal notes. The survival rate of eggs from women aged 35 to 38 is 35 percent, and 20 percent for women aged 39 to 40, according to Reproductive Biology Associates in Atlanta.
Ross says she hopes that someday the entire Jewish community will embrace single mothers. Last year, along with several other women, Ross launched a support group for religious single mothers in Israel that is believed to be the first of its kind. The group, Kayama, now has more than 200 women involved.
“It’s really become something people talk about,” Ross said. “We’re trying to create a safe place for support and let women know this is an option.”
The 41-year-old doctor who just had twins said that having her kids was the best thing that ever happened to her — and has even helped her dating life.
“Now I can go out with men and not just see them as a potential father of my kids, I can actually analyze them as a spouse, someone to spend time with,” she said.
“I’m not saying its easy being the only one running around, and there are definitely limits to what you physically can accomplish in your older years. But at the end of the day,” she said, “I wouldn’t have it any other way.”