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Too little, too late: when Jews delay family life
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Too little, too late: when Jews delay family life

Why are so many people in their 20s taking so long to grow up?” Robin Marantz Henig asked in The New York Times Magazine (“The Post-Adolescent, Pre-Adult, Not-Quite-Decided Life Stage,” Aug. 22). Lori Gottlieb urged reluctant single women to “Marry Him: The Case for Settling for Mr. Good Enough” in The Atlantic Monthly (March 2008), which she later expanded into a book.

These articles — with their subtext of alarm over delayed family formation — have special resonance for American Jews and the communities in which they live, as I found in my interview-based study of American-Jewish leaders in their 20s and 30s: A third of American-Jewish women and more than half of men aged 25 to 34 are unmarried.

Marriage and children are “simply not talked about,” said a recently married social entrepreneur, who noted that “I will turn 33 this summer and I have a whole bunch of friends who still aren’t even dating the person they’re going to marry, let alone getting married.”

Even more startling: “We’re very afraid to talk about these issues with each other” because “people worry about seeming judgmental.”

Henig cites research showing that when parents of today’s young adults were young, 77 percent of American women and 65 percent of men younger than 30 accomplished five sociological milestones of adulthood: “completing school, leaving home, becoming financially independent, marrying, and having a child.”

Today, fewer than half of women and one-third of men match that “fully adult” profile. Instead, American young adults go back to school, compete for unpaid internships, participate in Teach for America, or serve in the Peace Corps.

My respondents were uneasy about giving up opportunities before defining their own paths. A female rabbi in her 30s said people like her should “pace yourself and get married when you’re ready,” cultivating “a great network of friends and to date and meet people, and to go hiking and backpacking and cook, and all these things that I enjoy.”

Many said adults should achieve self-understanding — “find themselves” — before committing to sustained relationships. A young male rabbi, like many in his cohort, said there is little or no “peer pressure to get married” in college, and young people have “permission to take some time to find out who we are before we lock ourselves into a life partner.”

Serious dating and marriage carried the connotation of narrowing options.

Many note the influence of education, occupational achievement, contraception, cohabitation, and economic conditions in delaying marriage and childbirth. But fear of risking romantic mistakes also plays an important role.

In my interviews, single women in their 30s explained their “deal breakers” in prospective partners, including prior marriage or young children. Singles revised lists of desirable qualities, so they wouldn’t “waste time” on individuals who don’t measure up.

When men marry in their 30s and 40s, they often choose younger women (and sometimes non-Jewish women), leaving women their age with fewer choices.

Large networks of singles make singlehood normative. “Everything in America is about choice,” complained an artist in her late 30s. “That’s what Americans are used to, whether it’s food or shul or on-line dating.”

In contrast, the artist said, “Israelis tend to gravitate towards forming families. It’s very important.”

Indeed, sociologist Sergio Della Pergola showed that secular Israelis say the ideal family size is three to four children, and Israelis have one more child on average (2.7) than American families (1.7).

Statistics since the 1980s show Jewish women with advanced degrees expect two or more children, but have fewer. Despite reproductive medicine and more single mothers by choice, later marriage or non-marriage is often correlated with unwanted infertility.

“Lord knows I would like nothing better than to have had children by this point,” said a 38-year old woman, “but I don’t.”

Rabbi Ethan Tucker, while studying for ordination in Israel, said he and his wife had their second child at age 31 and felt like “laggards” compared to Israelis their age, who had already had three or four kids.

Back in New York, where he is the co-founder of Machon Hadar, he found that “none of our friends even had one kid, and many were not married.” Typical were those who married in their late 20s or early 30s and waited years before starting a family.

“If you wait until you have found yourself before you take on responsibilities,” he said, “you find a different self than if you have responsibilities.”

The lived Jewishness of young American Jews has been transformed by sweeping postponement of marriage and childbearing, which often delay Jewish connections, as well as personal goals. However, this postponement is seldom researched or discussed. The issues are sensitive, but avoiding them helps no one. The willingness to open a conversation is yet another risk worth taking.

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