Lisa Gelber
Living Life One Breath at a Time
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A singular path to parenthood

This rabbi, the subject of a new ABC documentary, is a proud single mom

Five days. Two and a half weeks. A lifetime.

Any of these phrases could headline my journey to parenthood. Responding to an invitation to help me craft my profile for potential adoptive birth mothers, my sister wrote, “You would make a good mother because you are experienced…since you started practicing the art of motherhood (on me) when you were age six!” The following winter, I received a call from an adoption agency, “I met with a birth mother. It’s possible it’s a good match. Here’s what you’ll have to do.” Less than three weeks later, I received a call from that same adoption agency, “A little girl was born last night; she’s yours if you want her.” Five days later, she was home with me.

My path to motherhood was hardly as simple, or flippant as this timeline suggests. Adoption agencies don’t call random potential parents with the offer of a child. In the broadest strokes, adoption involves money, written recommendations, fingerprinting, tax returns, and certification from the FBI among the myriad of seemingly insurmountable hoops through which to jump. For many adoptive parents, myself included, the path to motherhood does not begin with a commitment to adoption. For me, the quest to become a mother was a long process of discernment, windy roads, fertility drugs, the affirmation by some international governments that single motherhood was not a legitimate way of parenting a child, and bad (and good) dates.

The chit-chat of those with whom I repeatedly shared my longing to parent a child still rings in my ears. Don’t worry; you’ll meet someone. Why haven’t you tried those dating sites? My best friend’s 3rd cousin-once removed was all set to freeze her eggs…and then she met the man of her dreams. Don’t give up. I have the perfect person for you; my friend’s cousin. I’ve never met him but he’s Jewish, Muslim, Christian, Hindu (fill in the appropriate faith tradition) and single, too. It sounds like the opening of a SNL skit, especially when none of the comments actually reflected my true call, the call to motherhood.

Why is it so difficult to separate authentic motherhood from traditional visions of family structure? Could it really be that single women are less fit mothers than partnered women? Must we presume that single
motherhood will unequivocally make for a maladjusted child?

According to the Population Reference Bureau, “In the United States, the number of children in single-mother families has risen dramatically over the past four decades, causing considerable concern among policy makers and the public. Researchers have identified the rise in single-parent families (especially mother-child families) as a major factor driving the long-term increase in child poverty in the United States. The effects of growing up in single-parent households have been shown to go beyond economics, increasing the risk of children dropping out of school, disconnecting from the labor force, and becoming teen parents. Although many children growing up in single-parent families succeed, others will face significant challenges in making the transition to adulthood. Children in lower-income, single-parent families face the most significant barriers to success in school and the work force.”

This report is enough to scare almost any woman out of choosing single parenthood and engender guilt at the future plight of her child. Thankfully, many single parents have the support of family, friends, and religious community. When my daughter came home (with only 5 days notice), the synagogue community organized meals for me. Before my daughter’s 2nd week on earth, a huge box of clothes arrived from a friend in Seattle.

Based on statistics from the U.S. Census Bureau, Single Parent Magazine contends that there are 13.6 million single parents in the United States today and those parents are responsible for raising 21.2 million children (approximately 26% of children under 21 in the U.S. today). 79% of custodial single mothers are gainfully employed. 50% work full time, year round. From my NYC community, I can quickly and easily count the homes of single moms by choice on two hands. All of us face the usual day to day challenges of finances, babysitters, and day care. All of our children appear happy and well loved.

I worried about becoming a single parent. Would my daughter be lonely? Would she feel “less than” having only a mommy? Would people look askance at her because her mother chose motherhood on her own? My child’s empathy extends to those both younger and older than she. Happy from her core, she finds herself at ease with babies, toddlers, young kids, teens, young adults and those old enough to be her great grandparents. As for not having a father, when you ask who her daddy is, she has been known to respond, “mommy.”

Certainly, I face particular challenges as an only parent by choice (or circumstance). My daughter’s passport application REQUIRED the name and citizenship of an additional MOTHER/FATHER/PARENT in order to process on-line. I was more than mildly annoyed. Mostly, our family challenges mirror those of multiple parent families, like finding last minute babysitters, and making mindful decisions about spending. Friends (and strangers) praise me for responding to all situations as the only adult — from laundry and grocery shopping to mid-night fevers and calls for snacks (yes, my child sometimes wants pretzels in the middle of the night). For the partnered parents out there, how often is your life-partner where you need that person, when you need him/her? Isn’t it Murphy’s Law that when your child projectile vomits, you’re the only one in sight?

At my daughter’s conversion ceremony, I shared these words from the book of Ruth, “Wherever you go, I will go; wherever you stay, I will stay; your people shall be my people, and your God shall be my God.” I wanted to proclaim, loud and clear, in front of witnesses, that while I prayed my child would go off to college (and to sleep-away camp before that), for now, her home was with me; she and I were now inextricably linked — to one another and to the Jewish people — as family.

American Psychologist Carl Rogers writes, “That which is the most personal is the most universal.” Little is more personal than parenting. Perhaps that’s why so many feel compelled to offer advice to complete strangers about how they should raise their children. There exists a universal urge to parent, to help another achieve his/her potential. The opportunity to awaken each day to the possibilities that lie before a brown haired, tousle headed, sparkling eyed little girl, exclaiming with glee, “Mommy, it’s morning time” is, for me, the greatest gift in the world.

If bringing about a dream means reconstituting the family structure, then so be it. Motherhood is the journey of a lifetime.

Read more about Rabbi Gelber’s journey to motherhood is featured in “When the rabbis is a proud single mom.”

About the Author
Lisa Gelber is rabbi, fierce mother, marathon runner, spiritual director, breast cancer survivor, domestic violence advocate and PELOTON enthusiast. She serves Congregation Habonim in the Lincoln Square neighborhood of NYC and earned an Executive Certificate in Facilitation from the Institute for Transformational Leadership at Georgetown University. Her journey to parenthood is profiled in the Emmy nominated documentary ALL OF THE ABOVE: Single, Clergy, Mother.
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