“How many of you bother reading all the emails from your kid’s school?”
When a presenter asked that question at a Tel Aviv conference for working mothers, it was met with peals of laughter and the shaking of heads. Only one woman in the entire auditorium raised her hand.
Yael Ukeles reads every note regarding her 6-year-old son, Amitai. She attributes her conscientiousness to the “tremendous power of choice” that brought Amitai into the world.
Part of a growing network of religious women who have chosen to raise children without a partner, Ukeles is a co-founder of KayamaMoms, an organization that supports such women and advocates for their needs in the wider community. Bordering on a misnomer, she said, the term “single mother by choice” fails to incorporate the emotional anguish that comes with the choice between being a single mother and not being a mother at all.
“You speak to any single mom by choice — Jewish or not Jewish, in America or in Israel — and it’s really the same story,” she said.
Unmarried and approaching 40, Ukeles realized that if she wanted to become pregnant, she would need to act quickly.
“I felt angry — well, maybe angry is too strong a word — but I felt pressured at having to make this choice. But I understood that no decision is a decision,” Ukeles said.
So she started to do research, speaking to psychologists, financial advisers and, being an observant Jew, to rabbis. She also had to let go of her lifelong vision of what her future would look like.
“The literature calls it ‘mourning the dream,’ ” she said, adding that clinging to vestiges of some ideal long past its expiration date was an irresponsible way to bring a child into the world.
“That child shouldn’t feel anything but 100-percent wanted,” she said.
Apart from letting go of ingrained paradigms, Ukeles’ advice to women considering to go it alone is to, well, not go it alone. Although she credits her family with being “150 percent on board” with her decision, it was really her community of Tekoa — a mixed religious-secular community in the Gush Etzion bloc south of Jerusalem — that eased much of the burden.
“Find a community that you want to live in and raise a child in and be a part of that community by giving,” she said. “Give, give, give.”
That way, she said, by the time you need to ask for help, you’ll already have a built-in support network.
“I felt pressured at having to make this choice. But I understood that no decision is a decision.”
As her voice cracked, Ukeles recalled the exhilaration she felt at Amitai’s brit milah.
“It was beyond … just beyond. … When I walked into the room, I felt this swell, literally a wave of love and support. Every time I think about it I almost can’t breathe because it was just so beautiful.”
Six years on, is Amitai aware of his uncommon origins?
“Oh sure, we speak about it constantly,” Ukeles said.
Ukeles told Amitai before he turned 2 about how she wanted to have a baby, so she went to a doctor. When he was a bit older, she added that she had wanted to get married but didn’t find anyone, so she went to a doctor.
“And then I added a little biology,” she said with a laugh.
She has revealed to her son details about the sperm donor so that “it’s not a ghost in the house.” She has information about the donor because she used an American sperm bank. Israeli law requires that sperm and egg donors remain anonymous.
Still, in most ways, women wanting to become single mothers have it easier than their U.S. counterparts. In religious circles, the subject is less taboo in Israel, so there are more single mothers by choice than in comparable U.S. communities. And the state covers fertility treatments, which can be prohibitively expensive in the U.S.
To date, Ukeles — with KayamaMom co-directors Dina Pinner and Dvori Ross — has supported some 80 women in Israel and the U.S., and welcomed more than 100 KayamaMom babies into the world.
Although she never imagined her “Plan B would be this awesome,” she said, she hasn’t entirely lost sight of Plan A: “I’m still hopeful that I’ll find myself in a nurturing relationship someday.”