Winter break is over and it’s back to school. There are so many things to get done both at home and at work and yet, all I can think about is a story that happened in Israel earlier this week.
A mother of four young daughters killed her children and then hanged herself in Jerusalem.
Who was this woman, I keep thinking? A monster. A murderer. What kind of woman can strangle her own children? How could she set their bodies on fire? The bodies of her own children?! I think about my childrens’ angelic faces as they sleep at night and the love that surges through me as I watch their chests rise and fall. How could a mother do such a thing?
I watched a clip of her, with a morbid fascination to catch a glimpse of this woman. Was she frail, incapable of taking care of her children? A bitter hardened woman trapped into motherhood? Angry, trying to hurt her husband, for some reason? Was she a failed immigrant, unable to absorb into society? What compelled her, I wonder.
I watched the short clip and saw a woman, stylish, though casually dressed. Her face was blurred but I could see her holding her daughter’s hand. She was speaking a fluid and easy Hebrew.
She looked normal. She didn’t look like a depraved murderer. Nor a monster. She looked like someone I could be friends with. Someone I might strike up a conversation with at the park. A mother of four children, just about my age.
She could be me.
Since seeing this clip, I’ve become overcome with a sense of pity and empathy. What kind of desperation was this woman feeling that caused her to do such a thing?
Postpartum depression, the news reports. She was seeking psychiatric help. She exploded. No one saw it coming.
An extreme case, for sure. But I read about this story and it feels close to home.
I have never feared I would hurt my children, G-d forbid. But I know what it feels like to feel overwhelmed. I know what it feels like to have the pressure piled on. That feeling when you can’t find a kid’s shoes and you’re about to be late for work and you know you’re going to walk in and see the faces of other colleagues who don’t have small children at home thinking, she’s late. The frustration of trying to meet everyone’s expectations; from my husband, who doesn’t enjoy living in a disaster zone, to my children, who want to do projects and play and that often leads to a mess. From my colleagues, who voluntarily work during the summer and on Sundays, and the guilt that I feel when I am with my kids during that time, and the same guilt I feel when my kids want my time and I am dealing with work. The guilt I feel when I forget to bring my child’s blanket to preschool because I was juggling a thousand things and it slipped my mind. The pressure I feel when someone in my community asks me to host and I am so exhausted but there is no one else to offer hospitality. The feeling of needing to keep up when I am just exhausted.
Every working mother knows that feeling of being overwhelmed that I describe. The feeling of not being able to please everyone. Dare I say, every woman, knows that feeling.
We try to be superwomen. Who can do the most, while spending the least. We have limited household help, we can do it all ourselves. We work all day and then try to be involved mothers when we come home, listening to our children’s stories after work, while balancing making dinner and homework and sending our husbands off to minyan and then perhaps to a class so they can learn. We cook elaborate Shabbos dinners with six dishes to choose from, in addition to appetizers and desserts and of course, homemade challah. We have guests when we are sick, we nurse our babies on demand throughout the night even when we have to go to work the next day. We host when we are exhausted because we just can’t say no. And while doing it all, we try to look our best- exercising off the baby weight, trying to look neat and well-dressed. And always with a smile, never a complaint lest we be labeled the whiner.
We pile on the pressure, sometimes coming from the outside, most often coming internally.
And when we are tired, we just keep going. What choice do we have, we say with a tired pride. We are women.
I know this story well. Some of this is my story. Some of these examples are the stories of my friends. It’s the story of almost every woman I know.
But in the story of this mother, I see something frightening. I see that sometimes we can push ourselves too much. That we can snap. And we don’t know what that snap could look like or when it could happen. For most women, snapping won’t look like it did for this woman. She was suffering from a mental illness that overtook her sanity and caused her to do something horrific.
But I see in this story a warning: it is not healthy for a woman to put too much pressure on herself, to find time for everyone but herself. And so this story is my wake-up call.
As women, we need to make times for ourselves because no one else will make that time for us. We cannot just be wife, mother, employee. We must also make the time to discover who we are, what makes us happy, to be ourselves outside of the other titles we carry. We cannot stifle our needs out of guilt, out of duty to others, lest we lose ourselves.
And to find time for ourselves sometimes means cutting back what we do for others. Our kids will be OK if we don’t take them on an elaborate vacation or for an activity on Sunday. The person who texted us will live if we don’t write back immediately. Do we really need to make that much food on Shabbos? After all, we certainly don’t need to engulf that many calories.
And maybe it’s time to embrace our imperfections. To accept that we will never make everyone happy. That there will always be someone who doesn’t like us. That it’s OK if not everyone is happy with us, as long as we can be happy with ourselves.
This is my take-away from this horrific tragedy. Perhaps, I am way off-base and this was about mental illness alone and nothing to do with her feeling overwhelmed by life itself. But I do know that if I and every woman who allows herself to feel pressured to do it all, can reevaluate what is truly important, we and our families will be better off for it. And so this is my journey. And I hope those of you who struggle with this will join me.