Having it all, the Jewish way

As one of thousands of Orthodox Jewish women who juggle work and family, I read with great interest Anne-Marie Slaughter’s recent article in The Atlantic, “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All.” Judging from the heated reactions on the magazine’s website and in the blogosphere, the article hit a nerve — particularly among working mothers like me who ostensibly build our lives around the notion of “having it all.” It was validating to hear that even an accomplished and super-successful woman like Slaughter can’t do it all. (In case you missed her story, Slaughter left a high-powered State Department post to return to a full-time, but somewhat more flexible, career in academia in order to be more available to her two teenage sons.)

While many Orthodox women do not feel the pressure to be uber-career women like Slaughter, we do feel the pressure to contribute financially to our families’ well-being. The high costs of living an Orthodox lifestyle — kosher food, large families, and yeshiva tuition, to name just a few — compel many observant women into the workplace.

Yet, there are additional layers weighing in on the typical observant Jewish woman’s work-life balancing act. Layers that envelop us with purpose, warmth, and fulfillment, but which add pressure as well. For example, while I was intrigued by Slaughter’s article and wanted immediately to write a response, I couldn’t — because in the week following the article’s publication, I was too busy with work, children home from school before the start of camp, Shabbos (Sabbath) guests, a bris, a funeral, and a wedding (and no, I am not exaggerating — not even a little bit). Not to mention the preparations for Shabbos, which nearly rival Thanksgiving dinner and are undertaken every single week. And I am by no means unique. This is the life of the typical communally involved Orthodox Jewish woman.

I believe that our observant lifestyle, while hectic, actually helps protect ourselves from letting our family-work balance get too out of whack. Slaughter briefly touches upon the role of personal values in her mention of the current White House chief of staff, Jack Lew, who manages to maintain his Sabbath observance while serving in what is probably the most demanding workplace in the country. But values should be more than a footnote in this debate.

The women I know are not seeking the benefits of career and family as prized acquisitions or status symbols, but are interested in being, doing, giving — making a contribution to their families, workplaces, and communities. And in so doing, they are forced to make choices every step of the way. These choices have both rewards and consequences, for our careers, families, spouses, children, and personal well-being. For Orthodox Jewish women who subscribe to the beliefs that the Jewish woman is the hallmark of her home, and that raising children is not only a personally fulfilling mission but also a divine one, there are eternal rewards and consequences to consider as well.

What makes the outcomes of our choices manageable for some and overwhelming for others is the extent to which we feel at the end of the day that our choices are consistent with our values.

In researching my book for Jewish working mothers on balancing career and family, I interviewed over 20 women to find out how they managed the competing demands on their time while being true to their values. Here are some of the things they (and I) have found most helpful:

The cover of Tzivia Reiter's book, 'Briefcases and Baby Bottles'
The cover of Tzivia Reiter’s book, ‘Briefcases and Baby Bottles’

Feeling some sense of meaning through working, and being able to convey that sense of meaning to one’s children. Perhaps Mommy works to use her talents to make a contribution to the world, or simply to make money so all the children can have what they need. For example, in the Orthodox world, we put great value on giving our children a solid Jewish — and secular — education, but the high cost of yeshiva tuition is one of the expenses that make it necessary for many women to work. Why shouldn’t our children know that we are working to help pay for their schooling? If there is an attitude and feeling in the house that “my mother is working to help our family grow in some way,” then everyone will be in it together and will be able to feel good about it.

Experiencing joy. It is important to experience joy and satisfaction in the different spheres of our lives – at work, at home with our children, and when engaging in other interests that we value. This may not be every moment, or even every day. But if we are persistently feeling harried, stressed, or like we are just getting through the day without any joy or satisfaction, then it may be time to reevaluate our own attitude. As an added benefit, I truly believe that children who feel their parents’ joy at being with them and spending time with them — whether the mothers are working or not — fare best at the end of the day. I am fortunate to have a flexible schedule; the one weekday I am able to be home with my children, I make a celebration out of it. I give them a special snack, and we try to do a craft or special activity. It lets them know that even though I can’t always be with them, spending time with them is a priority and a source of happiness for me. This goes a long way toward strengthening the parent-child bond even within limited time frames.

Carving out sacred spots. For Orthodox Jews, Shabbos and Yom Tov (Jewish holidays) are sacrosanct. Because we are forbidden to work, we know we will have that time to spend with our spouse and children, and they know it, too. But we have to make sure that whatever time we set aside as family time is really used that way, meaningfully interacting and being truly present with them. We can do the same thing with certain physical spaces in our home or community — making them work-free zones so that our children know they will have our attention there.

Taking an accounting. Like Louise Richardson, who sets her microwave at 1:11 minute intervals, we are all strapped for time. But finding the personal space and time to take what in Judaism is called “hesbon nefesh,” an accounting of the soul, on a regular basis, is crucial. We need to check in with ourselves, to reflect on the life we are living and the choices we are making, and whether or not they are in line with our personal values. We need to ask ourselves: What is the legacy I want to leave in this world? Am I giving the best parts of myself only to my work, and not to my family? For Orthodox Jewish women, this accounting includes not only asking ourselves what we want to do, but what G-d expects us to do. This helps provide a compass among the confusion and chaos. In between these moments of deep reflection, we need to listen to our messages, those signs and signals that speak to us in a very personal way — telling us that we are doing OK, or perhaps, that we need to make a change.

So is it possible for observant Jewish women to “have it all” in the sense that Slaughter defines the term — to reach the highest levels of professional success while raising model children? I do not know that I have the answer. But I do believe that if we keep our values front and center, we are less likely to be troubled by the question.

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Tzivia Reiter is the author of the recently released book “Briefcases and Baby Bottles: The Working Mother’s Guide to Nurturing a Jewish Home” (Feldheim). She is a licensed clinical social worker and a director at OHEL Bais Ezra, where she has dedicated her career to helping individuals with disabilities and their families. Her many articles on topics impacting the Jewish community, including dating and marriage, mental health and disabilities, have appeared in major Jewish publications.