Sisterhood Blog

Something No Woman Would Say

By Debra Nussbaum Cohen

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Last week I heard something out of the mouth of a father that I cannot imagine hearing from a mother.

Permit me to explain. My 15-year-old, Boychik, is in a fabulous Jewish youth choir that just had a regional retreat in N.J. I had volunteered to be the Manhattan chapter’s parent coordinator, which meant I needed to make sure that every kid in the chapter had a way to get to the retreat and back.

Being the Yekke that I am, I got on the task early. I emailed parents more than a week in advance, asking them to let me know if their child was going and if so, if he or she needed a ride to or from the gathering. Naturally, I heard from no one.

A few days later, I sent another email, giving people a deadline of a few days before the retreat, the idea being that I’d have everything worked out well in advance of the trip to N.J. Sunday morning. That lit a fire under several parents, who wonderfully got back to me and helped me figure out who needed a ride with whom.

But a couple of parents didn’t get in touch. So the Thursday night before the weekend retreat I’m on the phone trying to play matchmaker for the remaining kids. Semi-frantic phone calling ensued between me, the chapter’s conductor, and the mom who did this job last year, as we tried to figure out a way to reach two families who weren’t answering their many phone numbers. (Wasn’t technology supposed to make our lives less, rather than more, complicated?)

When I finally reached the father of one of the two kids still needing rides, he seemed dumbfounded that his young teenage daughter had not figured this out for herself. I told him who to call for a ride back into the city. But getting a ride out was harder, because only one parent was driving straight from the city to N.J.

I told him to call that parent, and gave him the relevant phone number. Alas, he left it in the hands of his lovely daughter, who seemed to confuse who was going where, and as soon as night fell on Saturday I got a frantic email from him: “Can’t find her a ride there, can U help?”

I was on my way out the door for a date with my husband, but I took the time to respond with three different ways she could get there (including a bus from Port Authority and getting her to my house to connect with the Brooklyn contingent).

Nevertheless, after I got home from our wonderful date, at 10:30 Saturday night, I got a terse email from him telling me to call him.

When I called him, I told him that I was slightly annoyed to have to deal with this on late Saturday night, since I’d asked for responses by the previous Tuesday in order to avoid such a crunch.

He responded, nearly shouting, “I’m very busy. I’m a surgeon!”

Are you kidding me? Didn’t your patronizing attitude go out of style about the time President Kennedy stopped wearing hats? It sounded like a line you’d hear on Mad Men, were the show set in a hospital.

Aside from the comment’s sheer rudeness, something else bothered me about it. Then the lightbulb went off: it was so…male!

I mean no offense to the male half of the species, which I love and enjoy, but I cannot imagine hearing anything similar from any mother I know. Even a working mother. Even one who works as a surgeon.

We are all impossibly busy. But we mothers generally handle it all. ‘Tis true that we may drop the ball once in awhile, but when we do we are generally contrite and appreciative of the people who are trying to help us out (like volunteer parent coordinators).

The remark brought to mind a related phenomenon.

My husband only got his first cell phone within the last year and a half. After years of hocking him a chaiynik about it, he finally gave in. (Though even now he rarely turns it on). Before he relented, I noticed that all of the few people I knew who were in his Luddite camp were men. And fathers.

No mother of school-age children I know would ever consider ditching her cell phone. We have to be available, at all times, in case a child gets hurt in gym class at school or confused about which subway line to take when construction bollixes up the routes. It’s just part of our job description.

Even when we have other job descriptions, too. Like surgeon.

Dan Friedman Tue. Jan 19, 2010

Stop essentializing gender! Every time you do that you set back feminism a decade. The guy acted arrogantly not because he has a Y chromosome but because he's grown up in a patriarchal system and, if he's a surgeon, probably still lives in one professionally. The fact that overempowerment and aggressive defensiveness are more often traits displayed by men is totally socially contingent.

Elana Wed. Jan 20, 2010

Dan --

I don't think the article essentializes gender. Debra is not arguing that it's in the genes. The entire article can be read as "this is how we socialize men", that is, to be self-absorbed and reliant on others (read, women) to do the daily grind while they do "important" thing. But I agree that maybe we should try not to say "all men" or "all women" about anything because ultimately that leaves the people who are exceptional feeling like freaks rather than wonderful, independent-minded non-conformists who just may be changing the world....

James Wed. Jan 20, 2010

As someone who has met a lot of surgeons, I must admit that I think they're all like that, including the women. That said, the subfield is massively male, so your argument may still hold.

Lisa B Wed. Jan 20, 2010

Not sure if that is a male response or a surgeon response or a harassed, had a bad week and don't want to deal with this and can't think of a suitable excuse response.

I'm loathe to assign gender to a one-off situation. Now if ALL the fathers responded in a similar way......

Leah Wed. Jan 20, 2010

I think you make an extremely valid point. In our society, we assume that women who work, no matter how time consuming or "important" their job may be, will also be full time mothers. We simply do not expect the same of men.

Ran T. Thu. Jan 21, 2010

Doctors are cads, the ophthalmologists are for some reason the most arrogant ones. Perhaps it is because the medical profession has lost much prestige since baby murder became legal. Also because so many turn to nutrition and alternative medicine in the wake of allopathic medicine's many failures.

D**** Thu. Jan 21, 2010

I think there is much more to this story than mothers handling it all and fathers often passing things off to their wives.

Near the beginning of the article, Debra wrote, "I emailed parents more than a week in advance, asking them to let me know if their child was going and if so, if he or she needed a ride to or from the gathering. Naturally, I heard from no one." Isn't this sad? Debra took the time from her busy schedule to email parents, both fathers and mothers, and heard back from nobody!

I was involved in Jewish education for a long time, and it was something I enjoyed. At the same time, it was sometimes frustrating. Why? Very apathetic parents, both fathers and mothers, who refused to take any interest in the Jewish education (or sometimes the other Jewish activities) of their children. I could share enough stories to keep you reading for the next 20 minutes, but I'll share one that really sums it up well. I once had a girl in my class who was a mild behavior problem, but she also had a hard time with the work. She was absent a lot. I talked to both of her parents, and let them know that I wanted to work with them to help her. I had some suggestions and solutions that would have involved at most, 20 minutes of their time each week. Every attempt at communication and every suggestion from me was ignored. A conversation with the mother said it all: "I have a hard enough time with her in public school, so you'll just have to deal with it!"

Joe Fri. Jan 22, 2010

I'm not surew if it's a male thing or a Jewish krank. In the 1960's I was active in the Jewish life of a major male American university. Straight after Purim I put up notices asking that any student who wants to attaend a family seder contact me. There were about 800 Jewish males on campus. In the first week I received one phone call and made the necessary arrangements for him to attend a congregational seder led by one of the university's professors of Semitics. 'He' was a Catholic divinity student doing a Ph.D. in Biblical Hebrew. The first Jewish male response was the day before Pesach and the last Jewish male response was a phone call as I was leaving for shul the first evening of Pesach ! Fortunately several mothers of Jewish male students had told me I could send them a few guests even if it was too late to use the phone, a tribute to Baltimore's tradition of hachnosos orchim. In my work as a teacher I used to ask the boys after Pesach to write about Pesach preparations and how they spent yom tov. I found most years the boys believed the seder just happened -- like the Spring equinox -- when they arrived home from shul. The idea that it took weeks of preparation was off their radar. I told several mothers I would not give homework the last week of term so their pre-Bar Mitzvah boys could help at home. The mothers replied that for all the help their sons can give I should give them double homework to keep them out of the way !!!

sharon Fri. Jan 22, 2010

I've had plenty of mothers tell me that they were "too busy". Interestingly, I find it has little to do with how many children the woman has and whether or not she works. Some people, both men and women, are just more considerate than others. As to the cell phone comment, I have a prepaid cell phone that leave turned off unless I need to make an emergency call. Any one who thinks s/he needs to be available 24/7 is exaggerating his/her own self-importance.

Ellie Sat. Jan 23, 2010

To the point about cell phones and parents being "on call" at all times: how is it that prior to this generation children managed to grow up without being able to contact a parent 24/7? We survived perfectly well without texts, tweets, voicemail and answering machines. There were actually whole hours when our parents were unavailable to us, and vice versa -- and somehow we reached adulthood! Our parents even had some time together without their kids, on occasion.

I remember riding the NYC subways in the mid-60's with my brother (we were both in elementary school). Our parents taught us what to do if we got lost (find a phone booth, find a policeman, ask a token booth clerk, etc.), and let us go. I'm sure they worried; on the other hand, we kids learned to be self-reliant and proud of our ability to manage challenges without depending on our parents to solve every problem for us. (And, no, the 60's were not a kinder, gentler time, at least not in New York City; quite the opposite.)

I work at a large public university, and the faculty and staff there share stories about having to deal with "helicopter parents" who can't let their offspring learn to navigate the world on their own. Cripples the kids, and it's not too good for the parents, either. Parents, try not being available to your children at all times. Loosen the grip a little. They won't break, and neither will you. Quite the opposite.

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