Sisterhood Blog

The Choices and Ambivalence Are Real, Not Artificial

By Debra Nussbaum Cohen

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Dear Elana: I usually love your point of view, and always enjoy your writing. But, wow, do I disagree with your most recent Sisterhood post, “What Makes us Bad Feminists? Kvetching About Artificial Choices.”

My friend, I was surprised to see you use such derisive language when you decried the “pseudo-crises” of “Should I work?” and “Am I a good mother?” There is nothing pseudo about these dilemmas for me and for the countless other women who also struggle to satisfy the needs of (a) our families, (b) our mortgage payments and (c) the desire to realize our full potential as productive, creative human beings.

Okay, there may be an excess of navel-gazing among those of us who have the luxury of doing so. It’s true. Hence the recent emergence of a genre dubiously dubbed the “Momoir.” See Exhibit A and Exhibit B.

I think you have a point when you write:

Yet it’s only women — middle- to upper-class Western women of the late 20th and early 21st century, to be precise — who ask themselves whether or not parenting and work can co-exist.

But that doesn’t mitigate the fact that these struggles are real. You write

I think that some of these questions are all wrong, driven by a conservative, anti-feminist backlash designed to keep us in our place.

The women I know who agonize, at various points in their life as mothers, over these very questions are neither conservative nor anti-feminist. In fact were we either, I suspect that there’d be a lot less internal wrestling than actually goes on.

There is no question that this is true, as you write:

Work is for both genders and parenting is for both genders.

But you lose me when you write:

To continue to anguish over going to work — as if making hard choices is still a woman’s domain — that is a massive step backwards for women.

The truth is that in many couples, the man is the larger wage-earner, and so it is easier for the woman to put her career on hold to be home with their children.

I’ve been a mother nearly as long as you have (Boychik is almost 16!) and my experience working full-time plus for many years is that somebody has got to be home at least part of the time.

Now I’m working part-time, and when one of my girls got sick at school recently and I had to go pick her up in the middle of the day, it was a huge relief just to be able to take care of her while not being stressed out about finishing an article on deadline. A luxury, yes, and a relief.

You conflate an observation about your slice of Anglo-Israeli culture with others’ realities when you write:

Do we ever find men agonizing about whether to take a job because long hours will make them a bad father? Give me a break. I hear men all the time complimenting themselves for coming home in time for bedtime or for working until midnight but at least taking the kids to school. My neighborhood in Modi’in, Israel is filled with families in which the men “commute” to the U.S. for a week or a month at a time. I know a few teenagers whose fathers are gone for six months to a year at a time. How many women are in jobs like that? Few, I’d wager. Yet, I wonder if any of these men agonize about whether working makes them bad parents.

These issues are a consideration for my husband, who has a good job close to home and is usually able to be home by 6. He made the decision not to climb the corporate ladder into a more remunerative but more time-demanding job because he wants to be available to our children, to parent them and take turns with me tucking them in at night (the younger ones, anyway). He cherishes it.

I see these choices being made by an increasing number of men.

My brother-in-law, an MBA who for many years built a career as a business consultant, made the decision a couple of years ago to become a stay-at-home parent. My sister was building her successful boutique law practice and the truth was that it was too hard to have three young children and both parents working 50-hour plus weeks, and to have Shabbat dinner on the table.

But it’s up to the women — we mothers and wives — to create marriages in which there is no default assumption that we will be the ones to step out of work and immerse ourselves in parenting.

I’ve worked full time, more or less, through the births of three children.

You think they’ll have less need for you to be home when they start going to school, but that’s not my experience.

When my youngest, RockerGirl, now 8, begged me not to get a full-time job or go back to full-time Torah study because she likes me to be home when she gets off the yellow bus, that was a real request that I took seriously.

My family is happier when I’m around more. I’m more relaxed and as a result, they are too.

Are there events I can’t easily cover because I don’t have childcare? Yes.

Are there things — lectures, concerts, plays — I want to go to but can’t because it’s better for my children for me to be home to help with healthy snacks and homework, available to ground them before the next school day? Definitely.

Am I ambivalent and sometimes frustrated by this? Totally.

Because the struggles are real.

I’m glad that it appears to be so clear to you, in every moment, what you should be doing (even if it’s five things at once). But I find it hard to believe that someone as thoughtful as you are hasn’t felt conflicted about your competing demands.

I occasionally feel like I’ve finally achieved just the right balance of work and family. Then that five minutes passes.

Most of us grapple with an authentic struggle over competing and deeply important commitments.

Just because we may have the luxury of considering our choices doesn’t make them less real.

With warm regards,

-Debra


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Comments
Silvia Fri. Jan 22, 2010

"The truth is that in many couples, the man is the larger wage-earner, and so it is easier for the woman to put her career on hold to be home with their children."

The truth is a structural reality in which women, not men, are expected to carry the burden of parenting.

You have the luxury of choice. Many don't. Elana is not saying your reality is not "real."

Elana in no way is negating your experience. I don't get why you wrote it. Whining, perhaps?

elana Sat. Jan 23, 2010

Debra

I'm honored that you took the time to read, analyze, and respond thoughtfully and seriously. There's lot to say, and I think we agree more than we disagree. But I"m going to take a day or two to formulate a coherent response with the same care that you showed me.

B'yedidut, Elana




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