Courtesy of Shoshana Kordova
There’s a photo of an apron that’s been popping up in my Facebook feed recently, an apron worn by a woman with her head cropped out of the frame, an apron with big black letters that say: “Eshet F*CKIN chayil” (asterisk included).
When I first saw it I just laughed, struck by the intended dissonance between the F-word (okay, most of the F-word) boldly inserting itself into the middle of the Hebrew term for “woman of valor,” written in Hebrew letters. But unlike most funny-ish Facebook photos, this one stuck in my head after I scrolled down. What exactly was this headless woman trying to say?
In traditional Jewish households, “Eshet Chayil” is probably most familiar as a song many families sing at the Friday night dinner table, just before kiddush. The words are a collection of verses from Proverbs that purport to describe the perfect woman: the most selfless and tireless balabusta of them all, who knows her way around a distaff and spindle at least as well as some of the moms in my Facebook feed know their way around fondant. The eshet chayil described in these passages is the woman behind the man, the one performing the labor that nets him food, clothes and glory (all he does is sit around among the elders of the land, being “known in the gates”).
The author (left) and her son in the Dead Sea, Israel. / Copyright Avital Norman Nathman
There’s a certain sense of overwhelming fatigue that comes from spending hours traipsing along the streets of Tel Aviv under the hot summer sun. Even my mother, who accompanied my almost 8-year-old son and me on this outing and can truly shop till she drops, started flagging. After walking a few blocks in the wrong direction, we reoriented ourselves and grabbed the No. 19 bus, which would take us back to my uncle’s apartment in Rishon. I was exhausted. My mother was exhausted. My son? Still running high on his seemingly endless supply of energy. It must have been the three extra falafel balls he scarfed down at lunch.
I pulled out a notebook and pen, hoping they would keep him occupied on our 40-minute ride. The bus quickly filled up, and the seat next to him, the one across from me, was taken by an older woman who looked kindly at him. Over the next 40 minutes they formed an unlikely bond as she gave him sweets and he showed her the math tasks he’d given himself. They chatted — a mixture of halted Hebrew and English — until she got off, a few stops before us.
“I made a new friend,” my son told his grandfather later that day. “I don’t know her name, but she was very nice. We met on the bus.”
Welcome to Israel.
The following day we decided to do it all again, because one cannot get enough of shopping in Tel Aviv — at least according to my mother. Not wanting to be too much of a burden, we had my aunt drop us off at a bus stop somewhere near Tel Aviv on her way to work. We managed to get on the right bus, but weren’t quite sure when our stop was coming up. My mother and I tried to keep an eye out for it, but an excited boy who wanted to point out every last thing made it difficult. The bus rapidly filled up the closer we got to Tel Aviv. It stopped in Yaffo, and I was fairly certain the time had come to debark.
The queries “What is the right age to talk with your children about puberty?” and “How to prevent precocious puberty” — thanks to a friend who scared the living daylights out of me recently — have filled my Google search history of the past few weeks. You see, my daughter, who is seven, was rummaging through her mommy’s bag while sitting on the table in the orthopedist’s room last week (she broke her poor little foot, but that’s a story for another time), and pulled out a tampon.
“What’s this, mommy?” she asked, while pulling at the purple sleeve to unwrap this mysterious little gift mom keeps hidden in the inside pocket of her bag.
Oh boy, how do I answer? I wondered, as I hurried to gently pry her hands loose of the mysterious thingamajig and put it back in its hiding place.
“Something, I’ll explain later,” I said.
Should couples sign a pre-pregnancy contract, outlining how caring for the infant will be equally divided between the two parties involved? Slate’s Rebecca Onion thinks so.
Concerned about the potential negative effects procreation might have her on her life and her relationship with her husband, Onion wonders whether a “legally binding document, outlining expectations and setting a course for periodic re-examination of the division of labor, [might] alleviate [her] fears, and prevent aggravation, or fights, or divorce, in the future?”
Earlier this week the New York Post ran a cover featuring Chirlane McCray, the First Lady of New York City next to the banner headline: “I WAS A BAD MOM.” I am so glad they did this.
The Post article was a summary of the profile of McCray by Lisa Miller in New York Magazine, which they saw as something that was “bound to horrify most moms” and “shatters the carefully crafted image of de Blasio’s close-knit family, which helped vault him into office.”
Becoming a mother didn’t make me nicer. More compassionate? Yes. More sensitive? Sure. But nicer. No.
During the few months in which I was “trying”, I started involuntarily responding to pregnant women with a snarl. Then there was the period of time following my son’s birth when my concern for other people, places and things all vanished to make room for my singular devotion to him. I’d say my low was being sullen at my sister’s bachelorette party, wholly incapable of shifting gears to easy-going and festive from the war-like intensity of early parenthood. And then there was the time a girl named Pippa hit my son with a toy in the pediatrician’s waiting room. I can’t tell you how good it felt when she later tripped and fell flat on her face.
Welcome to motherhood, millennials. According to a new report from the parenting website BabyCenter, the newest crop of moms, ages 18-32, are rejecting the helicopter parenting they experienced as children and are opting for a more relaxed approach.
As Emily Matchar pointed out in her book “Homeward Bound: Why Women Are Embracing the New Domesticity,” a growing number of women have been taking up old-school activities like canning, baking, sewing and whatever else their mothers used to pay people to do.
This D.I.Y. boom is seen as a feminist move by many of its champions. They believe they are reclaiming traditional women’s activities on their own terms, and saving some money and the environment while they are at it.
Others see this return to labor-intensive domestic tasks as a step-backwards for women. Some even read it as a sign that women have been pushed back into the home because of the failure of public institutions and workplaces to adequately support their non-domestic ambitions.
No matter what side you fall on, I doubt there is one woman out there who hasn’t, at least once, been made to feel inadequate by a crazy D.I.Y. friend. You know the one who baked her daughter a beautiful birthday cake, or sewed her son a non-brand superhero costume instead of grabbing that plastic Spiderman get-up from the rack at Rite Aid, and then posted pictures of it on Facebook.
Well good news for all us birthday cake and Halloween costume buyers out there. It turns out that while doing-it-yourself might be fun and tasty, it is not always the wisest move for those of us looking to make the most of our personal and professional lives.
As Catherine Rampell explains in the New York Times magazine:
Embracing the D.I.Y. ethos is (wrongly) perceived as evidence of thrift or even moral virtue. A personal chef is the sort of luxury people associate with hedge-funders, Europeans with several surnames and oil sheikhs. Still, you need not be an heiress to benefit from paying for a personal assistant or gofer of some kind. From an economist’s perspective, it’s similar to taking out student loans: an investment in your future earning potential. Yet few outside the field see it that way.
It’s official. Everyone is a Jewish mother. Well, insofar as every mother has an inflated sense of the absolute kvell-worthy perfection of their children.
In a recent Christian Science Monitor story about why we want to eat our babies (more on that in a minute), they refer to a study that found that mothers rank their babies poop as less disgusting than other’s number two. How’s that for unconditional love?
This preference for their poop is linked to the ways in which mother’s initial connection to their babies is largely through our noses. A new German study has found that the smells of newborns elicit “activation in the women’s’ brains’ reward circuits.” This is the same circuit that feels pleasure when we eat truffle fries or smoke a cigarette — the addictive one. Not all smells trigger this circuit, explained one of the study’s authors, “only those associated with reward, such as food or satisfying a desire, cause this activation.”
They found far more activity in these reward circuits in mothers vs. non-mothers and determined that the sensation moms get when sniffing their baby feels a lot sniffing a favorite food. And this, my friends, is why we say things like, “Oy, look at those pulkes, I just want to eat them up.”
This summer journalist Amy Klein, a former Forward reporter, began chronicling her fertility journey in weekly posts for the New York Times’ Motherlode blog. Klein spoke to the Sisterhood on why she decided to write about what was long a private struggle, the negative feedback she has received and the support she is, and isn’t, getting from the Jewish community.
THE SISTERHOOD: Why did you decide to write about your journey to conceive?
AMY KLEIN: Since I was young, I’ve been journaling my life privately to help work through what I’m going through as well as to catalog what’s happening in my life.
I’m a memoirist as well as a journalist, so I often publish stories about my life — I had a singles column about my dating life, I wrote about having a stem-cell facelift, and had a Modern Love story chronicling my visit to a Jerusalem rabbi who predicted exactly when I’d eventually meet my husband.
Regarding our journey to have a baby, the Times actually approached me about writing a weekly IVF column after I submitted “Baby Envy” to the “Motherlode” blog.
I think there’s so much that people don’t know about fertility — that I didn’t know about before I started this. Things like freezing your eggs to having trouble conceiving, to ovulation to IVF and miscarriage. It all seems so shrouded in mystery.
I hope that by sharing my story it will shed light for others who are contemplating having children later in life, or help people of all ages going through what I am, showing them that they’re not alone.
Recently, there was a tragedy in Winnipeg. A mom and her two young children died, possibly because of postpartum depression. The news unfolded slowly, in a compassionate way. The children, found dead, were the beginning; several days later, the mother’s body was found in the river. In the days and weeks that followed, Winnipeg jumped into conversation about new moms, mental health and what we should do better.
It’s no surprise that many moms suffer from blues or feel isolated after giving birth. Some new parents have family to lean on, but not all of us do. Our families may be thousands of miles away or unable to help. This isn’t necessarily anyone’s fault. But the conversation about new mothers mattered to me.
When I learned I was pregnant with twins — while living far away from my family — I saw the wider Jewish community as an extended family. Perhaps I could find help. I asked the Jewish Child & Family Services office for advice before I gave birth. I asked two different synagogues if they had any kind of “helping hand” committee in place that might offer support after the birth. What I discovered was that in Winnipeg, the Jewish community had nothing in place to help expectant or new moms. I was disappointed, because I’d hoped to find a caring, supportive Jewish community in my new city.
I’d felt that support elsewhere. When my mother-in-law died, I was in my mid-20s. I was teaching an adult education class at a Reform congregation in Durham, North Carolina. My husband and I attended a Conservative congregation. My students called to offer us condolences. The rabbi at the Reform congregation (not our own), did a shiva call. We were struggling. It was an awful time, but these gestures made me feel less alone.
As if back-to-school season and the High Holidays weren’t enough to command our attention and energies, here in New York we’re anticipating mayoral primary elections (slated for September 10). Last week’s campaign developments, as noted in Kate Taylor’s “Trailside” column in The New York Times, included the following: “Two Democratic front-runners, Bill de Blasio and Christine C. Quinn, on Wednesday got into an ugly dispute over whether Mr. de Blasio’s wife, Chirlane McCray, had suggested that Ms. Quinn could not understand the problems of parents because she did not have children herself.”
Of course, there’s more to the story — including corrections to the Maureen Dowd column, also for The Times, in which McCray’s comments appeared. Regardless of McCray’s original remarks or intent, the situation spotlighted something familiar to some of us who don’t have children: the claim that we simply don’t understand the lives of parents. More important for The Sisterhood’s purposes, it has provided an occasion to counter that claim: In truth, some of us are childless (or childfree, or however you choose to describe the situation) at least in part because we understand the lives of — and the pressures faced by — contemporary parents.
We understand quite well.
Women. We can’t do anything right, can we?
Choose not to become a mother, like the Sisterhood’s Chanel Dubofsky, and others view you as selfish. Chose to become a working mother and you are seen as selfish. Or, choose to become a stay-at-home parent and, yep, you are seen as selfish.
Over the past few years Chanel has written about her desire to be childfree. She has, rightly so, challenged the idea that motherhood is inseparable from womanhood — a notion that goes far, far back to Eve, whose name, given to her by God, means “mother of all things.” So from, like, biblical days until the latter part of the 20th century (i.e. basically forever), women have been valued based upon their ability to make and raise children. This has been especially true in Jewish communities where the ancient commandment to be fruitful was perceived as all the more urgent following the Holocaust. In short, not having children was, and still largely is, a major no-no.
Okay, so this must make me one of the good girls, right? Because I have a baby. A son! And I love him, so, so, so much.
If only it were that easy. You see, theoretically women having kids are good, but in practice, not so much.
In her recent Time Magazine piece, “Having It All Without Having Children,”, Lauren Sandler spoke to women and couples about their decision not to have children in the context of social pressure and statistics (19% of women aged 40-44 have no children, which is almost double the percentage from 30 years ago, according to the U.S. Census Bureau) as well as the expectations and “cultural noise of motherhood.” The magazine’s cover drives it all home: It’s a photo of two smiling, relaxed white people in matching bathing suits, as if to say, “When you don’t have kids, you have time to lay in the sun and match your bathing suits.”
When I’ve written about being childfree in the past, I’ve often been asked to clarify that I’m not talking about reproductive challenges like infertility. Often, the two are confused. Talking about infertility is a taboo, and so is the idea that a woman might choose not to reproduce because she doesn’t want to. While couples and individuals encounter reproductive challenges and sometimes choose to remain childless, that is a different reality and a different conversation. When I talk about being childfree, I’m not talking about something that I wish I had that I don’t. I’m talking about a choice I’ve made, which should always be a choice and not as an assignment. I’m talking about what it means to not want something that women are expected to want. And I know I’m not the only one.
Responses to Sandler’s piece included this chat between two Yahoo writers, Sarah B. Weir and Beth Greenfield, both mothers, who admitted their own suspicions and frustrations in regard to childfree women. Upon hearing that her husband’s colleague, a woman in her early 30s, definitely doesn’t want kids, Weir said, “I immediately went to ‘selfish, narcissistic.’ What is that about?” Greenfield admits “to being perplexed when I’ve met women, throughout my life, who say they don’t want to,” but also questioned her own motives when she got pregnant: “Was it a good decision for the world, which is overpopulated? Or was it just a good and selfish decision for me?”
I didn’t want to write about Amy Sohn’s story “Modern Mothers’ Turn to Scratch an Itch,” in the New York Times’ Sunday Style section. Any “trend” piece about a handful of wealthy women whose idea of work/life balance is leaving their kids with their husbands at the summer vacation house during the week as they frolic around the city in “metallic lace and satin mini” or “[rack] up a bill as big as it would have been for a family of four” while eating alone at a sushi restaurant seemed like it just isn’t worth thinking too hard about.
But then the story continued to gnaw at me for the rest of the weekend. I found myself increasingly annoyed by the, albeit seldom employed, model of parenting exalted by this piece.
As Sohn points out, spending the week alone in the city and the weekend with family up in the country used to be the norm for men. This was particularly true for Jewish families who spent their summers in the Catskills. Now I don’t think these moms are necessarily “bad mommies” just because they enjoy a little time off. Nor were the fathers necessarily bad dads if they did too. What gets me is how they justify their enjoyment.
It seems as though all of these mothers have absorbed an all-or-nothing attitude towards parent-rearing, one that dictates that kids should always come first and the only way to escape it is to escape them completely.
When women stay home with the kids, men may start to view them differently. That’s one of the many takeaways from Judith Warner’s revelatory second look at the “opt-out generation” a decade later, published this weekend in the New York Times Magazine. A particularly noteworthy quote came from the spouse of one of the women profiled, seeming to indicate that his wife’s self-esteem was not a value he cared for. “Once she started to work, she started to place more value in herself,” said Mark Eisel of his ex, Sheilah O’Donnel, a housewife who had opted back in, “and because she put more value in herself, she put herself in front of a lot of things — family, and ultimately, her marriage.”
Bryce Covert neatly unpacks the hidden thesis in Warner’s article at her blog at the Nation, writing “that the actual circumstance of having a wife stay home changes men from being egalitarian to being far more traditional …” both at home when they expect a level of caretaking their partners may not have signed up for, and at the office where research has confirmed their views, colored by their own family structure, “take a turn for the sexist.”
The question I always ask at moments like this is what came first, the chicken of women spending more time at home, or the egg of home-based caretaking work being devalued by society? This attitude also explains why domestic workers and health aides aren’t treated as the hard-working, skilled laborers they are.
Judith Warner has a new New York Times magazine piece on the opt-out fallout. She looks at the lives of women who, armed with prestigious degrees and high-powered jobs, decided to leave their careers behind in order to become full-time caretakers a decade ago. (Many would call them stay-at-home-moms but I won’t, because I find the term, with it’s passive “stay,” pejorative. As much as you might like to, you never “stay” anywhere when you are home chasing kids all day.)
I recommend you read Warner’s piece in full because the reporting is excellent, as are the issues she raises. Still, like all good writing on work-life issues, it left me with more questions than answers. The one nugget of insight Warner took away from looking at these families is that husbands need to do more to demand work-life accommodations from their bosses in order for our work culture to change. She says this is no longer so much a gender issue, but an economic one, because these days parents need two salaries to survive, but they also need two jobs that allow them to parent.
Otherwise, we are left with the inconvenient truth about life in a world in which both men and women want a career and a family. This is the fact that someone needs to watch the kids and, in most circumstances, it is probably best that at least a quarter of the time that person is a parent.
When Ronit Sherwin moved to Delaware in 2011 to become executive director of the University of Delaware Hillel, she decided to enroll her now three-year-old twins in a daycare program at a well-established Jewish organization. But as a single mother and her family’s sole breadwinner, she couldn’t afford the $2,200 monthly bill for nearly 10 hours a day of childcare for her daughter and son.
“I couldn’t buy groceries if I had to pay that,” Sherwin, 40, said.
She explained her situation to the daycare provider, and was assured that she would be given time to pay off any outstanding balance. As an in-kind contribution, Sherwin offered to teach a class at the organization housing the daycare.
This is the fourth and final post in a Sisterhood series by Nina Badzin on gadgets, family and work.
Turns out I’m not the phone-addict I thought I’d become during the first months of my iPhone experiment.
To recap: Before Passover, I decided to stop living as a slave to my phone. I’d heard about others’ attempts at unplugging and even about one writer’s Internet-free year. In most cases, the experiments failed because the change was too drastic. Less phone time sounded reasonable, but my rules still required practice.
Some Forward readers insisted that strict Shabbat observance would solve my phone problems. As I reported in late April, I didn’t find that improving my Shabbat habits had any positive influence on the rest of the week. (However, I would love for some Shabbat observant readers to tell me whether they are less addicted to their phones on Sunday through Friday due to their 24 hours off the grid. Do you not look at a text during dinner on a random Wednesday? Are you not staring at your phone on the subway or in line at the grocery store? Let me know in the comments below.)
My phone-free progress has not come from big blocks of time. Rather, as debut author Natalia Sylvester noted when she couldn’t use her phone during an international vacation, it’s possible to do more of what you want when your spare moments are no longer spent staring into your phone. I loved Sylvester’s advice to “collect these moments. Spend them wisely. Watch them stack up like change rescued from underneath the couch cushions, piled high in a clear glass jar that astounds you with how much it holds once it’s full.”
While most of the world was thrilled to get a glimpse the new royal baby, I was getting teary-eyed about something else — Kate Middleton’s postpartum bump.
Among the many luxuries afforded to the Duchess of Cambridge for her debut as a mother was a hair and make-up team to assure that her tresses were shiny and smooth and her complexion dewy. These magicians, whoever they are, did a marvelous job of erasing any signs of fatigue and physical stress that pregnancy and labor, no matter who you and your vagina married, brings on. Well, everything except the bump.
The fact that you still look quite pregnant for a couples of weeks after you give birth is something I failed to understand before I had a baby. Shortly before my due date I sent my sister links for non-maternity dresses I could wear to the bris, wondering if I should get a small or medium. If I could time-travel my way back to that Gchat, I would write rows and rows of “hahaha’s” just so we got the point. (I wrote more about the perils of dressing during and after pregnancy here.)