Sisterhood Blog

A Work/Life Balance Ketubah

By Elissa Strauss

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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?”

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Parenting Gone Wild

By Elissa Strauss

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.

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The Uncomfortable Thing About Men and Kids

By Chanel Dubofsky

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I don’t even remember how I came across Christopher Scanlon’s piece about the social barriers between men and children, but reading it has made me feel all kinds of angry things. In it, Scanlon describes a situation in which he sees a little girl dangling precariously from some monkey bars, but doesn’t attempt to help her. Why? He explains:

I don’t want to put myself in a position where I could be perceived as predatory or a pervert, or make a child, or its parents feel threatened. I’ve internalized this fear so much so that even though I only wanted to help, I would have felt creepy.

When I was 10 or 11 years old, I had a male dance teacher. I can’t recall thinking it was weird, just that dancing was fun and being in class made me happy. I do remember my mother being really freaked out about it, though, and asking a lot of questions about how our teacher behaved towards us. He behaved … like someone teaching a dance class? It was stressful, being asked these questions. I felt like I was supposed to say something that wasn’t true, because the truth didn’t seem to be what she was after. The veil of suspicion never seemed to lift. I don’t remember when I left that dance class, but it was sooner than I had wanted.

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An American Mom in Israel

By Ilana Blumberg

Ilana Blumberg
Elul, a Beit Midrash in Jerusalem.

In August, my family and I left Ann Arbor for a yearlong stay in Jerusalem. Ann Arbor is hardly a place devoid of intellectual and cultural ferment. Yet coming to Jerusalem was, for me, the chance to enter into a different ferment of ideas in a different language: Jewish ideas in Hebrew.

At the summer’s end, I devoted myself to locating optimal places to study. As a mother of three young children, I needed places close by with meeting times largely aligned with the school day. I did not know in August what I know now: that when choosing such places carefully, I was choosing them not only for myself, but for my children as well.

In Jerusalem, you rarely have to walk more than a block to locate a synagogue or a place to study Torah. And the places to study are far more varied than most American Jews can imagine. The last five to 10 years have seen a serious increase in the number of Israeli Jews across the religious spectrum engaging in the study of traditional Jewish sources. The place where I have chosen to spend the most time studying is Elul, a Beit Midrash around my street corner. Its name draws upon the rabbinic ideas: “Elu v’elu divrei elohim hayim,” which means “these words and those words are both those of the living God.” Elul is devoted to inclusive study for both secular and religious Jews, and everyone in between. (The new Knesset member Ruth Calderon, whose remarkable opening speech to the Knesset last week has already been viewed more than 175,000 times on YouTube, is one of the founders of Elul.)

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Why Relaxing Stresses Me Out

By Elissa Strauss

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Once again, science tells us what we long suspected was true: Never-ending work days, weeks and years are not ideal for human productivity.

According to a recent story in the New York Times, a “new and growing body of multidisciplinary research shows that strategic renewal — including daytime workouts, short afternoon naps, longer sleep hours, more time away from the office and longer, more frequent vacations — boosts productivity, job performance and, of course, health.”

In short, doing as much as you can for as long as you can is not the most effective way to get stuff done well. Such bittersweet advice for those of us who parent and work.

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Motherhood Can Wait... Right?

By Emily Shire

It was pretty impossible to be a female writer and not be aware of Judith Shulevitz’s Dec. 6 article in The New Republic on the aging of American parents. Not since the premiere of Girls was there such an eruption among the ladyblogs; it seemed as if everyone had her own perspective on the article’s lessons and (to some) insinuations about women and their pesky biological clocks. Yet amid all the blog traffic and fiery debate, my 23-year-old self kept wondering, “So what does this mean for me?”

I didn’t read Shulevitz’s article as a feminist essay as much as a scientific one — and not a particularly shocking one at that. Studies showing increased health risks for babies born to older mothers have been confirmed and in the news for decades. If anything, Shulevitz stressed that the mother’s age wasn’t the only problem at hand; older fathers also increase the risk of health issues in their progeny (again, not exactly news). But the commentary and emotional responses her article churned up made me realize that I should start thinking about my motherhood plans sooner than I anticipated…

First, a message to my family members, friends and suitors: Calm your horses. By no means am I saying I want to have a baby any time soon. It feels strange and ridiculously premature even admitting, at 23 years old, that I want to have children at some point. Though my inability to cook anything other than macaroni and cheese and to properly read a Metro-North schedule reveal just how ill-equipped I am to care for another living creature (potted plants very much included), that’s not why I feel this discussion is so premature. It’s actually because of the way my mother, the woman I respect and admire more than any other, raised me.

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My Mom, Her Alzheimer's, and Me

By Sarah Leavitt

Sarah Leavitt

This post is in reply to Margaret Morganroth Gullette’s Forward piece, “Keeping the Conversation Going: A Daughter Speaks to Her Mother Across the Memory Loss Divide.”

When I read Margaret Morganroth Gullette’s article about learning to cope with her mother Betty’s memory loss, Betty reminded me so much of my own mother: vibrant, engaging, talkative, left wing, a schoolteacher. And the way Betty combined unsparing bluntness about her struggles with a fierce insistence that she was really okay: lamenting the transformation of her memory into an “abyss,” and then on the other hand reassuring her daughter that she felt “perfectly well, baby.” My mother did that, too.

But unlike Gullette’s mother, who was lucid until her 90s, my mom, Midge, was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s when she was just 55 years old. It happened after a year or two of odd behavior — forgetfulness, confusion, difficulty navigating space, sudden bursts of anger. When I think about the five years between her diagnosis and death, memory loss was only part of her decline. Just as striking was her loss of language; words stuck in her throat, or came out garbled, and eventually she stopped speaking at all. She couldn’t recognize familiar objects. She thought a bottle of salad dressing was the cat. She thought a rubber band was food. She got lost standing still, and couldn’t tell how to get from the kitchen to the living room — even though she could see the living room. She couldn’t manage to go from standing to sitting, or to walk up and down stairs.

Like most families, my father, sister and I struggled to adjust to this new version of the woman we loved. We all vacillated between compassion and anger, tenderness and annoyance, patience and frustration.

A volunteer at the Alzheimer’s Society suggested that we stop arguing with my mother. I remember being upset at the idea that we would just let my mother be wrong. My family argued all the time; we rarely let things go or agreed to disagree.

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You Never Know What Can Happen

By Rabbi Dayle A. Friedman

Rabbi Dayle A. Friedman

This post is in reply to Margaret Morganroth Gullette’s Forward piece, “Keeping the Conversation Going: A Daughter Speaks to Her Mother Across the Memory Loss Divide.”

The visit to my Dad last week didn’t have an auspicious beginning. For the first time since he entered a nursing home two and a half years ago, he did not recognize me. He was delighted to learn who I was — the rabbi daughter, visiting from her home 2,000 miles away) — but he was quite agitated.

“I don’t know how I got here,” he said. I’ve never been in this place before. It’s some kind of a school started by some guy who’s made millions in non-union enterprises.”

“Dad, look at those pictures on the wall. Isn’t that one your Dad? Aren’t those my kids? Isn’t that a photo of the business you ran?

“Yeah, that’s so strange, I wonder how they got all of those pictures in here.”

I am trying to “re-orient” Dad, to bring him into reality as I know it. He is not going along. If anything, he’s getting more upset. I know from many years of accompanying people with dementia as a chaplain that convincing someone that their perception is wrong simply doesn’t work. Still, it’s painful to see my dad, formerly a dynamic politician and raconteur, so out of it. I pivot and try another tack.

“Dad, this must be very disorienting for you.”

“YES. And this sort of thing is happening to me a lot lately!”

As soon as I stop trying to correct and fight him, things improve. He’s still not oriented — he would definitely not pass the mini-mental status test (count backward from 100 by 7s; remember these three objects). But he is calm. He is happy at brunch in the dining room downstairs. He readily agrees to sit outside on the patio. The sun is warm, and the light is golden on this first day of fall. I am still, restraining my urge to make small talk.

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Judging Ourselves As Parents

By Melissa Langsam Braunstein

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The Jewish New Year is a time for judgment and reflection, not celebration. We gather to take stock and consider all of the ways we have fallen short, sinned and transgressed. We beat our chests, and each pounding represents a sin that either we — or some other member of the community — committed over the previous year.

I will sit in synagogue this September not only as a Jew, but also as a wife and relatively new mother. I will consider my relationship with God as well as my relationship with my one-year-old daughter, Lila. Have I been a good parent this past year? Am I a successful parent? At first blush, those two adjectives may seem interchangeable. And superficially speaking, they are, but they vocalize very different metrics.

Bad parenting may be easiest to recognize; it likely involves abuse or neglect — and if my Twitter timeline is to be believed, enrolling your kids in “Toddlers and Tiaras”-inspired pageants. However, being a “good” parent is much more complex, encompassing many shades of gray.

Every child — even within a single family — is different. Just as a batch of pancakes is made from the same ingredients yet each individual pancake is a slight variation on the others, siblings may share the same DNA but they grow into strikingly different people. “Good,” I would posit, is best for evaluating those so-called ingredients which are consistent (unlike outcomes, which vary). That variation makes “good” parenting nebulous and subjective, but the term is most useful for capturing the current, daily choices that define our own parent-child relationships.

Have we adapted our lives to prioritize our children and their needs, rather than squeezing them into our pre-existing lives? What routines create a smooth rhythm for our families? What values do we teach through our words and deeds?

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Why I Don't Want Children

By Chanel Dubofsky

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Every few weeks, I have some kind of encounter that makes me reevaluate my intention to never have children. The most recent example occurred this past Saturday, as I sat in a coffee shop working through some serious writer’s block. A toddler barreled past my table and began to scratch the chalkboard with his tiny fingernails. Shrieking on the inside, I looked at his mother as she lifted him up, scolded him and deposited him in a chair, which he weaseled his way out of half a second later.

These check-ins with myself go something like: Are you sure you don’t want kids? As sure as you possibly can be? Oh, yes. I’m sure. I’ll be 34 years old in a few months, and even though I’ve known my entire life that I wouldn’t have children, it’s weird to think about going from talking about never having children to actually never having children.

Of course it gets better than your kid murdering the insides of everyone in a restaurant by running his nails down a chalkboard. Right? And there has to be a part of you that wants to have kids more than you’re afraid of it, or potentially resentful of it. A part of you that’s willing to take that leap to find out. I don’t think I have either of those parts, at least not in relation to having children, and I don’t have the desire to find out if I have them, whether they’re deeply buried or just beneath the surface.

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A Haunting Visit to My Old School, My Mother's New Home

By Judy Bolton-Fasman

The last time I drove up the hill of Hamilton Heights I was a high school senior at Mount Saint Joseph Academy — steering the gigantic wheel of my father’s asthmatic ’65 Malibu.

But today I was behind the wheel of my Volvo on a reconnaissance mission to see if it would be the right assisted living facility for my ailing mother, who 30 years ago gave me no other option than to attend the school that then owned the building.

I was in the last class to graduate from The Mount. That was 1978 and by then a school that once had 600 girls in grades 7-12 had dwindled to fewer than 200. When I was a student there The Mount was an ancient queen that had once been beautiful and graceful: The school was dark with heavy wood and velvet maroon drapery. The marble floors were cracked.

While most of my classmates went to The Mount as a punishment, I went on a dare. I had graduated from the local yeshiva and much to my parents’ horror had taken up with the group of Chabadniks that had infiltrated that school. If I wanted single-sex education, they insisted that it had to be in West Hartford, Conn. and not Borough Park.

I was not the first girl in my Jewish family to go to the nuns. My maternal grandmother was educated at convent schools in Greece. Nuns tutored my mother in Havana. In the ’50s and ’60s the Mount had a cadre of Jewish girls. By senior year, though, it was just my younger sister and me.

The Mount has been through a few incarnations since I graduated, but it’s a historical landmark. That means its exterior is eerily preserved in perpetuity. For the past six years it’s been an assisted living facility.

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