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.
As a Jewish woman who prefers work to cooking, the Hebrew calendar determines most of the time I spend in the kitchen. Certainly I cook year round — especially for shabbos — but for me, serious cooking happens over the Jewish holidays. While most Jewish women would probably claim Pesach as the ultimate in holiday work, I am most challenged by the fall holidays, when my professional world collides with my Jewish world.
In the heart of the summer months, from Shavuos until mid-Elul, I don’t do much cooking. I take summers off from teaching English at the University of Illinois at Chicago, and I use that time to study, write and catch up on reading. And without festive holidays all summer, most substantial cooking goes on hiatus.
But by late summer, I am swept up by a whirlwind of obligations as the new college semester crashes into the fall holidays. The Jewish calendar calls me back to my kitchen, but I’m no foodie. I am a simple cook, and so I pull out my worn 1987 edition of Joan Nathan’s “The Children’s Jewish Holiday Kitchen.” From my dusty spiral recipe notebook, I peel apart recipes glued with dried honey and find holiday menus and to-do lists that go back over 25 years. At the top of each page of notebook paper is a list of Rosh Hashanah guests, written in my hand or my daughter’s; I leaf through each one, noting the passing of time and family.
For me, this period has always been a time of balance and reflection. While I weigh in on the past year and ask people I may have wronged for forgiveness, composition papers pile up, awaiting my thoughtful grading. At least I can work at home and hold Skype office hours while honey cakes turn golden brown in the oven.
The holiday weeks continue compressing my workweek into precious few days. It’s a month-long accordion existence — from work, to preparing at home, to work, to the holiday itself, to shul, and then all over again. I find ways to make it work, but when Simchat Torah ends, I’m ready for what comes next. Not only do we hear Breisheit on Shabbat, but we also welcome my favorite month of the year: Cheshvan.
Ah, women and ambition. If I could untie this knot, I’d be on national tour with my bestselling self-help book.
Elissa, in this Sisterhood post, is right, of course, that the issues brought up by Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg in her recent speeches, as vital as they ar, (and as much as I felt personally touched and invigorated by them), are missing a piece — that is, social and political will to improve women’s lives by making paid maternity leave mandatory, by passing anti-discrimination and sick leave measures that would allow women to charge ahead while also caring for kids, aging relatives, and ourselves without getting penalized. Added to this, of course, are the unspoken social rules which affect women’s psyches and the perception of our behavior — rules about when it’s acceptable to look out for oneself first, when it’s acceptable to value advancement over loyalty, when it’s acceptable to demand more of your family, your friends, your boss.
And the missing piece that I’m referring to is the same piece that’s been long absent in media coverage of women’s advancement in the workplace and the never-ending “mommy wars.”
The second time I see H. is on a Sunday morning at the bus stop near my apartment. It’s the kind of rainy day in New York that makes you feel hopeless; the rain comes at you sideways, umbrellas blow inside out, and by the time you reach anywhere, you are sopping and angry and frustrated and wish you’d never even tried.
H. and I had met a few days earlier in the middle of woods, at a training for very courageous people planning to journey to remote locations with many young Jewish adults in our charge. She and I, and a few other women, had been part of one evening’s networking group.
Networking is the ultimate demonstration of privilege. That is, if you know what networking is, why it’s important, what to do with networks and know other people who also know these things, you are privileged. You’ve probably been to college, or even graduate school; you probably have had access to some kind of money and/or community that values connections and speaks about how it’s all about who you know. In the Jewish community, this is especially true; if you can manage to penetrate the walls of the organized Jewish establishment, you have a network that might last you as long as you want it, and maybe even beyond.
A recent article by Dan Brown at eJewish Philanthropy argues that Jewish communal leaders have a dismal track record of recognizing and rewarding the talented women in their midst. Brown makes an excellent case for taking action to right such disparities — disparities that have been covered extensively in the Forward. But how?
How can communal leaders enable their employees — male and female — to serve and grow to best effect? Our own personal experience informs how we see the answer. We both hold meaningful positions in the Jewish communal world with flexible, part-time work arrangements. These situations afford us opportunities for professional growth, while enabling us to fulfill our responsibilities as caregivers and communal volunteers. We hope and expect that these positions will lead us to positions of top leadership in the Jewish communal workforce. Our central piece of advice to communal employers is this: Make work arrangements flexible, formal and meaningful. Here’s why:
It is said that when a baby elephant is trained in captivity, it is tethered to a post. It learns that it can move only in a circumscribed space when it’s tied up. After the elephant becomes a large and powerful animal, it could easily uproot the post. But it still assumes that when tethered, it can move only in that same, limited space.
I thought of the baby elephant story when I read Elana Maryles Sztokman’s recent Sisterhood post “Are Women or Communal Structures to Blame for Economic Disparities.” Citing the average $28,000 pay disparity between men and women in Jewish communal organizations, she concludes that blaming the structure is more fruitful than focusing on the power that lies in our hands to make change. Casting women as victims rather than as actors with the power to shape our own fate is outdated thinking that no longer reflects reality, nor does it serve us well today.
Inarguably, women have been discriminated against, by law and by custom. It’s not right that women in the U.S. earn 20 percent less than men; it’s not right that — despite being 60 percent of college graduates, 50 percent of the workforce, and 54 percent of the voters — it will, at the rate we’re going, take 70 years for women to reach parity in top leadership positions.
As I was driving my daughter to school for an afternoon exam, I received a work call about a knotty issue that left me with a lot of explaining to do about power, money and some complexities of office politics. This is my life, I thought. Though I’ve long since abandoned any hope of being free to do only one thing at a time, and I’m not sure I would have chosen to expose my child to all that she heard on the speakerphone. Nevertheless, after 17 years at this parenting stuff, I am happy to report that I am no longer self-flagellating about doing it all at once.
There was a time, long ago I think, when I would pore over those new-mom essays, the type agonizing over pseudo-crises like, “Should I work?” or “Am I a good mother?” and soak up every word. Today, I find that genre irritating at best. I am not interested in hearing guilt-inducing rants, and frankly, I think that some of these questions are all wrong, driven by a conservative, anti-feminist backlash designed to keep us in our place.
You've successfully signed up!
Thank you for subscribing.
Please provide the following optional information to enable us to serve you better.
The Forward will not sell or share your personal information with any other party.
Thank you for signing up.Close