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I Don't Know How She Does It

May 9, 2009 | by Emuna Braverman

We're supposed to be the perfect wife, mother, employee, boss. But is such a thing possible?

It's Sunday and I'm trying to balance everyone's needs. I have writing assignments to finish and emails to check. The house is a mess. The kids want to take a family trip and I'd like to go along. My husband and I haven't had any time lately. Everyone needs to eat lunch and dinner. (And there's always laundry!)

No wonder Allison Pearson's novel "I Don't Know How She Does It" is striking a chord with women across the globe. The familiar theme of the harassed and guilt-ridden working woman (all women are working women, right?!) trying to do it all (who even has time to read the book!) is comforting to overworked and underpaid women the world over.

So many of us are feeling overwhelmed and under appreciated. Too much is expected of us, more than we feel is humanly possible. We are supposed to be the perfect wife, mother, employee, boss… Is such a thing possible? And then we have to deal with the patronizing condescension of our next-door neighbors who seem to do it all better and continually let us know.

Sisterhood is powerful but not in the ways we imagined. We're exhausted and resentful -- frequently too exhausted to care.

How did this happen? You can blame feminism perhaps (the easy way out) for promoting the ideal of the superwoman. But blame feminism in another more subtle way. Some of us (the over-40 crowd) remember our old T-shirt slogan: "A woman without a man is like a fish without a bicycle." We don't really need men, including our spouses. (We usually do what needs to be done better and more efficiently than they do anyway!) We are sufficient unto ourselves.

And so the men, our husbands included, slunk away. We taught them that we could do everything, so that's what they expect. We could delegate, but what self-respecting woman can't do it all?

On the initial reading of "A Woman of Valor," the ode to the woman of the home sung on Friday nights, you might think that the Jewish expectation is the same. The demands on this woman are very great. She's in charge of harvesting the wheat, designing and sewing the clothing, supporting the family financially…the list is endless. Surely a tribute to the modern superwoman -- but only if we distort the true partnership that is the Jewish idea of marriage.

It's not his accomplishment or her accomplishment, but ours.

When two people are working together towards the same goal, then the burden must be shared equitably. There may be division of labor but if one side needs help, the other will chip in because both are working to the same end. It's not his accomplishment or her accomplishment, but ours.

Here's a radical suggestion. If we're frustrated and resentful, if we're overworked and complaining, if our husbands don't help at all, whose fault is it? Ours. We're good at playing the martyr; we're good at kvetching. We're good at nagging and attacking. We're good at the silent treatment and bearing a grudge. But how about humility? How about acknowledging we need help, that we can't do it alone? How about asking in a polite yet loving way for some support?

Could you please go to the grocery store for me dear? Yes, you risk getting a few extra bags of potato chips and the wrong brand of laundry detergent, but the savings in time and sense of partnership are worth it. You're not alone.

Could you drive carpool for me on Monday? Could you take the kids out for a few hours on Sunday? There is a troubling notion frequently bandied about that men are incapable of watching their children properly so we need to constantly be there. It's a notion that's paralyzing to us and demeaning to our spouses. Give them the chance. Not only will they rise to the occasion but they'll probably have a great time doing it. And you'll be relieved and gratified.

You are not a better wife/mother/housekeeper because you did it all yourself. You're just more tired.

If you can afford help, get it. (This is not just my advice; it's the advice of the famous Jewish sage and physician, Maimonides). You are not a better wife/mother/housekeeper because you did it all yourself. You're just more tired. We can make our lives run more smoothly and ease the stress and tension, but we have to make that choice. A visit to a spa is a nice occasional rejuvenation, but it's the daily changes that count.

Put away that cape and let Wonder Woman step aside. Our husbands will step up to the plate only when we acknowledge there's a need. Adam, the first man, searched through the entire animal world until he found that being to whom his giving would make a difference. By trying to "do it all," we rob our spouses of a special opportunity to grow. We rob our marriages of the closeness that comes from shared efforts and shared burdens.

One of my favorite stories involves a grandson of a very well known and outstanding rabbi. His spiritual advisor noticed that he was frequently late for morning prayers. Taking him aside, he gently said to him, "I've noticed that it's hard for you to arrive on time."

"Yes," replied the young man. "On my way to synagogue, I notice a family where the baby is crying and needs to be changed, another young child needs breakfast, and a third needs to get dressed. The poor mother seems to be at her wit's end."

"Please tell me who it is," exclaimed the concerned advisor. "We would all like to help this needy member of our community."

"It's my wife," explained the young man.

Not leaving her to fend on her own, this perceptive husband recognized the truth of the idiom that "Charity begins at home." And presumably his wife was clever also. She wasn't trying to prove her goodness, virtue, talent, intelligence, her self-worth by going it alone. A wise person knows when to ask for help, when to delegate and when to pray.

There are war-weary husbands and wives and battle-scarred marriages across the country. Alone, the fight seems impossible. Together you can accomplish anything.

Judaism doesn't encourage martyrdom. Asking for help is a sign of strength, not weakness. It's a mark of confidence, and a gift to your spouse who wants nothing more than to be needed and to come to your assistance. It's hard to be a woman (and a man) today. Ask for help. Ask your friends. Ask your husband and ask the Almighty. He wants to help the most of all.

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