The Myth of Work/Family Balance
Finding your own rhythm in the work/family dance.
Figuring out how to balance work and family is an ongoing struggle for working mothers. It’s a matter of allocating not only our time, but also our physical, emotional, and psychological energy between the two spheres of our lives.
Elke, an accountant:
“I feel like I am just getting through the day, barely managing to do everything I need to do. I fall into bed at the end of the day completely exhausted, sometimes even falling asleep in the kids’ room or with my clothes on. Then I wake up the next morning only to start the whole thing all over again.”
Exhausting as it may be, most of us have established a workable day-to-day routine for our families. What can really fray the nerves is dealing with—and even just thinking about—the various unforeseen contingencies that may arise to throw off the delicate balance.
Aliza, an attorney:
“When there is a real emergency, it’s not hard to make a decision about what my priorities are. There would never be a true emergency where I wouldn’t go to my children when they need me. What’s much harder is when I have things that are not an emergency—what do I do then? Like when there is a school play or class trip: Do I reschedule a meeting that took me four months to set up? I have to weigh how important the occasion is to my child against the consequences to my professional life. That is where the struggle is for me.”
How can we ease the strain of juggling work and family? Some mothers have found these touchstones helpful in their quest for enhanced work/family integration.
“Flex” Your Schedule
Who wouldn’t want the freedom to make her own hours or adjust her work schedule as needed? Of course, not every working mother is fortunate enough to have that kind of job. Still, anyone who feels that her work schedule is just not working has to take a step back and evaluate her options. Small changes might make enough of a difference—or a bigger change might be necessary.
It took several years of trial and error before Aliza, eventually achieved a more balanced lifestyle:
“I believe you can be successful at your career and at being a mother, but you can’t be perfectly balanced. I do feel now, after working for 14 years, that I’m at a point where it’s much closer to balance than it’s ever been.
"When my oldest child was three, I started working full-time as a lawyer; my second child was born soon after. Those years were a blur. I remember the phone games with my husband where we would have frantic conversations at 7 p.m. about who was busier and who should get home first. That lasted a few years. I didn’t stop to think: Is this really what I want to do?
"When my third son was born, I returned from maternity leave and asked to go part-time. In a law firm, part-time means getting paid 80 percent of your salary to work five days a week and leave at 5:30 p.m. But if I left at 5:30 p.m. like I was supposed to, people were still looking for me and expecting me to be available. Then after I came home, I would work from 10:30 at night to 2:00 a.m. to compensate because the work was still there. I was a basket case, I was stressed out, and no one was satisfied. The partners were used to having people around all the time so they weren’t satisfied. I was taking a pay cut but wasn’t really working much less, so I wasn’t satisfied. Part-time in a law firm was not working for me.
"I left to join a new firm and negotiated a better contract that took into consideration my lifestyle and my family’s needs. It’s been so much better. I work 9:00-6:00 on Monday, Wednesday, and Thursday. I work a shorter day from home on Friday, which helps with making Shabbos. I am off on Tuesday. I have been able to advance—I was hired as a vice president and was promoted to managing director after eight years.
"Best of all, in my current job I have a lot of flexibility. I rarely have to choose between work and family because the people that I work for ‘get it.’ I miss meetings because of siddur plays, and they say ‘Mazel Tov.’
"Flexibility is not to be underrated. Even more valuable than working part-time is having a place of work that is flexible with your needs. To me, that is the key to happiness because it eliminates all that stress about adjusting your work time to meet your family’s needs.”
Do It Your Own Way
A recurring theme among long-time working mothers is this: Do whatever works for your family, even if it may differ from what others are doing.
“I closed the business for two months every summer so I could have special time with my family. We took the kids to the country; it was great for everyone. Some people commented that they thought this was a poor business decision, but I saw it as a good family investment.”
Ask for H-E-L-P
In addition to their myriad responsibilities, many women labor under the “superwoman” ideal. They pressure themselves to do it all—and all on their own.
Rachel, a nursing home director:
“I grew up with the ideal that the Jewish mother is supposed to do everything. Allowing myself to get help was hard because I thought it would show everyone I couldn’t cope on my own. But after 15 years of working, I learned that I don’t have to do everything myself. I decided to get more household help to clean and that was a great decision.”
There are several ways to lighten your load:
Identify Your Weak Spots.
How do you decide where help is needed? The key is to identify your weak spots—those aspects of your work or home life that sap your morale or energy, yet don’t offer enough of a payoff to make them worthwhile. Then get help in those areas—and let go.
Put Your Oxygen Mask on First
Flight attendants advise adults traveling with small children to put their oxygen masks on first. That’s because parents need their own supply of lifesaving oxygen in order to have the strength and presence of mind to secure the welfare of their young charges.
This principle has application for working mothers. Make time to rejuvenate and refresh yourself. You can’t take proper care of your family if you don’t take proper care of yourself first.
Devorah, a dentist, used to put her own needs on the back burner, before she realized it was counterproductive:
“If my baby got up in the morning before I had a chance to take a shower, I would go in and get her, even though it meant that I lost my opportunity to shower for the day. This was after typically getting up for her at least twice a night! When I went through the day without taking care of myself first, I felt horrible and unkempt; it really started me off on the wrong foot. I ended up resenting the situation I was in. Finally I realized that if I let her play in her crib for an extra ten minutes, nothing terrible would happen to her and I would have time to take a quick shower and feel like a mentsch.”
Don’t commit to anything if it takes you beyond your limits, even if it is something that feels wrong to say no to, like hosting extra Shabbos guests or volunteering. What you accomplish may be offset by the toll it takes upon you and your family.
Take An Accounting
Periodically take inventory of your lifestyle and how you and your family are doing. Do you persistently feel harried and stressed out? If yes, stop and figure out what is pushing you over the edge. Are you lacking organization? Taking on too many extra responsibilities? Not getting enough sleep?
Some additional risk factors for yourself that could indicate a problem include: feeling perpetually overwhelmed, never feeling enjoyment when you are with your children, feeling like you are just “getting through the day” without any joy or satisfaction, and feeling chronically exhausted.
If you can pinpoint the problem, take action. You may need to reevaluate your choices on the work or home front and make some changes. If you can’t identify the problem, consider speaking to someone—a friend, another working mother, a rabbi or rebbetzin, or a trusted therapist for guidance.
If one of your children seems to be struggling, do the same analysis you do for yourself—try to identify the problem, or speak to someone who can help you sort things out. Sometimes just talking things through can make a huge difference. But be prepared to make adjustments to your routine if necessary.
In taking an accounting, try to focus on what you have to be grateful for: your children, your husband, your health, your job, and the little gifts bestowed upon you in the course of the day. Make a conscious effort to be positive and grateful to God for the blessings He has given you, and it will give you the perspective you need to counteract the stress and exhaustion.
Excerpted from Briefcases and Baby Bottles: The working mother's guide to nurturing a Jewish home, a groundbreaking book focusing on the ever elusive balance which so many Jewish women seek between career and raising a family.