A Jewish Perspective on Being a Working Mother
When I hear the term “women in the workplace,” I picture power suits and pumps, water coolers, and metal filing cabinets. I don’t immediately see myself. As a rabbi and a community organizer, my workplace looks more like a spare bedroom, coffee shops, and video conferences, jeans, messy ponytails, and sometimes even yoga pants!
My husband and I are expecting our third child; when the baby comes, we’ll have three children under 4. I’m often asked (but my husband, who leads a congregation, never is) if I will continue working, frequently followed by confusion about how I will pull off such a feat.
Yes, I will continue to work.
Working more than 40 hours a week, I am an important earner in our family’s economy. I’m also representative of a growing share of the workforce, especially women, who work remotely with schedules that offer some flexibility. In fact, it is because of this flexibility – the absence of a strict, one-size-fits-all schedule – that my family will continue to benefit from two incomes after the baby is born.
Research shows that an expectation that women will spend long hours at our desks is one of the main reasons for gender gaps at work when it comes to pay equity, advancement, and the likelihood that we will stop working after the birth of a child. Flexibility regarding when and where we work can go a long way in closing these gaps. It is increasingly offered by small and large companies, improves employee engagement, and attracts talented workers. However, The New York Times reports that even when flexibility is offered by an employer, a stigma exists around taking advantage of it.
I understand that!
A few weeks ago, when asked to join an important meeting scheduled for the same time as a parent-teacher conference, I struggled internally for hours about which to attend. In the end, I decided on the parent-teacher conference, but made a note on my mental scorecard of work-life balance that next time, I should say yes to the work meeting. Working and living are a balancing act, but they require flexibility.
In Judaism, the traditional response when hearing of a pregnancy is “b’sha-ah tova” (“May it come at a good time.”) This reply may sound funny, but it is based on a superstition of not celebrating something before it happens. To me, the response feels very real; there is never a right time, so let it be at a good time. B’sha’ah tova acknowledges that parenthood offers us little control, forcing us to be flexible, creative, and adaptable.
Likewise, Jewish legal tradition is full of guidelines for fulfilling our obligations in society – and guidelines for when we should be exempt. Deuteronomy 24:5 teaches:
“When a man has taken a bride, he shall not go out with the army or be assigned to it for any purpose; he shall be exempt one year for the sake of his household; to give happiness to the woman he has married.”
As I learned from the senior sermon of my seminary classmate, Ally Jacobson, for this duty that affects community safety, Jewish law acknowledges that sometimes family happiness – not only family survival – must come first. A later text (Mishna Sotah 8:2) elaborates: “All these men hear the priest’s words concerning the battles of war and return home and they supply water and food and repair the roads.”
An inflexible workplace didn’t work for ancient Israelite soldiers – nor does it work for today’s workforce, especially women. Many jobs held by women at lower income levels, women of color, and immigrants are not trending more flexible, making this an issue of gender and privilege.
The Hebrew word shalom (peace) comes from the same root as the word shalem (wholeness). To ensure all women are treated as whole people with multiple identities and roles, we need public policies, including domestic workers’ bills of rights, universal preschool, and new ideas that promote these values. Whether they apply to our own workplaces or those of women who work in our homes, such policies reflect our values and a willingness to put them into action. We must craft and advocate for policies and professional lives that let us all be whole because only then can we be at peace.