'Having it All' as an Ex-Hasidic Woman
Lean in, Sheryl Sandberg, another feminist bites the dust and realizes she can’t “have it all.”
This epiphany came as I boarded a Delta flight from Montego Bay to JFK two weeks ago. My husband and I took a weeklong trip to magnificent Negril Beach, or what I like to call Paradise, Jamaica, to celebrate two momentous occasions — our 10th wedding anniversary and my graduation from Sarah Lawrence College. We spent our days basking in the warm Caribbean sunshine, drinking one too many strawberry daiquiris, and reveling in the freedom of being unplugged from everyone and everything. What resulted was a week of epic discoveries about myself and my family, as well as the realization that, in pursuit of personal ambitions, my priorities may have shifted. Somehow along the way, I went from being family-first to career-first.
The fierce drive to get places, to transcend the limits of my predestined path in life as a stay-at-home mom, is something I have been struggling with ever since I left Kiryas Joel, the Hasidic enclave in upstate New York where I grew up. I use the word “struggle” not to derogate ambition, but rather to explain why I find it increasingly difficult to find a work/life balance as a girl who became a mother before she was ever a woman.
I was 19 when I gave birth to my son, as is the custom in Hasidic communities where boys and girls marry in their late teens and immediately start a family. Most of my friends and classmates were in the same boat at that age — engaged, married, pregnant or even already parenting one or two children. My husband and I never felt alone, nor did we question our maturity in rearing children at such a young age. I was a good, happy mother cooing over my bundle of joy, which soon became bundles of joy when my daughter arrived 22 months later. There were no big academic or career aspirations to worry about; no “having it all” dreams to chase; no Facebook and Twitter to update as I wiped goo off my children’s faces. I spent my days combing customers’ sheitels (wigs) — a task that put extra cash in our pockets but did not bring personal satisfaction — and matching ruffled socks to my children’s clothing. I cooked dinner in the morning, cleaned my floors obsessively and tended to the children most of my days.
It all changed when we left our Hasidic community. I no longer derived satisfaction from the things I had done before. I was now free to dream. There was a whole new world out there, a world in which success is measured by outward achievement, not the simple, yet essential, stay-at-home work mothers do that keeps the wheels of the world turning. I became a dream-chaser, stretching myself thin to “have it all.”
To live life in reverse, to be thrust into parenthood prior to building a secure foundation as an adult, means sacrifice every step of the way. The sacrifices I made having children at a young age were not entered into consciously, nor did they feel terribly sacrificial. In my little world, I was an adult at 19, and I was certainly better prepared to handle the endless challenges of parenting than your average secular girl at that age. I realized only after I started my new life outside Hasidism what I had given up by becoming a young mother: beginning a career and finding financial security without the responsibilities of parenting.
For all the rewards of academic success and finding my creative voice, for doing the things I am passionate about and telling the stories that I feel need to be heard, there is a price I pay. Yes, I have taken immense pride in my dual existence — being a loving mother and wife and pursuing my dreams in the professional world. But, in pursuit of “having it all,” I may have fogged up the proverbial glasses and lost sight of my priorities. To be sure, my children are always well taken care of — they always wear clean clothing and eat warm, home-cooked dinners, receive copious amounts of positive motivation and discipline, are showered with hugs and kisses and spend many hours of quality time with their parents. We are also fully involved in their school’s affairs and I take great pride in having a freezer chock-full of home-baked goods for them to enjoy. And of course there is the goo to wipe.
However, I am no superwoman. The time and effort it takes to “make it” in the real world is all-consuming. It is nearly impossible — no, positively impossible — for me to give 100 percent in both arenas. My biggest nightmare is to look back on my children’s’ formative years and realize I could have given more, I could have spent more time with them, I could have been a more present parent. I fear I am living this nightmare right now.
On that plane ride home from Jamaica, my husband and I spoke about our resolutions for this new decade of our life together. My resolutions are now hanging all over the walls of our house — one of them scribbled in purple ink is “Family is first.” Ambitions be damned, I am committed to being here for my children first.
Gender is not the barrier that is holding me hostage and preventing me from the coveted life of “having it all.” No woman — or man — can “have it all.”
But perhaps we can have what we have, and take pride and joy in it.