This week the JCC Nursery School book club read excerpts from Sheryl Sandberg’s much discussed book Lean In. Sandberg, who is COO of Facebook, argues that women unintentionally hold themselves back in their careers and encourages women to “sit at the table,” seek challenges, take risks, and pursue their goals. Sandberg’s book has elicited a variety of reactions. I myself have a multitude of feelings about her book and have sat through many heated discussions about her perspective. I was thus anxious as I walked into our book club this Tuesday. Women’s discussions about our decisions whether to go back to work after we have had children touch on a tender topic. Many deeply personal issues factor into these decisions – finances, values, family history, career satisfaction prior to having children, and so much more. We each have to make our decisions, but often there seem to be explicit or implicit judgments about those who make different choices. Few women I meet are totally comfortable with their choice and they all struggle to find the right balance of work in and out of the home. Truthfully, this question of balance remains a challenge not only for mothers but for fathers too.
In her book, Sandberg recounts her own decisions, mistakes, and daily struggles to make the right choices for herself, her career, and her family. I did not agree with all of Sandberg’s assumptions or choices but as I am completing a big chapter as a working mother at the JCC, I have been thinking a great deal about my own life decisions. Not working was not an option for me. My family relies on my income to help support the wonderful life that we have – schools, camps, vacations, new clothing and so much more. But having a demanding job while raising a family with three young children has not always been easy! Every once in a while someone makes an off-handed comment that implies that they think that for me it has been easy – not so! There are times when working has meant that I have had to give up the chance to chaperone a class trip, missed a high school meeting, or missed the chance to stay home with a sick child. There are also times when having children has meant that I had to cancel an appointment at the last minute due to a childcare emergency, or had to race out from my work for a parent-teacher conference or dance recital. My children feel the stress that I bring home after a difficult day at work, miss me on evenings when I am out and sometimes wish that I am waiting home and that they are my central focus. It isn’t simple, it isn’t elegant and there are many days when I don’t get the balance right.
But I feel grateful for all that working has provided for me and for my family. My work has helped me become a better parent. There are muscles that I have developed in the workplace that I am able to also use at home. There are lessons that I have learned at home that help me be a better professional. My children have learned so much through my work at the JCC. Conversations about teaching, learning, Jewish values, and children with special needs have permeated our home. Thursdays, my son calls from his room, “what are you writing about this week?” as I try to get my weekly newsletter out. My children have been blessed by an incredible community of staff and parents from the JCC who treat my children with care and with love. They have mentors and friends who have watched them grow up – and all of these people show to my children alternative ways to be in the world.
When I asked my daughters how they feel about my working, my 13-year old said, “That’s all I have known. But I have learned that you need to work to have things.” She then said: “You learn things from having a job. You learn how to work with people besides your family and friends. You learn how to work with all people. You don’t want to work crazy hours. But it’s good to know that you have to do something to have results.”
About ten years ago, when I was the Director of the JCC’s Family Life Department, I came marching into the office of my boss, Joy Levitt, and asked for a demotion, bemoaning my inability to balance my work life with my family life. She responded by saying, “if our director of family life cannot have a family life we are doing something wrong. Leave work early one afternoon a week and be with your kids.” I promptly devised a plan to pick up my eldest from her pre-K classroom every Tuesday and take her out for a date, and then dropped her for a 45-minute dance class during which time I would race through Fairway for my weekly groceries. This routine lasted for only the remainder of the year, but Joy’s messaging was strong and may indeed be what helped me to maintain my balance (albeit imperfect) while working at the JCC. Not only did this experience encourage me to strive for balance, but it also taught me about how to help support other staff members while they juggle. Through my years at the JCC, I have also truly experienced the ways that meaningful work can feed one’s intellectual, emotional and even spiritual life.
For me, the take away from Lean In is that it doesn’t matter whether one has paid work or not, but that it is important to lean in to the parts of our lives that we care about. As my daughter reminded me, “It is good to know that there are things beyond our family that matter. Family is at the core but there is also a larger world.”
I am lucky to have had work that has also offered me a sense of purpose, of meaning, of connection. I have felt passionately about the work I have done at the JCC, while not diminishing my sense of commitment to my family. The juggle is hard, but I believe that it is worth it and enriches not only my life but also my children’s lives, and hopefully the many lives I have touched at the JCC.
Talking about whether to return to work is a sensitive topic but I felt so grateful to have had the chance to begin to think aloud about this with the JCC Book Club. It is an extraordinary group of parents and this was but another example of how working at the JCC has enriched my life!
Ilana received her B.A. from Harvard College and a Master's Degree in Education from Bank Street College. She was born and raised on the Upper West Side of Manhattan and now lives there with her husband and three children.
Latest posts by Ilana Ruskay-Kidd (see all)
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