Having It All By Having Nothing At All
The picture that accompanies the article is tremendously adorable. A wide eyed baby looks impishly upwards, away from the camera. She is sitting not in her crib, but inside a brown leather briefcase. The headline, which I’m sure many of you have seen reads: "Why Women Still Can’t Have It All."1 I suppose we are to assume that the baby misses her mama so much that she has crawled into her briefcase and joined her at work. Or, she wants to be like her dad so she has a briefcase of her own to use for play. Or, most likely, a parent is struggling so much to balance the baby and the briefcase while checking e mail on the smart phone that no one notices the little one crawling inside, ripping documents and coloring on files. Regardless of how the baby ended up in the briefcase, most notable is that parents are completely absent from the picture.
The article that accompanies the picture tells Anne Marie Slaughter’s story of leaving her dream job as the first female director of policy planning at the State Department in order to be more present in the lives of her teenage sons. She says her decision was met with two clear reactions: those who pitied her, and those who implied that her commitment, either to her children or to her job, was lacking.
Slaughter describes coming to the realization that she no longer had it all. She believed she had had it when she was working in Washington, while her loving husband did the heavy lifting of child rearing. She had struck the family/work balance – but a turn of events in the life of her child tilted the scales. She was ‘no longer able to be the parent and professional [she] wanted to be’ if she kept up the pace of her demanding work. She chose to sacrifice her job for her family, and stepping down clearly left her wracked with guilt, as if she had violated the unspoken rules and regulations of feminism. Slaughter’s article was published in The Atlantic just over one year ago, and since then the media has exploded with spin offs. It seems that no matter the demographic, we are all faltering as we attempt to strike a balance between work and home.
The headlines speak for themselves: Esquire Magazine published "Why Men Still Can’t Have It All,"2 Times of Israel ran "Having It All, The Jewish Way,"3 and just a few weeks ago a happily entwined sunbathing couple graced the cover of Time Magazine: "The Childfree Life: When having it all means not having kids."4 If the articles tell us anything, it is that everyone is struggling to find the equilibrium necessary to have it all. It appears that no matter what we have accomplished, or how we are managing to achieve and uphold the lives we’ve built, it just isn’t enough.
Our sages teach: ‘Who is rich? One who is happy with his lot?’ We all understand the truth of this wisdom. And yet, how can we embody this message when on every newsstand we see reasons to doubt ourselves, motivation to question our lot and the choices we have made? Our world is so big, our universe so vast. Surely, if we believe that there is an all out there to be had, we will never be fulfilled.
The picture that accompanies our next article is confusing. A crowd of women are running. They are dressed not in marathon gear, but in suits, dresses, pencil skirts and pumps. It’s hard to tell if the women are running with the leader of the pack or chasing after her. But her identity is unmistakable. She runs coolly, purposefully, in her star spangled leotard and red high heeled boots. She is, of course, Wonder Woman, and it is clear that no matter how hard and how fast these fashionable women run, they will never catch up. This article is called: “Why The Woman Who ‘Has It All’ Doesn’t Really Exist.”5 Author Debora Spar, president of Barnard College writes,
Women today face towering expectations: a pileup of the roles society’s long heaped on us, plus the opportunities feminism created. Every day I meet young women who dazzle me. But I also see the pressure they’re under. To be mothers and astrophysicists. Hard-bodied size 2s with perfect 4.0s. To be perfect. And these expectations aren’t limited to a few spheres of their lives.
She cites the impossible standard of beauty and the time and maintenance required to stay fit and blemish free, coupled with an ideal of a marriage that is perfectly passionate and supportive. This is compiled by the standards of motherhood, work, homemaking, and lastly, the expectation that women will balance it all without breaking a sweat. Her point? It’s simply not possible. Only a Wonder Woman can pull it off: and she doesn’t exist.
The host of challenges that exist for men, while different, is similarly impossible. The flip-side of women seeking powerful positions at work means their partners are taking on more responsibility at home. And when that woman’s partner is a man, a host of societal judgments and expectations accompany what should be a private family decision. The baggage women carry when leaving for work is heavy. But so is the baggage a man carries when challenging typical expressions of manhood. In her book Lean In, Facebook CFO Sheryl Sandberg challenges men to take paternity leave, a step towards normalizing time off after a couple welcomes a new child to their family. However, in Why Men Still Can’t Have It All, author Richard Dorment quotes a study which explains that
“Because the concept of work-life balance is strongly gendered, men who request a family leave may also suffer a femininity stigma, whereby acting like a woman deprives them of masculine agency.”6
The author explains that while he didn’t take paternity leave, it wasn’t because he saw it as a challenge to his masculinity. It was because when he did stay home, he felt left out. His wife did the feeding, and the swaddling. His wife was the one who needed the sleep. At least when he went to work, he knew his place. While some have written that women can’t even think about having it all until men help to alleviate the second shift of housework and chores at home, others have noticed that typical gender roles are so deeply ingrained in us that sometimes we don’t even notice when we ourselves are the ones skewing the ledger.
All of us – women, men, partnered, single, parents, grandparents and the child-free (Time Magazine Aug. 13) are set up to seek an impossible standard.
On Rosh Hashanah, many Reform congregations read the story of Creation. In the first verses of Torah, God creates a perfect world. There is a perfect balance of light and dark, a perfect balance of land and sea. It is Good. But we must remember that it isn’t long before the first perfect people make their first mistake. When Adam and Eve are banned from the Garden of Eden, they are released from an expectation of perfection: and we are too. And yet, the world around us teaches that we can’t be satisfied until we have struck the perfect balance between all of society’s expectations. Yet no matter what choices we have made, every variation of how to live today is questioned by someone who has chosen another way.
I know that when someone questions the path I’ve chosen, particularly the decision to be a working parent, I begin to boil over. I get defensive, argumentative. This response to defend the lives we’ve chosen is why one article spurns another, and another, and another. We each want to believe that we’ve figured it out, that we do, in fact, have it all. Then another article comes out and the boiling begins again.
The problem with each of these articles is the premise that there is an all out there to be had. That there is one magic formula that will help us to balance, that there is one way that produces satisfaction without second guessing.
Let us see that the problem with having it all is the premise.
Let us see that the reason that we haven’t discovered the magic formula is our culture and our expectations.
Let us see that the problem is not with us and our defensive, argumentative nature.
The problem is the notion that we are the ones meant to have it all in the first place. What if we were to imagine our careers, our kids, our talents, our choices . . . all on loan?
What picture would accompany the article that touts this headline: “Only One Can Have It All’, with a subhead from Psalm 24: ‘The earth is God’s and all its fullness, the world and all who dwell there.” (24:1)
In other words, we can’t have it all. There is nothing to be had, nothing that we can truly acquire: as all of it – every job, every child, every spouse, every decision – is on loan from God.
According to the Psalm: the earth is God’s, we are God’s. The parts of life that we most value are ours to enjoy, albeit, only for the time being.
For those of you raising your eyebrows right now, please know, I have trouble with this idea too. It pushes against our modern sensibilities of hard work and payoff. For those of us who connect with an abstract God, or through metaphor, or who don’t connect to a Divine being at all, it is impossible to imagine God possessing anything, especially the idea of God possessing us. So momentarily, let’s suspend disbelief. I’ll suspend mine too. And perhaps we’ll see we can only have it all when we think of having nothing, at all.
In a heartbreaking, but vivid midrashic passage, our sages teach about Bruria, wife of Rabbi Meir and a scholar in her own right. When he discovers that their two children have died of a sudden illness, Bruria comforts her husband saying,
“Our children were never our own possessions.They were entrusted to us, and now their Owner has taken them back”7
Dr. Wendy Mogul elaborates on this idea in her parenting book, The Blessing of a Skinned Knee. With candor, she explains:
“Your child is not your masterpiece. According to Jewish thought, your child is not even truly yours. In Hebrew there is no verb for possession; the expression we translate as to have, yesh li,
actually means it is there for me or there is for me. Although nothing belongs to us, God has made everything available on loan and has invited us to borrow it to further the purpose of holiness.”8
So not just our children, but our careers, our spouses, our parents, our pets . . . they are there for us. We may be responsible for them. But we don’t have them. We can’t have them. Every part of our world is available to further holiness for the sake of goodness.
But none of it is truly ours.
Ownership, or having something, implies control. Having something implies power. Having something implies that we have any agency whatsoever in how it works, or what becomes of it. When it comes to striking a balance between family, career, adventure, or leisure, we are riding a wave. We are navigating. But we cannot, no matter how we try, possess that wave and demand where it goes.
Wendy Mogul begs us to ask: What does it mean to care for someone, to take responsibility with the understanding that we cannot have them for our own? She explains that each child “has a unique path toward serving God. Our job is to help them find out what it is.”9
The parenting challenge is to give each child the tools to discover his or her gifts. Because our children are not truly ours, because we cannot actually possess them, we love them best when we allow them to navigate their own way.
The hardest part of her advice, however, is not taking it for our children, but taking it for ourselves. We are so hard on ourselves when we don't fit into impossible standards of perfection.
The sages give this midrashic analogy (Genesis Rabbah 12:1)
When a king of flesh and blood builds a palace, mortals who enter it say: Had the columns been taller, how much more beautiful the palace would have been!
Had the walls been higher, how much more beautiful it would have been!
No person would say: ‘If I had three eyes, three arms, three legs, how much better off I would be! If I walked on my head, or if my face were turned backward, how much better off I would be! ‘
To assure that no one would say such a thing . . . the Holy one . . . set you up in a way that is right for you.10
We are each set up in a way that is right. We have been lent a set of gifts, a perfect formula that exists solely for each one of us. We can decide how we use our gifts, so long as we, in Mogul’s words, use them to further the purpose of holiness. We have the agency to take different gifts off the shelves throughout our lives. Because our goals will change. Our priorities will change. And we should not accept anyone’s disappointment, especially our own, at how we maintain the delicate balance of our many priorities. So long as the balancing act helps us to further holiness, and bring goodness, we are on the right track.
We look back to Psalm 24, and remember the words that brought us here: The earth is God’s in all its fullness. The world, and all who dwell there. The Psalm continues, asking: “Who shall stand in God’s holy place?” Who can pursue the path of goodness? “Those who have clean hands and a pure heart.”
We start the New Year with a pure, clean slate.
We release the guilt of what we are not.
We release the guilt we carry for the imperfect balance of our lives.
We release the guilt by acknowledging:
We are not in the Garden of Eden and there is no expectation of perfection.
We are each set up in a different way,
a way that is right for only me,
a way that is right for only you.
And when we release the guilt – When let go of trying to have, and learn just to be, then we can earnestly live these lives we’ve been lent.
How are we to illustrate this article? No baby in a briefcase, no marathon in pumps . . . rather a content soul who looks at the past with pride, who looks towards the future with excitement. It may not be a great subject for a photojournalist, and it’s not a magazine cover that will sell copies. But it is an outstanding example of the one who is rich: the one whom the rabbis teach is happy with his lot. With 5774 upon us, let us strive to be the picture of this headline: the one that jubilantly proclaims:
‘We Have Nothing At All, and We Are More Satisfied Than Ever.’
7Midrash Proverbs 37: 76-29.
8Mogel, Wendy. The Blessing of a Skinned Knee. Penguin Compass, New York: 2001. P 43.
10Genesis Rabbah 12:1