By Elana Sztokman
Since I began working at JOFA, first as Interim Director and then as Executive Director, the staff and I have been inundated with the question: “How does she do it?” I tend to wonder what “it” is – work in a high-pressure job, leave my kids once in a while, or take a job that I really love? But let’s assume that for the most part the question refers to the issue of my travel and living arrangements; after all, I live in Israel and work in New York, and I have four children ages 9-19, and that feels like an impossible combination.
I can bore you with some of the logistical answers, details of plane rides, light-packing, Skyping, and tag-team parenting. And of course I must acknowledge the necessary support system which would be different for everyone. For me, it includes the husband-partner, the tech-savvy staff, the flexi-thinking Board of Directors, and the occasionally on-call friends and neighbors. But I think that these things don’t really answer the underlying question. When we ask, “How does she do it?” I think we’re asking something about women’s lives in general and whether women have the ability, the right – I daresay, the societal permission – to live fully and to reach for our dreams.
After all, let’s face it. Men do this kind of thing all the time. Many men travel the world, work endless hours, and commute by plane without ever being asked “How does he do it?” With men, it’s assumed that he will do whatever is necessary for his career and that the support system will adjust to his needs and ambitions. By “support system” we usually mean their wives. Women compromise on their careers all the time in order for the men in their lives to fully advance in their careers. I see this visually on the “commuter flights” that I take to and from Israel – the flights that arrive in New York early Monday morning and leave Thursday night in order to land in Israel in time for Shabbat. The flights are often dominated by professionals like me, who are noticeable by the fact that they travel alone, travel light, dress professionally, and are attached to their laptops and other electronics. And what I have discovered is that, for the most part, these professionals are almost all men. So the question that we should be asking ourselves is not how “I” do it, but why are we asking this question only of a woman? Why is it that only men are given the freedom to work as their hearts desire?
When I hear a woman ask, “How does she do it?” I hear a wanting. I think it reflects a longing for whatever that “it” is that we see in the other person, something that we feel is missing in our own lives that the other person seems to have. In the many interviews I’ve done for research and writing over the years, I have spoken to countless women who struggle with their own sense of self because they feel that they put their own ambitions and desires on hold indefinitely for the sake of others. In an article I wrote for The Jerusalem Post several years ago, titled, “A woman’s work is never done.” I did not encounter a single working mother who works “like a man” – that is, with the same uninhibited, unencumbered, freedom and individualism as a man. By contrast, when I interviewed men for my book, The Men’s Section, I scarcely found any men who made career sacrifices for the sake of their families. Even men who are active, engaged, partner-parents, when asked, “Did being a parent impact your career decisions?” routinely said, “Of course not."
The first step, I believe, in creating a life for yourself that you love, one in which you’re not constantly looking at other women and thinking, “I wish I could do that,” is to first give yourself permission to imagine what you want. You can’t live fully unless you first validate the possibility of living fully. Women so often stop ourselves before we even allow ourselves to dream. As Sheryl Sandberg said in her now-famous TED talk, “Don’t leave until you leave.” Women hold themselves back in so many ways, reaching for the ceiling instead of reaching for the sky. Allowing yourself to dream fully is the first step in creating the life you want.
The second step in doing what you want to do in life is being willing to let go of certain things that are perhaps not as important as we think they are. For me to take this job, for example, I had to abandon the idea that being a good mother means being around all the time. So often, our image of motherhood is really one of glorified dishwasher, chauffeur and launderer. In order for me to take this job, I had to shift these images, and accept that if sometimes my kids do their own laundry, it doesn’t make them neglected. In fact, it probably makes them empowered.
I also had to shift some of what it means to be a family. Sometimes we think that a good family is one that is together all the time. But that definition of family can be oppressive. When parents don’t allow their children to go out into the world, to travel, to see new places and experience different things because of this idea that family needs to be together, the impact can be stultifying. What I’ve discovered since taking this job is that my children are excited by the prospect that there is a lot of life out there in the world, opportunities for growth and adventure beyond what they see in their immediate lives. My job gives them permission to dream, too – one of my daughters is dreaming about going to surfing camp in Hawaii; another is dreaming about volunteering in the developing world after her army service. I don’t know if these dreams will come to fruition, but I’m thrilled that their minds and hearts are open to the possibilities that exist in the world, that they are asking themselves what they really want to do in this life. Being a good parent, I’ve discovered, is less about being around physically and more about being around emotionally and spiritually. It is less about folding their laundry and more about providing the support that they need in order to fully thrive. And that’s something that I can do from anywhere.
These internal processes take time and patience -- for me it took years to reach these understandings. My point is that just because we have a certain reality at one point in our lives, it doesn’t mean that this will be our reality forever. I couldn’t have done this at a stage in life when I had a newborn baby, for example. But life changes; very little in this world is permanent. And we should open ourselves up to the possibility that we can change along with our lives.
I would like to say one more thing about “how I do it.” For me, the question is less about “how” I do it and more about “why” I do it. I do this because the job awakens all of me – all my feminist passions, all my desire to create a more compassionate and just religious Jewish life, all my fire and all my spirit. It gives me purpose and drive in a way that I haven’t had in a job in a long time – perhaps ever. It gives me what my yoga teacher calls Swadharma, an alignment of the self, the “swad”, with the essence of the universe, the “dharma”. This job is Swadharma for me.
I think about this every time I’m on a plane ready for take-off. There is this moment when the plane is idling on the runway, and suddenly you hear the engine being activated, ready for lift off. There is a tremendous energy in that switch, the transition from an engine on the ground to an engine that will take you into the air. You can feel that energy shift, and it’s a very exciting moment. Sometimes, as I step onto the streets of New York on my way into the JOFA office, I can hear the sounds of the engine turning on in my mind, ready to take me into the air. It’s like I’m getting ready to fly. And that invigorates me every time.
And that is what I wish for all the women asking “How does she do it?” My answer is: Allow yourself to fly, and you can do it, too.