By Plonit Almonit
“I hope you don’t resent.…”
That’s what my boss said to me in the course of the discussion in which I was fired while still new on the job. She agreed that my performance had clearly been affected by my pregnancy. Positive feedback had gone down during my second trimester but up when I hit my third. We knew it wasn’t a coincidence, and there was every reason to think that, once my first baby was born and I had a chance to recover, my performance would soar. But, alas, that apparently was not enough.
It was enough, however, to inspire my boss to offer some counsel, expressing her concern that I might resent the baby.
Resent the baby?
I’m not sure that I had ever actively decided I wanted to have children. It wasn’t a question I ever asked myself; it was just a given. I didn’t daydream about my future family the way some classmates did, even in junior high, imagining their future husbands and naming the children they imagined they would have by design. “He’ll look like this, and we’ll have this many boys.” If you’d asked them, would they have said that, of course, no one could guarantee what life will bring. I never asked; I kept my thoughts to myself, knowing my adolescent imaginings would ultimately be irrelevant anyway. If you’d asked me, I would have said I wanted children, but I never asked myself.
There was talk of careers, of course, but I didn’t know what I wanted there either—until I was 17, when it all became clear to me and never wavered: I would teach Torah. I would stand in front of a classroom and draw my students into animated, thoughtful group discussions. I would guide them through the toil and sweat of analyzing a Hebrew or Aramaic text and celebrate their moments of comprehension. I would show them why each commentary said what he (or she) said and how they could both be right—and would help my students discover how they could be right, too.
Would Teaching and Children Clash?
Would my presumed desire for children and my passion for teaching ever clash? I didn’t really think about it during my first year as a full-time teacher, staying up late to prepare or grade tests, sometimes crying after a bad day at school, but always eager to go back in the morning. I didn’t anticipate how much less time or energy I might have for my students once I had my children.
We can’t ever know the realities of a situation until those realities are upon us. And soon enough, they were upon me. I was very fortunate to become pregnant not long after I developed a longing to be. It was as if my biological clock ticked “ready” and suddenly my desire for a child wasn’t just a latent assumption but a living thing that accompanied me wherever I went. Thank God, not long after that “ding,” I had a beautiful baby girl.
Not long at all—but long enough to start and lose a job.
Did I resent my baby? Oh, no. I wanted her and loved her, and it wasn’t her fault that I became tired and distracted with pregnancy—a fatigue and sense of general distraction that haven’t disappeared in 15 years, but have only seemed to increase as one sibling and then another and another were born. I don’t resent any of them.
But I do resent the women who shot down my dreams almost before they’d begun. (With female bosses like these, who needs patriarchy?) I resent them for not giving me the time and support I needed to prove myself, for not having patience through my ups and downs, for not recognizing that everyone has them and that my ups were valuable enough to make it worth waiting out the downs.
And if I’m honest, I resent the realities that make it so hard for so many of us to achieve both motherhood and professional success. It doesn’t really matter that I resent those realities; my feelings won’t change them (much), and so I don’t make much fuss about my resentment. It’s latent, like that longing for children was before my clock chimed. Just there. Feeling unfair, even though I know it’s pointless to go down the road of “fair.”
Was it “fair” for God to give women this job of childbearing, to make it so difficult (thanks, Eve), to make it so unpredictable? When I was just two months pregnant with child number three, I met a woman who was eight months pregnant and told me she felt great, “strong as an ox.” She was outside playing softball with all the children of all the families at that Shabbat meal.
I wondered about the woman who fired me, who I know had children of her own. Was she also strong as an ox? Did she have easy pregnancies, making her unsympathetic to my reality and unwilling to offer me patience and support to work through the rough spots?
For Some Women, It’s Easy
There are, apparently, women for whom it’s easy to be pregnant and have babies and work outside the home, and manage it all.
I never thought about whether I would be one of them; I took it for granted that I would do both. But now I know. I know it’s so, so hard. While pregnant, while caring for a newborn, while trying to keep track of the various needs of various children and give them love and attention and food they’ll eat, and making doctors’ appointments and recognizing when there’s a problem that requires a different doctor, and finding and paying for extracurricular activities, and washing dishes or doing laundry once in a while. I knew it would be hard, but it was a latent knowledge. You can’t really know until you’re in it, because it’s so unpredictable, and everyone is different.
Female Leaders Who Were Childless
At this point in my life, I think often about how many of our greatest female scholars and leaders were unmarried and/or childless. There are three who particularly stand out for me, forming a distinguished category of their own: Sarah Schenirer (very briefly married), whose dedication to Torah education for girls reverberates through the generations of women who owe her their learning in Bais Yaakov schools; Nechama Leibowitz, whose Torah scholarship brought her students from around the world (and who influenced me through my teachers who were her students); and going back to biblical times, Devorah the prophet and judge, who describes herself as “a mother in Israel,” but whose own children, if she had any, are never mentioned.
Some women manage both—to be mother to their own children as well as a mother-figure to the world. But these three women and their lives remind me just how rare it is to achieve excellence in Torah study and teaching while being a parent.
Strikingly, Nechama Leibowitz was quoted as saying she would have given up all her professional achievements to have been able to have children. She apparently saw it as a dichotomy, and now, decades later, it seems it still is.
Supporting Women in the Workplace
We talk about being progressive, about supporting women in the workforce, about the importance of a work–life balance. But when life throws a wrench in the balance, does it all fall apart? Do we rise to our values and say, “I value you; you have so much to offer; we’ll work through this together?” Or do we abandon those who could do so much because they can’t do it now?
My worst fear is that perhaps they were right. The ones who judged me by my performance while pregnant—were they onto something? Was it just that I couldn’t do it then or was it really over? A year or two of good teaching, and then mommy brain for life? Was I really supposed to choose?
We’re all different, with different bodies, different pregnancies if we’re blessed with them, different babies if we’re privileged to have them. And we can’t ever predict what the future will bring, which challenges we will rise to and when and how.
But we can be open about the existence of those challenges. We can let the next generation in on the secret that maybe it won’t be so easy, that maybe they will have to make choices. We can guide our children to make informed choices and to be ready, without resentment, for whatever reality might bring.
Plonit Almonit is a passionate teacher of Torah who wishes to remain anonymous.
I resent the realities that make it so hard for so many of us to achieve both motherhood and professional success.
We talk about being progressive, about supporting women in the workforce, about the importance of a work–life balance. But when life throws a wrench in the balance, does it all fall apart?
We can guide our children to make informed choices and to be ready, without resentment, for whatever reality might bring.