Friday, March 28, 2014

Once upon a time - a brief history of feminism as I see it

Once upon a time, things were relatively simple. Men were the wage-earners, women the caretakers of home and children (or managers of a larger household, in affluent families). The roles were not quite so rigid, of course, and many times a woman would help her father or husband in the family business or in the fields, particularly during the busiest seasons. But generally, he managed the matters without, she focused on those within.

The majority were content. Domestic life gave them busy, innocent occupation, with enough time to refresh themselves, pursue hobbies and crafts, and nurture community life. Some, however, were displeased. They had no inclination to marry and have children, or perhaps they could not. Or they had ambitions which did not tie in with the popuar image of a woman back then. Or perhaps they would have been satisfied with the traditional feminine pursuites for the unmarried, like teaching or nursing, but their family thought it is a disgrace to send a daughter out as a governess. Maybe they noticed injustice in the existing order (because, let's face it, no order is perfect).

This dissatisfied minority, restless, active, generally well-educated and unburdened by petty concerns such as earning their bread, became vocal. 

Fast forward to our times... 

The ideal "balanced life" of the 21-st century: both man and woman are wage-earners. Both have careers. Both share household responsibilities with scrupulous equality. Anything but the bare basics of housekeeping (and sometimes even that) is thrown out of the window. Cooking is abolished in many homes. Children are in daycare or extended school programs many hours in the day, and when they come home, the tired children and overburdened parents are supposed to share a mythical "quality time".

The minority which was never inclined to family life got their fair deal. They are pursuing the glorious careers they could hardly dream of a hundred years ago. They are equal to men, and if anyone says otherwise they will file a lawsuit against him. 

For the majority of people, of course, the situation is different. The majority of women do not have careers. They have jobs. Plain, simple, less than thrilling jobs. A large part of them is a derivative of what a woman would traditionally do in her own home: daycare workers, teachers of various ages, house-care providers. Many are saleswomen or hold administrative jobs - i.e., work that has a lot to do with communication and cooperation, two things women are very good at. It's as if women, despite everything, send the following message out to the world: "if we are told we must do something outside our homes to be considered worthy members of the society, we will choose the more flexible and less stressful option!" - this has little to do with the "glass ceiling" and lack of opportunities, and everything with natural inclinations and priorities. 

Of course, even a part-time job is stressful. Perhaps the woman isn't away from home for as many hours in a day as her husband is, but she is away quite a lot nevertheless. And in most households, it isn't like both spouses share the lot by taking two part-time jobs and dividing the household chores and childcare equally! More often than not, the woman's job is seen as being of secondary importance... because, no offence, it is. If her husband is holding a relatively good and stable position, and she earns significantly less than he does, the family can survive without her income. Also, if she comes home at 3 and her husband at 7, naturally all the household chores fall on her - and naturally, she can't juggle it all as well as she is "supposed" to. When the husband comes home, he finds a drained, exhausted wife and many times, a less-than-perfectly-tended household. 

Feminism has been, in a nutshell, a flip of a coin. Long ago, most people were happy and some were dissatisfied. I'm sorry for those who could not find their place, but surely we, as a society, did not gain from things becoming what they are now, when a minority is happy and proud with its achievments and the majority is struggling with ideals that are impossible to maintain. 

I believe that most women would gladly go back to being housewives if:

1. They could manage on one income. The prevalent notion is that even two average paychecks are barely enough to survive, so how could you do it with only one?! It's true that prices have become, relatively to salaries, much higher. But so have our expectations become higher. It is perfectly possible to manage on one income if a family is willing to undergo the necessary adjustments such as a simpler life and more frugal ways. Of course, there would be no keeping up with the Cohens. But a creative and satisfying life is very much within reach of every family who takes the leap.

Note: the sad prevalence of single mothers is the myth-buster of "you need two paychecks to survive". Somehow no one doubts their ability to raise children on one income. Of course you'll argue that many single mothers receive child support and government aid. Many don't, though. My mother did not, nor did she hold some very lucrative high-paying job. If you are a housewife, you will get a lot of "oh, but how are you managing financially?"; if you are a single mother, no one will blink an eye. This is despite the fact that a housewife generally has more time on her hands than a single mother does, and therefore more ability to contribute to her family's finances in other ways (shopping and cooking frugally, thrift store bargains, creative small business ventures). 

2. It became a socially acceptable choice again. It is very important to women to be approved, validated, accepted. Did I mention communication and cooperation? Men can exist as lone wolves, women can't, not without being miserable. We thrive on approval and it's normal (just have to be careful who we choose to receive it from). This is the reason why girls do so much better than boys in mainstream co-ed schools. The system encourages cooperation, hard work (which often turns to drudgery) and docility more than anything else. It glorifies the average and is extremely harsh on misfits. 

A little anecdote from my school days. Once, a student took pants off in a classroom and flashed a tushy in the face of the teacher. Sounds extreme, I know. But can you guess the gender of the student? That's right, a boy, of course. But I digress.

Currently we live in a community where most women are homemakers. Not the perfect homemakers, but the old simple busy moms and housewives with a bunch of children and a messed-up, lived-in home. The choice is acceptable and therefore comes with social validation in our small community. In the time I have lived here, three more women (out of 13 families) have quit their jobs to stay home.

3. Women could find an alternative source for the satisfaction normally derived from working. Few women get a thrill from the substance of their paid work. But the workplace has become the community they so desperately crave; many have no social interaction outside the family other than with their co-workers. This is especially true in cities, where many do not know their neighbours. 

Other will never dress up or put on some make-up at home. They follow an unspoken House Code that dictates they must wear frayed sweat-pants and a stained T-shirt from junior high. This alone is enough to depress a woman, because we see so much importance in being aesthetically pleased. 

On the other hand, if a group of women dressed up neatly and gathered with their children for some mid-morning activity (like doing some handiwork together while catching up with each other), they would get all the refreshment and none of the stress a job outside the home can bring. 

Naturally I don't wear my best clothes while scrubbing floors or working in the chicken coop. But neither do I wear stuff that's only fit to go in the trash bin. I have good, simple, sturdy and nice-looking work clothes, and nicer things to put on Shabbat and social gatherings.


I realize I have made a lot of generalizations in this post, and so I'm prepared for some "but I'm not like that at all!"s and "you have failed to mention so and so"s. I still believe, however, that what I wrote is true for many women. 

Monday, March 24, 2014

The mismatched piece

For as long as I remember myself, fitting in had been terribly important. A sense of being or doing something like everybody else gave me a warm glow and a sense of belonging; being "out of tune" made me feel like an outcast, someone who will never feel comfortable. I desperately longed to learn the steps of the dance, and every stumble brought me immense frustration. I guess it is natural when we are young, and even when we are older. 

In addition, school, and later university framed my life. The order of it made me feel secure. I didn't have to question what I was doing and when. Also, being a bookworm who had already learned it all at home, I had the opportunity to please my superiors (the teachers) and help other students. It was a great confidence boost.

Fast forward a few years, I got on the track of teshuva (becoming religiously observant). This changed a lot, but not all. While the identity of my new group/community changed, the desire to belong, to fit in, did not. I simply had new ideas now about how my life is supposed to look, how I'm supposed to behave, in order to be like everybody else, to be inconspicuous, to avoid standing out. 

There were new, but no less extensive, mental checklists. Married at 22 - check. A child at 23 - check. Another child at 25 - check. A long skirt, a certain type of headcovering - check. Inward sigh of relief. Now I'm like everyone else. Finally. 

Of course, things were different now. For one, I became a homemaker. My hours were my own now, and though it was an unusual experience, and I spent my first few months of married life floating on a cloud of relative disorder, I became empowered by it. I came to direct and organize my own day. I became more efficient. Contrary to what some warned me of, I did not get bored. My brain cells did not die one by one. Just the opposite happened - 6 years down the road, I'm always busy, always occupied in a productive way, always with something interesting to propel me forward. And I write. A lot. I stopped treating it as a childish hobby and began thinking of it as something mature and talented people do as well. I might be crazy, but it makes me happy. 

The mental checklists became harder to comply with. Regular job - not check. Children in daycare by age of 1 year - no, definitely not check. "Why do you only have 2? I'd have thought you'd like another one by now!" - strong urge to tell the busybodies to go for a long walk and air their brains to find words like "tact" and "consideration". 

I was naively happy when we moved to a community where most women stay at home and most children are raised at home at least until they are 3 years old. Still, I didn't always fit in. My background was different. My clothes were a little different, and so were my pastimes. I did not have as many children as those who have been married as long as I. 

Then it was time to throw all the comparison tables and mental checklists out of the window. I will never be like everybody else. I will never fit perfectly, no matter where I go. And at this point, I'm fine with it. It helps that I am married to a man who often feels like a big fish in a small net, so to speak, and never stops to think twice about what others think of him. He is supremely unconcerned, and I find this admirable.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

A busy, busy season

When I had newborns, I didn't think I could ever be busier - but apparently, this time has come. It seems as though everything is happening at once.

My husband has reached a crossways in his career and is currently at home. Thus, everything is suddenly much more intense. So many projects are suddenly tackled, because right now, with both of us around, it's the perfect chance to do them - and because we don't know how long it will last, we don't like to postpone. Things around the house are fixed, paperwork is waded through, appointments are made.

Also, our rent contract will be over soon, and the way things look now, most likely we won't be renewing it. This means we are moving, but the big question, for now, is Where. We have been to look at several places and are unsure yet. This situation, with everything open ahead of us and so many choices that can be made, has its charm - but I'm kind of beginning to wish we already knew where we are going to go. 

I know I will be a little sorry to leave. I have loved this house. Though we only rent here, I have felt it is ours. We have really bonded with the place, the community, we feel as though we belong. But buying this house is not an option and I know I don't want to rent here forever. So we are already sifting through our things, trying to determine what to take with us and what to leave behind. This is especially important, considering that we are probably going to move to a smaller house. We are a small family, so the prospect isn't daunting, and I'm actually looking forward to see how much stuff we can get rid of and still live comfortably (my guess is more than half of all we own, clothes, utensils, books etc). 

To top it all off, Pesach is coming soon and I haven't yet done half of what I did this time last year. True, I have scrubbed our bedroom and arranged my pantry and washed the living room curtains, but this doesn't even come close to all I planned to have completed by now.

So, with all of this together, and all the things that need to be done every day - cooking, cleaning, laundry, taking care of the girls and teaching them - I simply feel the days are passing by in a blur, and though I often wanted to come online and say hello, I have felt empty. Empty as in my energy resources, and in my head as well. As though too much is happening at once and I don't know how to stop and focus on one thing. 

I do hope this isn't a goodbye before another lengthy period of absence, and I anticipate many exciting things to write about soon. For now, with all the busyness of the season, we are enjoying spring and all the hopes and dreams and plans in the making.

This is "The little cottage", by Mike Savad. Isn't it charming? The low roof and rounded door remind me of a hobbit hole. 

Monday, March 3, 2014

Writing, life and what's between them

Writing used to be a guilty pleasure for me, or at the very least, not anything to be taken seriously. It had nothing to do with the main work of my life, after all; it was something to be done surreptitiously, in stolen moments, in dark corners. Yet it was something I still did - because I couldn't help myself. It has been a part of my life ever since I learned how to form letters on a page and string them into words and sentences. I remember being very surprised when I found out, while still a child, that it wasn't the same for other people; that not everybody wrote for pleasure or, at the very least, wanted to write.

Then, after many years, came a time when I began to think more highly about my writing skills. I began considering writing, though not a full-time occupation (since being a mother and homemaker was and is my main focus), something that could some day become something like work. Then the coin flipped, and instead of feeling guilty about "wasting my time" on writing, I began to feel irritated about every interruption that got in my way. Food always had to be cooked. My house was never clean enough. Children woke up in the night occassionally. What I longed for most of all was to write and write, for hours on end, to flesh out my legends, stories, poems and drawings.

 One day, my husband took the children for a day of fun at their grandparents'. I had the computer, and my time, all to myself for a long glorious stretch. I sat down, put some inspirational music on, and began to pound away at the keyboard. I wrote for about an hour and was very pleased with myself, but then I began to slow down. I shifted in my seat. I looked about me. I got up and walked the dog - then got back to the computer. I wrote some more, until I grew restless again. I got up and folded the laundry. Wrote some more, washed the dishes. Wrote some more, put the bread in the oven. Wrote some more, got the soup going.

 That day, I realized that it's impossible for me to be creative all day long. Or perhaps it is possible for one day, but certainly not every day. While living in my own head is fun and I love it, I also need to be connected with reality. I can't - nor do I want to - allow myself to stray indefinitely in the labyrinth of my imagination.

 By now I have reached a certain point of harmony. I realized that writing enriches my life, while life enriches my writing. If I gave up on writing, I would become a disappointed and bitter person, deprived of my favorite outlet. If I dedicated myself exclusively to writing, soon I would run out of things to write about.

The balance is still out there somewhere. Some days pass in a whirlwind of seemingly mundane activities, with no time to dedicate to actual writing, but sometimes a brilliant plot twist will hit me while I'm hanging out the washing. Some days are slower and more satisfying. Sometimes I'm pleased with myself, sometimes I'm not. Like everyone else, I guess. But at least, finally, I'm coming out of the drawer.