Her: What do you do?
Me: I’m a rabbi. I direct a national Jewish human rights organization that. . .
Her: No, no—when are you due?
Me: Oh. Beginning of July.
Her: That’s so wonderful! Do you know what you’re having? Is it your first? How are you feeling?
And so on.
Since I’ve become visibly pregnant with my second child, I’ve often felt that others perceive me not as a capable CEO and religious leader, but instead as a walking, talking uterus.
In some cases, I find these conversations simply irritating. In other cases, I worry that being pregnant undermines others’ willingness to trust me as a leader. In my two pregnancies, I’ve had foundation program officers wonder aloud whether I’ll really return to work after maternity leave, several men (during my first pregnancy) tell me that I wouldn’t know what I want in terms of my career until after the baby is born, and numerous people ask how I’ll manage the demands of a job and a new baby. Needless to say, my husband—also a rabbi—gets none of these questions, despite the fact that he already does at least fifty percent of caretaking for our 3 year old.
Since the publication of Sheryl Sandberg’s book, there has been much discussion about whether women “lean in” enough. Well, I’m leaning in. But I also need the rest of the world to meet me halfway.
Even after several decades of women taking on high pressure, high profile positions in politics, business, non-profit management, religion, and education, the rest of the world often seems perplexed about how such careers can possibly coexist with parenthood.
For example: I’m asked multiple times a week whether I work from home. Or—I’m invited to a mid-day meeting with the apologetic note, “I hope this doesn’t cause childcare issues.” Now, perhaps I should take as a compliment the suggestion that I’m capable of directing a national non-profit while also catering full-time to the needs of a preschooler. But instead, I wonder whether the person asking has ever heard of daycare.
Or—I’m invited to speak at a conference, with the comment, “I know it must be hard for you to travel because of your family.” Of course, in deciding when and whether to travel, I take into consideration how much time I want to be away from my family. So does my husband. And even before children, I considered many factors before committing to travel, including how often I wanted to be away from home and the office, the general wear and tear of travel, and the significance of the particular invitation. Somehow, though, the conversation about work-life balance has become a conversation about if and how mothers can balance child rearing with work. This reality translates into an assumption that only mothers would say no to opportunities for business travel.
There are many structural ways in which our society could and should support two-parent or single-parent working families, including free or subsidized full-time preschool and daycare, free or subsidized afterschool programs, and mandatory paid parental leave. (It remains a mystery to me why “full-time” pre-school runs from nine to three.) These have been discussed at length elsewhere, including in Sandberg’s book. (Despite the caricature, put forward by many reviewers, that the book simply blames women for inhibiting their own advancement, Sandberg does speak powerfully about both sexism and structural barriers to women’s leadership.)
Beyond structural changes though, we also need a societal attitude shift. Now that women serve as senators, university presidents, CEOs, rabbis, ministers, doctors, and judges, we can stop treating working mothers as curiosities.
In my professional career, I’ve been part of too many conversations about whether to invite a woman to speak, or to take on a new role, in which someone wonders aloud whether the woman in question would want to do so, given her family responsibilities. My response is always, “That’s her call.”
We can’t measure how often many women never get asked to speak at conferences, to accept demanding jobs, or to take on other professional opportunities because someone else has decided that these women would not (or should not) accept such invitations. Nor can we measure how the day in and day out comments and questions about how working mothers manage childcare wear away at women’s sense of professional self, or put us on the defensive about our own decisions.
How can we change this dynamic? Let’s start by assuming that pregnant women prefer to focus on something other than their growing fetuses. A quick b’sha’ah tovah (may everything happen at the right time) is fine. But unless the woman indicates that she really wants to talk about pregnancy, repeating the standard set of tired questions only reinforces the idea that women are most valuable as carriers of the next generation.
Second, those of us in the position to hire staff, invite speakers, or otherwise provide access to leadership shouldn’t presuppose that women will refuse such opportunities. Instead, let’s ask, and allow women (and men) to make their own decisions. And let’s do our best to enable them to say yes, for example, by providing for childcare if they need to bring a child along.
Finally, we need to move the work-life balance conversation beyond a conversation about mothers in the workplace. Instead, let’s talk about how to create workplace culture that allows women and men to raise families, volunteer in their communities, exercise, take vacation, read books, and get a full night’s sleep.
Perhaps if we succeed in changing the work-life conversation for both men and women, we’ll manage to create a world in which we’re neither defined fully by what we do nor by when we’re due.