When my son Tamir was first born, my identity as a new mom was all-encompassing. Together with the joy and celebration of my baby’s birth came the monotony of a whole set of new tasks. Feeding, changing diapers, pumping, bath, and bed time became a daily grind that numbed my ability to fully appreciate this stage of my life and my new role as a mom. Before Tamir, I had been a professional, a wife, a friend, and a daughter. I didn’t want all of those aspects of myself to suddenly fade into the background.
After a few months, I emerged from that initial baby fog, but I was still at a total loss about how to incorporate being a mom with the old, more familiar parts of my life. And more to the point, when I did manage to return to work, I wasn’t sure how to stay focused without feeling guilty that I was falling short as a mother.
How could I spend my time so that I could actually enjoy each of my roles? My first step was to recognize that I needed to draw distinctions between my work time, time with my son, date nights with my husband, dates with girlfriends, and dates out by myself.
A Jewish Answer
Lucky for me, there was something in Jewish wisdom from Shabbat celebration that set guidelines to help address my questions. As a Jewish educator and founder of a consulting service that works with individuals and families to bring more meaning to their Jewish lives, looking to Jewish wisdom was something that resonated with me.
Shabbat recognizes and even blesses distinctions. The final ceremony of Shabbat, havdalah, is very clear about this. Over a cup of wine, spices, and a braided candle, we say, “Thank you God for making distinctions, between the holy and the regular, light and darkness…Shabbat and the seven days of the work week.”
The Jewish philosopher, Abraham Joshua Heschel picks up on the point that distinctions are critical, because without them, our days would be iterative and monotonous (as mine were indeed becoming!). He writes, “Judaism is a religion of time, aiming at the sanctification of time… Every hour is unique and the only one given at the moment, exclusive and endlessly precious…” While Heschel’s essay focuses on Shabbat itself, it offers us a larger lesson: Make each hour count, wherever you are and in whatever role you play.
Shabbat celebration not only tells us that we should make distinctions and sanctify time, but it also tells us how to do it. There’s a whole list of positive commandments, or things to do in order to enhance the holiness of Shabbat–light candles, bless the wine, eat a special meal, and read from the Torah on Shabbat morning.
There’s also a whole list of negative commandments, or things we should refrain from doing to keep Shabbat sacred. Those things traditionally included productive work like writing, cooking, or lighting a fire and nowadays can also include not getting on the internet or answering your cell phone.
My Balance Boundaries
Using these concepts of Shabbat observance, I created some guidelines for balancing and managing my time:
1. Creating rituals to mark entering and exiting each new role
Just like I light candles to mark the beginning of Shabbat, I now turn off my BlackBerry and deposit my “professional self” at the door when I come back from work to spend time with my son. Or after I put him down to sleep at night, I have a ritual of reading the newspaper for 20 minutes or so to nourish and reclaim my “intellectual self.”
2. Initiate positive ways to make each role significant
When I’m working, I try to devote some time each week to professional development, reading a new article or making a new professional contact. In my role as a mom, I try to initiate a new activity that will keep me attuned to my son’s growth and development, or delight in trying out a new meal with him.
3. Create some negative statements to maintain boundaries
When I am at work, I try to refrain from doing too many things related to my son (making those Shutterfly albums can wait!). And when I’m on a date with my husband, we lay down rules like, “we won’t talk about things that stress us out.” These negative statements help free us up so that we can more easily focus on nourishing our relationship.
The tricky thing, of course, is that while we try to create boundaries, it’s not totally possible. There is a simultaneity to all the roles we take on. Just because I’m at work doesn’t mean I stop being a mother or a wife. But when I’m conscious of the different rhythms and needs of each role, and can enhance their meaning by placing boundaries around them, I enjoy them each so much more. I felt relieved to have a system of thinking that helped me discover how to spend the kind of quality of time I was looking for in my new life as a parent.