Right after my first daughter was born, I was talking with a good friend who mentioned that I looked like I had it all together. That I looked so happy. After all, I was wearing make-up and a sheitel (a wig to keep my hair covered, rather than a comfier scarf or hat) several weeks postpartum.
I couldn’t believe that’s what she thought. I mustered up the courage to tell her how much I was struggling on the inside, and how I had put on make-up to help feel slightly human. I told her that mostly, I was just trying to blend in better with the mothers who seemed like they had it all together. It sparked an open and honest conversation between us, and it was a moment of authenticity with her that I’ll never forget.
Until that conversation, I never thought twice about having my guard up. As someone who dropped out of graduate school to get married, move to another state, and start a (Orthodox) family, life after my first child felt high-pressure. I needed to prove to everyone that I knew what I was doing. I wanted to show people that despite my “retrograde” choices, I was a strong woman. Spiritual, but grounded; motherly, but intelligent; traditional, but fulfilled. This was especially important to me, as the lifestyle I had now was very different from the way I lived growing up.
Born and raised in Ann Arbor, Michigan, I grew up in a family that loved being Jewish but was not religious. My parents grew up in Tel Aviv as your standard proud Israelis with a book and a cup of black coffee glued to their hands since childhood. While I adored my schnitzel-and-hummus upbringing and my socialist-Zionist Jewish summer camp, I was intrigued in college by an Orthodox Jewish organization on campus. After a few years of learning and thinking, I made the choice to slowly become religious my last year of school.
To say the least, this was not an easy “spiritual journey,” nor was it a great choice for me socially. Things became complicated with friends. I stopped going to certain bars and rushed to light candles before sundown on Friday nights. I felt unprepared for the skepticism and questions from relatives, classmates, and even teachers. I was a Women’s Studies major in college, and my involvement with both the feminist community and the religious Jewish community often left me feeling conflicted and isolated.
Even after a year of religious seminary in Jerusalem, I wasn’t fully comfortable in my new identity. I would go for coffee with old friends who’d tell me about their post-college travels and “Eat, Pray, Love” adventures. I would just sit there, with my long black skirt and bullet-proof sweater, feeling a lot like Meryl Streep in “Doubt.” The ultimate buzzkill. As I got married and started a family, I continued to worry about people’s perception of me. It became my job to prove to others that my new identity was an empowered one. Not one of repression and dreary life choices.
For many newly religious and “born religious” women who interact heavily with the modern world, the fight to appear enlightened and well-balanced at all times becomes internalized because you genuinely want to be this impressive and sophisticated woman. Whether it’s the longing to excel in your spiritual pursuits, to have a marriage that always radiates confidence and contentment, or to succeed in your career while casually bouncing a baby on your knee—many of us have wanted at some time or another to show the world that we are intelligent, empowered, and spiritual women. And it can be exhausting.
Reflecting on that conversation with my friend after my oldest daughter was born, I knew that if I wanted to have deeper friendships with women throughout my life, I would have to reevaluate my ambition to look/be magically balanced and strong at every moment. I would have to stop constantly putting on a face or defending myself. I’ve worked with and lived in vastly different communities, and I’ve realized how much pressure women of all backgrounds—from the super feminist to the super religious—feel to appear put-together, ultra-empowered, and perfectly in control. I’m not advocating that we shout out our problems from the rooftops, and I don’t think this will resolve all our conflicts and differences, but I wonder if putting our guards down just a bit would help connect us in some small but meaningful way.
Slowly over time, my objectives in both my personal life and as a writer have evolved. Now, whenever I write a blog post or an article for a magazine, I try to ask myself, will this build up the women who read it? Could I use humor, or collect stories from other women, or tell a story about myself to create a stronger sense of camaraderie? Would this comfort me if I were reading it? When I’m going through something tough and beat myself up over it, I take a deep breathe and say, “Nurit, there were a thousand women before you and there will be a thousand women after you who will be able to relate to what you’re feeling at this moment.”
I’ll then message a friend, or call someone I can trust, to think things over with. I can’t walk away or avoid the pain of a personal struggle, but I can do more to increase the compassion, comfort, and support in my life—and whenever possible—in the lives of other women.