If I had a dime for every time someone asked me why I “retired,” I would be a very rich woman. Please, let me set the record straight: I am not retired, I did not retire, and I don’t plan on retiring any time soon. Since when does leaving your job to take care of your family equal “retirement?”
I would say that this transition, if it had a (good or appropriate) name (and don’t get me started on the term “off-ramping”), is quite the opposite of retirement.
It’s been almost three years since I left my post as a rabbi at a dynamic and vibrant congregation to be a mother full-time. My third child had just turned one, and I felt a profound tug towards home. I wanted to spend more time with my young children; I wanted to be a firmer anchor in their lives. And so I decided to change gears and veer away from the path I had paved since ordination.
At the time, I wrote:
“I am not retiring or taking leave of the rabbinate. On the contrary, I will continue to be a rabbi in every respect of the word. My pulpit may focus on different issues and my congregation may be a bit smaller, but it is a vital rabbinate all the same. The Torah I teach will likely be rooted in sports and toys and imaginary friends; it will be filled with itsy bitsy spiders and twinkly little stars and soaked in laughter and tears. It is the Torah of motherhood, and while I’ve spent part of my days studying it up until now, I’ll now spend all of my days immersed in it.”
These days, I am wholly immersed in the Torah of motherhood, from the moment I wake up until the moment I go to sleep, and often many moments in between. And as magical as so many of these moments are, there are just as many that feel, well, not so magical.
As the primary caregiver, I am the point person for all things child-related and, most often, the first responder for diaper duty, tantrum defusing, meal prep, and all the other glam aspects of stay-at-home parenthood. And while I don’t adhere to any particular dress code or leave home to go to an office, I take great umbrage when the totality of what I do is not classified as “work.”
Parenting is work. Motherhood is work. Raising children is work. It must be understood that leaving a paid position to take care of one’s family is still a transition from one job to another. One job may be part of the “work force” as it is most traditionally defined, but the other is also, most definitely “work,” despite the lack of benefits, the absence of any salary to speak of, and the general lack of esteem given to such domestic roles. Child rearing is intensely challenging, utterly demanding, and downright exhausting work.
Full-time parenting is certainly not akin to “retirement,” and any mere suggestion of the pairing is actually quite offensive. (If only a full-time parent could fill his or her schedule with golf and tennis, pickle ball and pinochle!). Moreover, just because a parent leaves his or her job to care for family doesn’t mean he or she is abandoning their career! Leaving a job doesn’t mean vacating the work force forever. The path out is not one without a return; and yet, far too often, the return is near impossible to find.
It aggravates me when people assume that I left my career forever when I stepped away from the pulpit. It frustrates me when I find myself fielding questions as to why I “left the rabbinate,” and how I’m taking to “retirement.” It’s maddening, it’s demeaning, and it’s short sighted. Not only do I picture myself returning to the rabbinate, I don’t feel like I ever really left. I am still a rabbi, even in my primary role as a mother. I am still a rabbi in the way I think and the way I act and in the way I raise my children.
I may have stepped away from a traditional career path, and I may have left the every day work of a pulpit rabbi to do the every day work of a “mother rabbi.” But far from diminishing my rabbinate, it has enhanced it tremendously. I believe I am a better rabbi now than I was three years ago.
And yet, until we as a society legitimize the work of the parent, I, and many others like me will remain on the outside, looking in—when we never should have been ushered “out” in the first place.