Working Moms and Busy “Others”

I’d like to be frank about something here. I know what I’m about to say is not popular, but I’m going to say it anyway. I really don’t have that much sympathy for working moms.

I really don’t mean to downplay how hard it is to be a mom and also work full time, but in my world, that’s normal. When I was growing up, my mom worked full time. Both of my grandmothers also worked full time while raising children. Almost all of my friends’ moms worked.

I am not a mom, but I still have a busy schedule. I go to law school full time, and work part time, plus I have an hour long commute each day, meaning that I don’t get home before 9pm most nights. And once I get home, I have papers to write and cases to read and client files to go over.  I often do the grocery shopping while falling asleep, and my laundry hasn’t been done in two weeks because I just don’t have time for that. Forget about ever making the bed. And yet, there are not blogs and magazines and books dedicated solely to coping with my schedule. How come having a busy schedule is only sympathy worthy if part of the schedule includes children?

Still, despite my non-sympathy, being a working mom scares me. When my sister-in-law was recently complaining about a hectic day she had at work, it started with her pre-school age daughter being sick and having to arrange last-minute childcare before she left in the morning. Then, in the afternoon, she had an off-site meeting that went longer than it was supposed to. Since my sister-in-law is nursing her baby son, she pumps milk during the day. The late meeting meant that she had to find a place in the unfamiliar office building to pump, keeping her co-worker (and ride) waiting. Another time, she told me that her office building was closed for repairs, but all employees were expected to report in to a temporary site. She went to the temporary site, and found that she, and the rest of the employees, weren’t able to do a lot of work from there, since they didn’t have their files and other necessary things with them. While her co-workers had to stay and find busy work to fill their time, her boss gave her permission to leave early in order to nurse (there was no place to pump in the temporary location).

I know that my sister-in-law is an incredibly hard worker and very dedicated to her job. She’s also quite smart and good at what she does. Still, often when she talks about work, it’s often about how her children interfere with her ability to do her job well. It scares me that my ability to do my job well will be impacted by my children.

Perhaps, just maybe, this is the real reason why it irks me so much when moms complain about how hard it is to balance their work and home life. Perhaps, every time I hear that discussion, it reminds me that soon enough, that will be my fate as well.

Birth Control: Fertility Awareness as a viable form?

About a year ago, I attended a lecture on the topic of halachik birth control. It was given by a Yoetzet Halacha and prominent kallah teacher. She went through the various forms of birth control and what halachik problems they raise, how rabbis have gotten around the issue, and when they might be appropriate for women.

My biggest concern with her lecture was that up there with pills, IUDs, and condoms, she included the Fertility Awareness Method. Another article I read recently about birth control in the Orthodox community also mentioned this method as part of a list of options couples have to avoid pregnancy.

The “fertility awareness method” is a way in which women can monitor their body temperatures, vaginal mucus, and calendar days to determine when they are ovulating, and avoid sex while ovulating.

The problem is, the “fertility awareness method” is not really birth control at all!! Planned Parenthood puts the efficacy rates for the method at only 75% when used “as an average person would”, with an average amount of mistakes. When used absolutely perfectly, the efficacy rate can go up to 90%. These rates sure wouldn’t satisfy me if I was looking for a way to prevent pregnancy. In comparison, most birth control pills have a 99% efficacy rate when used “as an average person would”, and a 99.99% efficacy rate when used perfectly.

The “fertility awareness method” is even less effective than the pull-out method. Pull-out, or withdrawal, also has studies showing that the method is 77% effective with average use and 96% effective with perfect use. The numbers may seem to indicate that with perfect use, pull-out, fertility awareness, condoms, IUDs, and hormonal pills are all approximately the same amount of effective. But do a google search for any of these methods. With fertility awareness and withdrawal, you’ll find articles about the methods, but under every article, you will find many women writing “I got pregnant that way”, “yeah, me too”. You won’t find such comments with pills, IUDs, and condoms. Of course, there will be the 0.01% that get pregnant on those methods and write about it, but those types of comments or articles are few and far between.

The problem is, of course, no one is perfect!! Professionals should not be counseling women to use fertility awareness because the chances are likely that a woman using that method will become pregnant. This is how accidents happen.

The other, more systemic, problem, is that when methods like the above gain such widespread notoriety, rabbis and other religious leaders can use this information to downplay the need to find halachik methods of birth control. No, you can’t use the pill or any other birth control forms, but don’t worry, there’s still a way to prevent pregnancy, just track your menses. It is the same problem with the availablity of reconstructive therapy for homosexuality–since it’s available, rabbis can use it to downplay the problems faced by homosexual individuals. No matter that the general mental health profession has dismissed such therapy as being completely ineffective–they just haven’t found the right doctor/patient match yet.

It is also troubling to me that I heard this from a yoetzet halacha. The Yoatzot program was designed to counter the problem of uninformed men discussing and ruling on women’s issues. It’s much harder to tell if blood is menstrual blood if you’ve never experienced menstrual blood. While the Yoatzot technically have male rabbis making all the official halachick rulings, women are trained to make factual rulings. The problem is, here was a woman standing up and telling all these other women that fertility awareness is a viable method of birth control. They are making the same mistakes rabbis make when looking at the facts and not the situation as a whole.

Fertility awareness may be appropriate for those couples in very insular communities that have completely rejected all traditional forms of birth control due to halachik issues, but in a society where rabbis are willing to consider the possibility of birth control, withdrawal and fertility awareness should not even be on the list.

Covering My Hair and Figuring Out What’s Right For ME

This past weekend, I went to visit some old friends from high school. I met up with these two women, both of whom are married and pregnant, for dinner. The discussion turned to schools. Where, one wondered, was the other planning on sending her as of yet unborn child to school? A new school had recently opened up in their community, and they discussed whether or not that school would be appropriate for their children.

“I don’t know”, one said. “On one hand, the philosophy of the school sounds like our own philosophy. But the group of people that started the school are just, well, different, from us”.

“Different how?” I asked.

“Well, you know, they wear those shaitals [wigs] that show a significant part of their hair!” 

“Yeah”, the other said. “They shouldn’t even be called shaitals, they should be called ‘extensions'”.

Ironically, I was sitting there wearing a hat that left a significant portion of my hair uncovered.

Apparently, it wasn’t the amount of hair showing that was a problem for them, rather, it was how they chose to cover their hair.

They basically explained to me that these shaitals went along with a lifestyle where women made sure to dress up every time they leave their houses, even just to go around the corner to the market. They would never walk outside without makeup, and more often than not sport high heels and fitted clothing. They only wear skirts, but their skirts are rather tight and don’t even attempt to reach their knees. Their husbands wear black hats, but mostly just to blend in. And of course, the women always wear these insane shaitals. For my friends, the problem with the shaitals was that they were representative of a lifestyle which valued beauty over brains.

I still couldn’t shake the feeling that I was being scorned, right in front of my nose. Perhaps it is due to the feeling that many people have, including by not limited to, Orthodox Jewish Women. This feeling is: “I’ve made a decision that’s right for me, so while I may say that I’m liberal and support anybody doing whatever they want, I inwardly feel a little bit like those people that made a decision different from my decision made the wrong decision. Afterall, since this decision is right for me, it should be right for most people.”

My own practice regarding hair covering came after much thought and deliberation.

I only cover my hair in situations in which it is socially expected. Essentially, this comes down to shul and visits to ultra-orthodox communities. I’ve learned the halachot–I know that hair covering is, essentially, dependent on minhag hamakom [the customs of the place]. The rabbis lament how, over the years, Jewish women have forsaken the mitzvah of covering their hair, but now that uncovered hair is a commonplace occurrence, it is no longer halachikcally required. The discussion is more nuanced than that and there are certainly a plethora of rabbis that would disagree with what I’ve just said, but suffice it to say that not only has my reasoning has been developed by studying the sources, it’s also rabbinically sanctioned.

My decision to not cover my hair in most situations started with my decision not to cover my hair at work. I really don’t think that scarves and hats are suitable for a professional environment. Sure, there is a Muslim woman that works in my office who covers her hair and neck with fancy scarves and nobody bats an eyelash. There are a couple of men who wear kippahs. I’m pretty sure that there is a woman who wears a shaital, but I’m not a hundred percent sure it isn’t natural hair. Still, I don’t feel it’s appropriate for me. I not a permanent employee there yet, and I certainly don’t want to be viewed as a religious fanatic when the time comes for them to evaluate my employment applications.

I also really hate wearing wigs. Not only are they heavy and uncomfortable, they make your natural hair look worse. The wig makes your hair flat and messy, plus, years of prolonged hair covering mean that your hair doesn’t get much, if any, exposure to the sun, resulting in thin, dull hair for women still in their mid-twenties. Since it’s not halachikally required, and I had all these reasons why I didn’t want to, I chose not to cover my hair at work.

Once I made that decision, the following decision to only cover my hair at shul and places I’m expected to made a lot of sense for me. Why wear a head covering to the grocery store on Sunday if I didn’t wear one to the grocery store on Wednesday afternoon during my lunch break?

Sometimes I end up wearing head coverings in situations that I didn’t expect to. I often cover my hair on shabbat even I don’t go to shul, because that feels more like a shabbat outfit. I wore one at the funeral I attended a few months ago. I wore one at the sheva brachot meal I attended two weeks ago, but not the one I attended a month ago. I debate constantly with myself whether a particular situation is hair covering appropriate. And that is what’s right for me. 

Still, I hope that when I talk to friends that fully cover their hair, or friends that never ever cover their hair, they don’t get the impression that I think they made the wrong decisions. I don’t. I fully support them. I made the decision that was right for me, but that is all. I know my friends mentioned above don’t really think less of me because of how I cover my hair, but sometimes it feels like they do, even when they’re “just” talking about other people. I dislike it, and I hope that I don’t give off the same impressions.