Ethics of the Mother

Linda 2014

Empty nester Linda Haase considers lessons learned and progress made in her lifetime, through a Jewish woman’s lens.

Ethics of the Mother

I can quit anytime I want

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I can’t imagine my life today without the conveniences of the modern age, innovations I take for granted in my daily routine:  Electricity, which runs my home; computers, which run my professional work; and Amazon, which runs the rest of my life.

My daughter says the first step towards recovery is acknowledging that you have a problem. I remain in denial. 

Throughout my adult life, I have adapted to a mind-bending stream of advances and inventions. I embraced fax machines and voice mail. I adjusted to computers and double-clicking, accepted email and the internet, welcomed social media and texting. But one day the speed and scope of information I had to quickly absorb and the hydra-headed to-do lists I had to juggle reached a breaking point.

Then I discovered Amazon, and I felt like businessman in a 1950s sitcom with the best wife in the world.  

Scene 1: I am finishing at the dentist’s office when the hygienist suggests I try using an electric toothbrush. It’s nearly 8 p.m., I haven’t had dinner, and need to pack for a business trip when I get home. “It’s just something to think about,” is the last thing I hear her say as I whip out my iPad and purchase the model she recommends with one click. It will beat me home from my trip, and I won’t have to think about it at all. Because if there’s one thing I know, it’s that I can’t remember one more thing right now.

Scene 2: I have spent an entire Sunday shopping for a dress to my cousin’s wedding. I have earrings and a bag to match, but have struck out on shoes. En route to the grocery store, I consider the week ahead and realize I have work obligations every night. In the produce department, I stop, click on Amazon and order shoes so I can spend the evening with my husband instead of at the mall. I smile and pick up wine to go with dinner. 

Scene 3:  It is lunchtime, and I take a break from my desk and duck in to drugstore to buy a couple of cosmetics. Turns out this location does not carry the solution I need for hard contacts and they are out of the nail polish that I want. A reminder sounds from the smartphone in my purse; I retrieve it and see that I have a meeting back at the office in 15 minutes.  I turn from my calendar to Amazon; it takes me approximately 90 seconds to order the two elusive products.  I can breathe again. 

Scene 4: the bathtub overflows. After mopping up the mess, we discover that the bathroom rug’s rubber backing is disintegrating in the washing machine. My husband pulls handfuls of rubber confetti from the washer and asks me if I want him to go out and look for a new rug. Already online, I smile and tell him that won’t be necessary. Click. The new rug will be Amazoned here in two days.  

I do remember the time before cash stations, when you had to go to the grocery store or bank to cash a check. I remember faithfully spending one night per month at my desk paying bills, painstakingly affixing stamps to each envelope. And I remember window-shopping at the mall with my best friend most every weekend. What I cannot remember is how I ever found the time to do any of this.

Once, I enjoyed my weekly run to the grocery store—but that was back in the days when you could shop at one grocery store for all your food and toiletries. Then the neighborhood store closed, and life has never been the same. Nowadays, it’s not unusual for me to hit one store for produce, one for packaged goods, another for earthy-crunchy goodies like cashew butter, and yet another for toiletries. 

At least my Amazon account greets me by name. 

That’s not the only way life has gotten more complicated. An ever-expanding menu of choices, from TV channels to take-out menus, means no down-time from decision-making.  And automation and technology have created their own roster of demands on our time.  (Remember the evening you didn’t check Facebook, and missed learning that your friend’s husband was in the hospital?)  With the instantaneous availability of information comes the companion need for rapid-fire response—whether it’s a request from the office or your mother-in-law. 

Last night, when I laid my head on my pillow, a ticker-tape of the week’s pending chores scrolled across my mind. Get a shingles vaccine. Order that new book for Fathers Day. Buy more calcium tablets. Send that wedding gift. Pick up sunscreen.

I can get the shingles vaccine at lunch tomorrow. As for the rest of it? Amazon to the rescue. 

Click, click, click, click. 

And I sleep. 


Bucket list

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I don't have a bucket list.

According to my Facebook news feed, I am in a distinct minority. It seems like everyone else is planning to boldly jump out of planes, fulfilling a lifelong ambition to freefall through space.

If I had a bucket list, skydiving would not be on it. Neither would climbing Mount Everest, running a marathon, dogsledding across Antarctica, or any other feat testing the limits of human endurance. I've given birth, and that demonstrates enough superhuman strength for one lifetime.

But do that many people really yearn for intense adventures? I suspect not. It's more likely that these are the sorts of things people believe we are supposed to want. Somewhere along the way we are inculcated with the idea that Americans should demonstrate a spirit of adventure, and that we should be fearless. The American humanitarian Eleanor Roosevelt famously said: "You must do the thing you think you cannot do." 

This woman clearly never saw me attempt to roller blade.

Now, I do understand people wanting to travel overseas or have other fantastic experiences that require a long-term savings plan to make happen, but to my mind that's a shopping list, not a bucket list.

I'd argue that a bucket list is a distraction from the real work on self-improvement that we are meant to do with our lives. There is a Hasidic tale about a sage, Rabbi Zusya, who teaches that when he dies and faces divine judgment, the angels will not ask him why he wasn't more like the prophet Moses, leading his people out of slavery, or more like the hero Joshua, leading his people into the promised land. Instead, the angels will ask: "Zusya, why weren't you more like Zusya?"-meaning, why weren't you your best, authentic self?

Much as I'd like to think my authentic self is a Pulitzer Prize-worthy author who lunches with Meryl Streep, drives a convertible and wears Christian Louboutin pumps, I suspect the truth is that she is simply a kinder, more patient version of myself, still proudly working at Chicago's Jewish Federation and having lunch at her desk, and still driving a minivan and wearing sensible shoes.

The Chai life

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I turned 36 two weeks after I came to work at JUF, and it seemed auspicious that I was reaching my "double chai" birthday at that moment in time.

I'd never worked for a Jewish organization, or even with very many Jewish colleagues, and it felt like coming home.

During my first months and years at JUF, I experienced many intensely meaningful Jewish moments, moments which I vowed I would never take for granted-and which I now, of course, take for granted.

For starters, I was accustomed to having to be assertive to take off the High Holidays. Now I didn't even need to use my vacation days to do so. I couldn't believe my luck.

The first time I heard my co-workers call "Shabbat Shalom" to one another as they were leaving for the weekend, my eyes filled with tears.

I was delighted (and dumbfounded) to find that darn near every meeting seemed to involve food. When I went to lunch with a new colleague and she asked for one dessert and two forks, I knew we would be fast friends.

People invited one another to their simchas-and loved seeing pictures of each other's kids, grandkids and dogs. Staff and lay leaders also stood by one another in times of sickness and sorrow.  I will never forget how my JUF community filled the congregation for my father's funeral.

I loved the practice of slipping a few dollars for tzedakah to a colleague before he went on a trip to Israel. The gesture was purported to protect the traveler from harm, since he was now en route to perform a mitzvah.

The Yiddish phrases which seemed so foreign to me, growing up in a yekke household, seduced me with their eloquence. You should have seen my face the first time someone said they could see I was a balabusta and I struggled to discern the meaning.

Everyone had a sense of humor.

Then I blinked, and the years flew by. This month, I mark my 18th anniversary at JUF, and celebrate my "triple chai" birthday. One-third of my life has been spent at JUF.

It seems impossible. Weren't we just celebrating Israel's 50th Jubilee and the Federation's Centennial? Didn't we just launch the JUF Uptown Café, TOV Volunteer Network and Jewish Women's Foundation?

Those were wonderful times.

There also were times that were bittersweet. The attacks of Sept. 11 were awful, but what a balm it was to be with people who were like family as the news unfolded.  When natural disasters struck, at home and abroad, it felt good to help serve as a conduit for our Chicago Jewish community's generosity, rather than just standing by helplessly.

And then there were times that were simply awful: the terror attacks, the hate crimes, the wars. Sometimes, when I lie awake at night, images of all the tragedies flash before my eyes.

But most of the time I smile, thinking of some of the absolutely extraordinary people with whom I have had the privilege to work and to serve our community.

There's no telling what will happen in the next 18 years. In the meantime, may we all go from strength to strength.

L'Shanah Tovah.

Sometimes it's hard to be a Jew

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That metal taste in my mouth is back, a nauseating combination of rage, shame and fear.

It's been years since I have tasted it-perhaps not since the last time someone drew a swastika on the whiteboard hanging on my dorm room door.

With each Facebook post blaming Israel for genocide in Gaza, with every news account of anti-Semitic rampages in Europe, with any YouTube video resounding with chants for Death To The Jews, I have begun to flash back to memories that I thought were long buried.

In grammar school, I was the only Jew in my grade, and I was regularly pummeled for killing Christ. While I was in kindergarten, the Vatican issued Nostra Aetate, absolving the Jews of collective responsibility for deicide, but apparently this concept took a while to take hold in the boondocks. Years of being The Other twisted my sense of self in knots.

The taunts about the matzah sandwich I brought for lunch during Pesach.

The day I had to make a Christmas ornament in art class, and crafted it in blue and white.

The teacher who tried to get me to make the sign of the cross before entering her classroom.

High school was better. I wasn't known only for being Jewish, but also for being involved in theatre, speech and choir. Even though there were only a handful of students who were not white and Christian, most of the time I felt like I belonged. Except when I didn't.

The day members of the Nazi Party spoke at my high school.

The boy whose parents wouldn't let him go to the school dance with me because I was Jewish. 

The bomb threat that evacuated our synagogue during High Holidays.

I loved my small liberal arts college, but once again I was the first Jew some of my classmates had ever met. I was taken aback by some of their questions, given how intelligent the students were (i.e., no, my headband did not cover horns), but most seemed genuinely curious and did not mean to be offensive. My non-Jewish friends didn't understand why I bought into the construct of religion at all, much less Judaism, or why I felt the need to defend Israel when it was unpopular to do so. There were times when it was simply lonely to be different.

The Arab students who raged against Israel in a political theory class.

The theatre call-backs held on Yom Kippur.

The religion textbook that proclaimed Jews were "endowed by nature" with a talent for finance.

My first day of grad school was on Yom Kippur. I was not as brave or bold as Sandy Koufax; I attended class. When a North Shore suburban Village Hall refused to provide information to me or the student who was African-American, saying they would only work with our white classmate, I was not courageous or confident enough to demand the university take action-or to use my journalism chops to write an expose about the incident.

In two of my three positions before coming to JUF, I also faced some measure of anti-Semitism in the workplace.

The boss who continually grudged my taking a personal day for Yom Kippur, and deliberately ordered sandwiches instead of salads for lunch meetings during Passover. 

The supervisor who questioned the expense of sending news releases to Jewish publications.

The coworkers who told Jewish jokes every time they saw me.

When I came to work at JUF, it was a more than a job: it was a vow to never again have to explain, defend or tacitly apologize for who I was.

And now, walking with a group of co-workers to a JUF-sponsored Chicago Stands With Israel Rally, I taste metal again. And I am angry.

We can hear the pro-Palestinian chants growing stronger as we get closer, and my younger colleagues are chalk-faced. Seeing them frightened makes me angrier.

I will admit that in some small measure I am incredulous, even jealous, that they have never before felt threatened as Jews. In larger measure, I cannot believe we are fighting the same battles as when I was a preschooler.

The rally is a success. It is powerful and peaceful. The counter-protestors are small in number and manageable. We all relax. But after the crowd dissipates, as we re-trace our steps to return to the office, I think about my grandchildren and my heart hurts.

As Sholem Aleichem said, sometimes it's hard to be a Jew.

Heroes

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The group of parents at the next table was abuzz, dissecting the latest scandal involving a professional athlete. One of them shook her head sadly. Really, she asked, who is left for our kids to look up to?

Everyone wondered aloud where all the heroes had gone. 

I have a different question.

How did we get the idea that a hero is someone who does an impressive job catching, hitting or throwing a ball? When did we decide that bravery was defined by how fast a person could run or cycle? Why do we measure courage by how beautifully a person can sing or model a gown? 

When long hours on a practice field or in a practice room yield outstanding results, that's called success, not heroism. The pursuit of excellence does not equal valor. A hero isn't just accomplished; a hero makes personal sacrifices for the greater good.

Whether in fiction or actual history, true heroes do not walk through the flames unscathed. On the contrary, they often lose some of the things - and people - they love the most. From Moses and Moshe Dayan to Nathan Hale and Harriet Tubman, from Raoul Wallenberg and Hannah Senesh to Martin Luther King, Jr. and Rosa Parks - and even from Harry Potter to Katniss Everdeen - heroes take the hit. 

At times, heroes are even reviled. Two of the greatest leaders in history, President Abraham Lincoln and Sir Winston Churchill, made bold, brave decisions that were unpopular with a large minority of the population. We remember the enduring importance of what they accomplished, often overlooking what it cost them personally. Lincoln's reward for saving the Union was assassination; Churchill's prize for standing up to Hitler was to be trounced at the polls immediately thereafter.

So, where can we find heroes today? 

Recently, I attended a beautiful college graduation. I will never forget the look on the faces of the couple seated near us, whose daughter was the first in their family to get a degree. That couple had worked for decades to make this opportunity possible for their child. The fatigue was etched on their faces - but that day fatigue was overshadowed by pride.

I looked at the couple, quietly holding hands, and thought: That's what heroes look like.  

We will never learn about them on the news. We will never know what opportunities they gave up - Night school? Nice vacations? More interesting jobs that paid less? - to ensure that their kids had a better life.

Good Samaritans who pull passengers from burning cars make the news. Quiet, everyday heroes like those parents fly under the radar.  There's no adrenaline rush or drama, just the steadfast pulse of people who make regular sacrifices for someone or something they love more than themselves.

The honors student who arises at 4 a.m. to work the morning shift before going to school, helping to support his immigrant family.

The Army wife (or husband) who lives as a single parent for months and months on end while her spouse is deployed. 

The executive heading a company reorganization project who decides her own job should be cut first.

The teacher who dips into his own pocket to buy needy students books and school supplies. 

The mom who ends a rewarding career outside the home to care for a disabled family member.

Where have all the heroes gone? They are everywhere; sitting next to you on the el or standing behind you in line at the grocery store, taking your order at a restaurant or giving orders at a construction site, in the next cubicle or the house next door.

Can you see me?

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Somewhere between the ages of 40 and 50, I seem to have grown invisible.

People increasingly bump into me on my commute. Bar hostesses look right past me. I am met with blank stares and silence at a community Oneg Shabbat.

The people who seem unable to see me have one thing in common: they are young.  When they look at me, I just don't seem to register with them. Or perhaps they look away because they don't know what to say to me.

They view me as "other" rather than a person perhaps worth getting to know.

I suspect that when some of my younger acquaintances and colleagues do see me, what they identify is a hetero-normative, cisgender, middle-aged businesswoman in a suit and sensible shoes. Many assume I am corporate, conservative and conventional.

In reality, I am none of those things.

It is disappointing to me that the same people who demand that their differences be acknowledged seem to view acceptance as a one-way street. They (rightly) resent being discounted because of their gender identity or political views, overlooked because of their tattoos or unconventional clothing. They ask not to be disregarded, challenging those of us who are older to see their creativity and brilliance and humanity as well as their youth.

They are right. When I spend time with women and men who are younger, and especially those who are "counter-culture," I learn that many of them are very much worth getting to know.

I discover that the young woman who is a fierce advocate for transgendered individuals happens to be an accomplished opera singer and a ferociously patriotic American. I find that my colleague with spiky hair and a nose ring is utterly passionate about providing health care to the disenfranchised, and happens to be a world-class cook. I realize that my friend's vegan child who identifies an anarchist is a frustrated idealist bursting to make a difference in the world. I understand that my child's friend who has rainbow-colored hair is a brilliant scientist with questions about the universe that could rock it.

My viewpoint expands, and my world right along with it.

I'd like to suggest that some of us who are older also are more complex than we seem. One of my closest friends is a pleasant, suburban Jewish mother of two, who happens to have amassed a world-class collection of antique Japanese kimonos and books. Another is a no-nonsense businesswoman who writes fantasy fiction for young adults in her free time.

I have coworkers who are deadheads, triathletes and marched for Civil Rights in the 1960s; one colleague had a successful career as a singer songwriter. My sister-in-law has studied with Second City. I have helped teach HIV/AIDs prevention and worked for LGBTQ rights since the mid-1980s.

So, here's an invitation to anyone who can look beyond the bifocals: Want to grab a beer?

Career crisis

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I recently lost the best job I ever had.

Not the telecommunications post I held during the whirlwind divestiture of AT&T. Not the job helping to establish the State's watershed AIDS program. Not the rewarding position I held at the American Cancer Society, nor even working for this incredible organization, which has leant meaning to the last 18 years of my career.

My favorite job was being a mom.  And I miss it.

Now my daughter is an adult.  I am still her mother, but not her mommy. It's not the same.

I am not grieving her growing up--that's all good; Jenna is a fabulous woman, great company and a wicked-sharp wit. Instead, I am grieving the loss of a huge and precious part of my own personal identity.

I miss being needed in such a primal way, miss attending softball games and skating practices, miss reading to her at night and planning her birthday parties. I miss the sound of her giggle while she was hiding in the clothes hamper.  I even miss fighting with her about homework.

Are these words of betrayal from a card-carrying feminist?

When I was young, if you had told me that one day I'd attend a school open house and simply write "Jenna's Mom" on my nametag, I would have reeled in horror at the implied subjugation of my own self.

When I graduated from college, I was determined to be a self-actualized woman, to make the most of the opportunities that had been afforded me by my parents and my coming of age at that fortunate point in history. I knew I was being given choices that my parents and grandparents had not had.  I also knew that women who had come before me had struggled and suffered for equal opportunity, and I did not want to take their sacrifices for granted.

By age 28, I had earned two degrees, studied and traveled abroad, worked in three fast-paced jobs, met with governors and senators and members of Congress, chaired my condominium association and served as president of a nonprofit board. I was productive, purposeful and passionate.

If you had told me, then, that someday I would feel just as energized and self-actualized by motherhood, I would have been at best confused. I expect I would have been utterly bewildered to learn that in a few short years, I would be happier being Jenna's mommy than I had ever been in my life.

Being a mother didn't make me enjoy my professional life any less; on the contrary, it inspired me and leant new purpose to my work, gave me a tangible reason to strive for a better world. It also made me a better boss and a more patient and intuitive coach. It was the best of all possible worlds: I loved my job and coworkers, and loved my husband and daughter.  I still do.

But for me, being a working mom was kind of an all-or-nothing proposition. I was permanently set on full-throttle. You'd think I would have been tired, but I generally wasn't--or maybe I have just forgotten. I rarely felt like my responsibilities at home collided with those at work. (Insert "props to awesome husband, parents and in-laws" here!) Also, I suspect I knew that soon enough I would miss the days when Jenna burst in needing to talk when I was in the bathtub shaving my legs.

Now, as someone who is used to spending a Sunday baking while writing a fundraising script, it is strangely difficult to switch to doing one activity at a time.  It feels empty. So I write blog posts and think about starting a novel. I learn about social media and try more complicated recipes.

And I dream of having grandchildren.

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