Arts and Culture

For one mother, is decision to ‘opt out’ a cop-out?

JERUSALEM (JTA) — At a recent kids-included party in Jerusalem, I spent much of the time either on the floor with my daughter Mari or trailing her around to make sure she didn’t eat anything toxic. A successful American journalist living here chatted with me for a few minutes, and as I left her to intercept my daughter before she reached a stairwell, she told me, “Don’t worry. They get older. You get your dignity back.”

Funny, I didn’t even have any spit-up on my clothes. But her words tapped into the part of me that feels inadequate.

It occurred to me that being a stay-at-home mom was perhaps not the best strategy for an insecure woman. And now that Mari, who recently turned 2, had just started a half-day preschool program, I started to wonder how I came to “opt out”?

Beyond the “lean-in” versus “opt out” debate are a million women with an infinite number of nuanced variables that contribute to the big decision.

If I were following the trend of those around me, I’d have gone back to work. In Israel, women receive 14 weeks of maternity leave and are entitled to take off another 12 without pay. At my neighborhood park in Jerusalem, I was one of just two mothers who came every day with her baby. The other babies and toddlers were with full-time nannies or their saftas — some had taken early retirement to care for their grandchildren.

But even though I’m living in this “working gal” environment, I was raised in a different one within a Jewish community on Long Island, where the women in the 1970s and ’80s opted out long before the phrase ever evoked the hot-button issue of work-family balance. It’s just what women did, with some, including my mother, returning to work when the youngest child started a full day of school.

Sometimes I wonder if the social mores of my childhood have influenced me and my decision, even if I’ve left behind most of the other values.

Another consideration that guided me away from the workplace was the state of the work to which I’d be returning (a topic that’s often not mentioned in the debate). I was a freelance journalist and documentary filmmaker whose biggest project lost funding midway through production, though I managed to finish it. I also wrote fiction in my spare time.

Journalism, documentaries and fiction: I give you the trifecta of hopeless endeavors in these declining days of old media.

When my daughter was born, the thought of returning to work was depressing. What would I have been going back to? Submissions and unacknowledged query letters, rejections and being asked to write for websites without being paid.

Yet the judgments of others still whispered in my ear. Even now, when I tell people that Mari started school, many say things like, “You must be so happy. You’ll have your life back! You’ll have so much time now.” The subtext is that a woman at home with a baby must be unhappy and unfulfilled.

Which brings me back to my insecurity. I wonder if the staying at home option was just an escape hatch. Maybe not returning to work was a convenient way of surrendering to my fears and not facing the world. Was my opt out a cop-out?

Even the degree to which I opted out implies submissiveness. Unlike with my first child, when I hired a baby sitter and worked a few hours a day, with Mari I let go of most things that had been part of the fabric of my life — writing, social life and what I’ll call physical maintenance, a list that includes pedicures and buying new clothes. Happily for those around me, I still showered.

I was still a parent to my oldest, I still did yoga, and my partner and I built a stronger connection than we’ve ever had. Nonetheless, perhaps this intense connection I feel with my daughter is unhealthy in the same way a co-dependent romantic relationship is.

I don’t believe there is an absolute truth here for me — or any woman navigating her own path. I only know that after Mari was born, I tried to get in touch with the deepest part of myself. When I did, I wanted to be with her. It’s been a process to accept myself, one that requires maintaining that connection with what I truly want while separating my self-regard from the opinion of others. I work at it every day.

And now it’s over. Mari’s in school coloring in apple cutouts for Rosh Hashanah and I’m adrift without anyone to make errands seem like an exciting adventure. As I apply for jobs, I still wonder which came first: Did I love my baby so much that my career failed, or did my career fail so I loved my baby?

Then I think, who cares? Love comes in all kinds of different ways, but whenever and however it comes along, let it in. It’s love, and John Lennon had it right — it is the answer. At least for me. These last two years have been beautiful.

There is one thing I have been doing outside of mothering. During Mari’s nap times, I spent my “free” hours trying to sell my novels. As much as I tried to be cheerful about it, the task of marketing my work, particularly as I lack the marketing gene, was one huge dignity-suck.

That’s what I might have told the woman at the party: Following my crawling baby around was an absolute pleasure.

(Devorah Blachor writes a mystery series under the pen name Jasmine Schwartz. Her novels include “Farbissen” and “Fakakt.”)