Recently, I’ve had numerous encounters with middle-aged women. This isn’t strange. I’m talking to women who are a lot like me: dealing with school-aged kids, piano lessons, finding childcare, etc. What’s remarkable is that the same conversation pops up – about work.
One friend, an author and artist, said that she does the math every time she’s invited to do a workshop or a special event. Will the cost of travel, supplies and teaching preparation be worth the return? She’s often told, “Well, we can’t afford to pay you to teach” but, when she shows up for the single event she agreed to do for payment, what happens? People surround her, saying, “Well, if we’d only known you were coming, we would have paid for you to do a multi-day workshop!”
Another woman explained that she is only now, after years of staying at home, getting back to very part-time work in her field. Why? The cost of childcare would have canceled out anything she would have earned with part-time work.
Among women who juggle a full-time job with conventional hours, there’s an acknowledgement that it’s extremely hard to manage. In some cases, their partners step up to do the childrearing and run the household. In others, there are moms who are obligated to work full-time, be “on call” as the primary caretaker and either do, or hire someone to do, all the household chores. For many, this works because everyone’s healthy and they have support from extended family. In case of illness or lack of family support? Forget it. Of course, since these women do manage it, anyone who struggles is seen as “not as capable” as a woman who “has it all.”
This is a big topic, and it’s also (surprise!) a Jewish topic. We’ve been wrestling with it forever. In Exodus, the Israelites flee Egypt and slavery. Yet, in Exodus 14:12, the Israelites are afraid and they actually suggest to Moses that it would be better to return to Egypt and slavery (work without being paid) than to die in the wilderness. Lacking faith, they struggle with how they will be fed, and manna appears for them.
The first question is, what is the value of our work? For the Israelites, they were willing to live for nothing more than food and housing, as Egyptian slaves, rather than cope with being tossed out into the unknown. They didn’t value their work, and perhaps didn’t have the confidence that things could be different. Yet, when they take that risk, miraculously, their basic needs are met.
There are no guarantees. We can offer up our work for free – in whatever professional fields we’re qualified to do so – but there’s no surety that, at the end, we’ll have any offer of full-time, paying work. I see women doing this all around me. There’s an expectation that you’ll volunteer to offer your presentation, and you’ll also tack on free teaching, writing, editing, professional-level creative work or even childcare for others’ children. (Yes, I’ve been asked to do all these things for free.)
Here’s the second question. Is the Israelites’ manna in the desert the ancient equivalent of the “guaranteed minimum income” or “basic income” concept? At what point in modern society do we decide that everyone should get enough to eat? When is it acceptable to say, “Everyone should have a warm place to live, no matter what you earn or your special needs or other health challenges”?
In the Talmud, in Berachot 17a, the sages of Yavneh say that we are all G-d’s creatures, those who learn Torah in the city and those who labour in the fields. That both kinds of people rise early. Neither one is superior. Their work has equal merit as long as they “direct his heart towards Heaven.” This includes the idea that the labourer doesn’t presume to do the Torah scholar’s work and the scholar doesn’t presume to do the labourer’s. In this gendered ancient world, this leaves out women. Then Rav Hiyya acknowledges that women are offered “ease and confidence” because they do an enormous amount to sustain Jewish learning through raising their kids Jewishly and supporting their husbands who study Mishnah.
So, even in talmudic times, work was valuable and considered important, no matter what you did. Further, a woman who is doing “traditional” things like taking care of her children’s education or her husband is owed “ease and confidence” for her efforts.
Our work has meaning. It has important economic and social value. However, sometimes, when we compare our resumés, we feel lacking; certainly if we are being asked to do work for free. It turns out that we shouldn’t be expected to work for free, because our work, no matter what it is, is equivalent and necessary.
A more modern reminder: Martin Luther King, Jr., preached that all work is crucial and deserves fair pay. He supported the Memphis Sanitation Workers’ strike. To be healthy, we need trash collection. Garbage collectors matter.
There’s also no such thing as being out of the workforce. That dinner you cooked, the snow shoveled, the cleaning you did to keep someone healthy, the child you kept safe – according to the rabbis, if you do your work with the right intention, it’s all equally important.
I was recently invited by a favourite undergrad professor of mine to submit a short bio for the Cornell University Near Eastern studies department’s alumni page. I read some previous ones – doctors, rabbis, professors and others – and felt out of my league. Then I talked about it with my husband and thought about it. Being asked to share my work experience on that forum means, like the rabbis’ view of work, mine is valuable too – and so is yours.
Joanne Seiff has written regularly for CBC Manitoba and various Jewish publications. She is the author of three books, including From the Outside In: Jewish Post Columns 2015-2016, a collection of essays available for digital download or as a paperback from Amazon. Check her out on Instagram @yrnspinner or at joanneseiff.blogspot.com.