Yesterday, I shared my to-do list with a friend via email. She responded with “Ahh! I’m tired just reading this!” What I didn’t mention is that I had to do all this plus other chores, thrown in, which I had either forgotten to write down or were such household habits that I didn’t list them. For many caregivers who work and manage households, this sounds familiar. It’s the list that is the first step. Write it down. Name the obligation. Then release yourself from trying to remember it all. Finally, cross it off the list later.
This isn’t a new phenomenon. Studies have shown how much of this organizational and emotional labour falls to women. For example, a recent National Public Radio piece from the United States covered research by economists, which showed that women (mothers) were almost always contacted by schools first, no matter which parent was designated as the “first contact” on the emergency form. The social media chatter that followed remarked on how female medical residents or surgeons, working hours away from their children’s schools, were still called first even though the primary caretaker was the father. In the study itself, one economist described the mental load of planning ahead for “if the school called” and how women’s workload could be managed in such situations. She noted that, even though her husband was the vice-president of the Parent Teacher Association, the school always called her first.
In economic terms, women then self-select for lower paying, more flexible work simply to manage these challenges, resulting in lower income and fewer opportunities for career growth. Societal obligations placed mostly on women create a lifelong effect on earning power and household income.
This morning, as I bake bread, make chicken broth in two slow cookers, write this article and air out the house with fans because of an unexpected drop in temperatures due to a rainstorm, I time everything to fit into the hours between when I drop kids off at 9 a.m. and pick them up at noon for their half day of camp. This is, of course, not a specifically Jewish problem, but aspects of it are in our house.
We have twin 12-year-olds, with both kids doing b’nai mitzvah lessons at the same time. These kids come with different challenges. Like all learners, they may need different supports to master chanting trope. Amid the meltdown tears last night, it became clear that what was necessary was for each kid to have 15 minutes to practise separately every day with me. As the crying continued – and I include myself in the crying – my partner tried to help.
This is when you might wonder why all this falls to me, and you’d be right to ask. My partner told us that the year before his bar mitzvah involved a lot of crying. He was so overwhelmed that he quit playing drums at school, because he couldn’t manage both things. His mother had been given no Jewish education. She couldn’t read Hebrew and didn’t know the prayers. His father worked late every day, coming home at 11 p.m. My twins’ dad was truly on his own, with a cassette tape. He never learned the trope and struggled with short-term memory issues. Mastering his bar mitzvah portion took him a long time. As an adult, he never gained some of these prayer skills. A demanding job means now is not the time for him to catch up. The obligation’s all mine.
We’ve now been married for 25 years and I just learned last night about this tough path my husband took towards bar mitzvah. By comparison, I had supportive parents with some Jewish literacy, plus we attended services regularly. I was self-directed as a learner. Mastering everything for my bat mitzvah was interesting and challenging but not a struggle. I continued learning through university and graduate school and beyond, as I continue to study Talmud when I can. We chose a bilingual Hebrew/English elementary school for our kids partially because it would make bar mitzvah study easier for them.
Few people see what my lists of work and household obligations look like. I tell even fewer people about fitting in 20 minutes of Daf Yomi, a page of Talmud every day. When I mention the Talmud study, I’ve been asked why I bother. The minutiae of discussions of Jewish law that rabbis conducted so long ago is of no interest to most. Sometimes, if the person wants to know why, I explain that I learn things about Jewish tradition, history and daily life from these debates.
I also admit to myself that I find some reassurance in these pages. Although the specifics might have been different, life’s minutiae is pretty much the same. The rabbis struggled over multiple daily tasks, relationships and household concerns in many of the ways I do. They sweated the details, even if they didn’t do them all personally.
If everything works out, in June 2024, my kids will step up to the bimah (pulpit) and become bar mitzvah boys, which is a huge lifecycle event. Between now and then, practising with them will be another part of my to-do list. Good study habits mean you do a little every day until, suddenly, you learn something new. Just like my lists, nothing is insurmountable if you name it, take it step by step, and cross it off the list when the task is complete.
Like many women, I get bogged down by the minutiae. I wish I could share more of the household labour and emotional load. Even men who try to assume more of these tasks have to struggle against the societal expectations our culture wields. Step by step, we make change in our lives, our lists and our expectations for one another. It’s not a sprint. You can’t cram the night before to pass this exam. Life is a series of chores, moments, obligations and, well, joys.
Early this morning, I leashed up the dog while I sang the first Haftorah blessing aloud. I try to put the melody into the twins’ heads while donning my shoes and raincoat as I head out. Each step makes a difference to hopefully hit one very big milestone ahead.
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.