Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Needs of Many vs. Needs of Few

Quite some time ago, a community's renowned "mikvah lady" was being honored for her many years of service. When she approached the dais to receive her accolade, her daughter muttered bitterly, "It should be me getting that award."

The honoree, of course, was a mother, and had a household to run. While her chessed efforts left many grateful and admiring, her eldest daughter was left holding the bag, raising children that were not her responsibility.

My sister-in-law once observed, when she considered whether she should make dinner for another household when the mother just had a baby: "So my kids should have pizza while another family gets a home-cooked meal? Does that really make sense?" 

These were the situations I thought of when I read "A Feminist's Daughter Finds Love in the Kitchen" by Jane Benton, a story which I found heart-breaking. 

Benton's mother originally was a fixture in the kitchen, a typical housewife, until she was bitten by the feminist bug. She abandoned all caregiving considerations as she threw herself into her new identity, a feminist force to be reckoned with, and thrived. 
While her children starved, were left alone in an empty house. They didn't know how to cook, and could not feed themselves. Whenever Benton sought her mother's company, she was waved off.
But back then, on many afternoons, I would return to my bedroom, sit on my pink shag rug and cry. It seemed I mattered to no one anymore. My heart shrank into a knob of hurt and yearning.
Twenty-three years later, I accepted a medal of honor for my mother from the Veteran Feminists of America. She was in Bosnia, where she had been leading mask-making workshops with war-scarred women and children. Could I really share with this audience of feminist dignitaries the ambivalence I felt about my mother’s activism?
Despite a childhood of neglect, Benton was generous enough to recognize what her mother did for others. But while societies were saved, the ones who were her immediate responsibility were abandoned. 
I am a feminist, too, and I know there were and are innumerable good reasons for outrage and action. Yet children do not stop needing what they need, even when their parents are fighting for justice. And if you do not attend to them or find a loving substitute, they will suffer and may hold it against you. Even if you have never felt stronger and more truly yourself. Even if you love them. 
Because of my history, I know how much the mundane care of children matters. That is why I stop work when the school day ends and greet my daughter with a hug. I may be tired, stressed out or grumpy; I may bemoan the confinement, the repetition, the career limits. But I do it anyway. I pull away from paid pursuits and open myself to the opportunity to delight in my daughter.   
So she is where she had always wished her mother to be: In the kitchen. 
When I hand her a snack and look into her face, seeking the stories of her day, I intend for her to feel how much she matters. She matters more to me right then than anything I could be doing without her. And we will not have these afternoons forever. 
When we have children, our lives cease to be our own. We are now responsible for others, a bittersweet duty. I currently experience this on a smaller level, when kinfauna tumble in the door; I diligently and tediously slice grapes into halves for the three-year-old, and he gazes into my face with puppy-dog devotion.  http://www.wahmresourcesite.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/11/mom-girl-cooking.jpg
As always, it is the little things that truly count. While Spock proclaimed, "Logic clearly dictates that the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few," that is not the go-to of Jewish law. All of our blood is equally valued, and no one is more precious than another.     


JerusalemStoned said...

Feminism AND Spock!Truly there never was a better post. :)

Of course, you are right on. And our society cheats women out of what should be so intuitive...the need for a mother in the life of a child.

Maya Resnikoff said...

Coming from a slightly different background, I wonder where the father (presuming that this is a two-parent family) was in the life of that mikvah lady's family. If she was going to take on such a commitment (and I always presumed that that was a paid job, and might be her contribution to supporting her family), her husband should be on board for dinner, bedtime, etc. I always feel that a family needs to work together to manage all of its communal needs (funding, parental attention, etc), rather than the mother being the only one who has to do the balancing act. Two people can balance the needs of a whole family much better than one person can.

But when it comes down to it, the lack of balance in people's lives is a real problem. Chessed versus your own family's needs- that's a hard one, because there's this social pressure to do for others, without being able to acknowledge that sometimes your own needs are as much as you can manage- and that's okay until you get to a place where giving to others doesn't break down your own structures.

Princess Lea said...

JS: I grew up with my mother both present and available. I want to have the same iy"H with my own.

Maya: There was a NY Times article about the new age of egalitarian households, about how the women confidently went under the premise that chores would be divided equally, but then discovered a problem.

Many men won't consider necessary what the wives consider necessary. If my mother asked my father to mop the floor, he would say, "It's isn't dirty," and disappear. These women who confidently expected an egalitarian setup ended up doing more because the men just didn't find it a requirement as they did.

So even if this father, who for the sake of argument worked full-time, if the daughter asked for his help, he could have said, "Oh, it's okay" and casually flipped through the paper, while the daughter knew it had to be done to keep everything running swimmingly.

When my high school implemented the "chessed program", my parents wouldn't allow me to go to strangers' houses to help. "She should first help at home," they insisted. Of course they also knew, which I found out later, that often the people who were being helped to serious liberties. My mother found that out in high school too, and she would not have her children being misused like that.

We forget that "chessed" also applies to a mother caring for her children. It doesn't just mean volunteering outside your family unit. It's a problem when people take on more they can handle in the name of chessed. We all have to be familiar with our limitations.