Why Family Issues are Private Issues

Imagine what our Jewish communities would be like if….working parents could volunteer at their children’s Hebrew schools or day schools during the week if rabbis didn’t have to be on call 24/7, and could take time to volunteer in their children’s schools, or programs for home-bound Jewish elderly if Federation executives were given a 4-hour workday once a month, so that they could spend the rest of the day volunteering at one of the social service agencies their organization supports.. …if your workplace partnered with your local JCC and your child’s school to provide a safe, affordable, after-school program, complete with transportation, so that you wouldn’t have to worry about what your kids were up to in the hours between when they finish school and you get home from work. What if your Jewish organizational employer offered on-site daycare, as the Ramaz School, a Modern Orthodox day school in Manhattan, recently did? What if your synagogue’s sisterhood helped to set up a community-based childcare network and referral system? As Herzl said, “im tirtzu, ayn zo agada—if you will it, it is no dream.”

All these “radical” ideas came to me as I was reading Starting in Our Own Backyards: How Working Families Can Build Community and Survive the New Economy by Ann Bookman, (Routledge, $26).

Bookman’s fascinating study of the need to integrate “community” into our lives. Bookman argues that community participation is an important factor which has been left out of discussions on work-life balance policies and studies. Her ideas will resonate with many Jews, for whom being Jewish is about community, whatever your family constellation or religious persuasion.

Bookman, a trained anthropologist and currently the executive director of the MIT Workplace Center at the Sloan School of Management, used participant observation and interviews with 40 workers at three biotech companies in the Boston area to paint a picture of families of different class levels struggling to find time. Out of days filled with long commutes, long work-hours, and family caretaking, these parents also want to connect to their communities. Whether through local government, school boards, community service projects, participating in religious organizations, or creating informal childcare networks, these families want to give back to their communities but are desperately strapped for time.

Most of the biotech workers could not negotiate any flexible work arrangements with their employers. Yet even when there are work life policies at companies, according to Bookman these most often reflect and reproduce “the traditional division between the public world of work and the private world of family.” These policies do not address redesigning how work is organized and alternative work arrangements that might help families who have caregiving responsibilities. They also don’t facilitate employee involvement in community-based support programs or volunteer opportunities.

Part of the problem, according to Bookman, is an American cultural assumption that family issues are private issues, which should only to be addressed by private solutions, not public or community-based resolutions (and yes, this is more American than North American— Canada has a paid family leave system, and as a Canadian now living in the U.S., don’t get me started….). This antiquated notion not only puts unbearable pressure on families overburdened with economic uncertainties and caretaking responsibilities, but it’s also based on a (Victorian) gendered notion of society—Private Domestic Woman and Public Economic Man.

The other problem is also structural. As Jewish women (and men, hopefully) continue to struggle with balancing paid work, family work, and community work, it’s important to realize that despite feminism’s gains, all of us are still laboring in male world (world based on male norms). Contemporary career paths are based on an outmoded and gendered model—that of the “ideal worker,” an unencumbered man who has a wife at home to take care of all the domestic responsibilities while he devotes all of his time to his work. The intense professional demands at the beginning of one’s career don’t usually allow for time for family care and community involvement. While those two realms used to be women’s only focus, now most mothers are in the paid workforce, but organizations have not yet caught up to this new reality and continue to structure jobs and career development as though their workers had no other responsibilities other than paid work.

In chapters on childcare, parental involvement in education, community political participation and faith communities. Bookman argues that the new reality of working parents demands an expansion of social responsibility for families and community institutions. The solutions to the current crisis of care need to come from partnerships among the major societal institutions—employers, unions, government, religious organizations and community groups.

Bookman’s chapter “Not By Bread Alone” will resonate with many LILITH readers. Using the example of the adult bat mitzvah ceremony of one of the biotech employees in her study. Bookman explores how religious institutions can help individuals and working families cope with the many demands in their lives, by both fostering community connections and giving spiritual sustenance. Not surprisingly, women in Bookman’s study take on most of the responsibility for their families’ religious participation, similar to the gendered division of labor around childcare and involvement in school activities. (This trend has also been observed in studies of Jewish observance and intermarried families.) The female biotech workers or wives participate in women’s prayer and study groups at their houses of worship, choose religious education options for their children (and sometimes teach in them), and serve on committees or boards at their institutions. Despite the added time commitment to an already complex schedule for working parents, these women find their participation in their religious communities to be very meaningful and supportive. Religious institutions can also serve as voices for issues crucial to working families, such as public and private support for community institutions and family-friendly policies. Bookman also gives a personal example how community involvement (and women’s support) can strengthen people to deal with the professional and personal challenges in their lives: in the acknowledgements she thanks her faith community at Temple Israel, members of her Women’s Study Group (including Jewish women’s history professor Joyce Antler) and her “incomparable rabbi, Elaine Zecher.”

Bookman concludes that work-family and community issues always seem to come back to gender roles and expectations. She notes that among her biotech employees, the women saw making connections with others (the relational stuff we’re supposedly good at) as part of their “job.” Whether it involved participating in parents’ committees of a childcare program, organizing carpools, or volunteering to teach religious schools, both professional and stay-at-home mothers engaged in these activities with others. On the contrary, the working fathers in the group had limited family and community involvement. Some men transported their children to and from childcare, coached sports teams, attended school events, and often fed and bathed their children. Yet, Bookman emphasizes, the working mothers and wives in her study did all that and more. They did the unrecognized “relational” work, that of building and maintaining community-based support networks. But, Bookman asks, “…is it fair to ask working women today, already doing two jobs, to do another unpaid job—a ‘third shift’?” Her answer, not surprisingly, is that men need to share the responsibility of community involvement, in addition to childcare and housework, just as women always have.

Despite the current administration’s rhetoric of “family values,” it’s painfully clear that the United States does not value family work. The U.S. is one of the few industrialized countries in the world without either paid maternity leave or paid parental leave. Jews and Jewish institutions should be at the forefront of lobbying for government and business support for family care and community involvement. As Bookman shows, new ways of organizing paid work and “care-work” not only make “business sense,” they also reflect Jewish and feminist values—shared parenting and family care, rest and reflection, and time to fulfill communal obligations.

Susan Sapiro holds an MA in Gender Studies. She researches gender issues in contemporary Judaism.