She was 22, the same age as Big Babe, my oldest son, a senior at Columbia University. Thank G-d he wasn’t at the Shabbos table, ‘coz I swear, he woulda killed her first.
Anyway, it was a recent, freezing Shabbos afternoon on Manhattan’s Morningside Heights and our wonderfully overheated apartment was a refuge of delish smells and cozy camaraderie. Having spent the morning at our synagogue, the six-block long walk formed a perfect segue from shulworld to the sanctum of our home. We had two beloved families joining us – one with two adorable tykes, the other with an almost supernaturally beautiful baby – and then this newly-wed couple…he in his mid-twenties, she, just 22, barely out of her adolescence.
Except that she was already Lady Macbeth – calculating, conniving, nakedly ambitious.
She knew what she wanted, this little pisher* with her glam Shabbos sheitel*. And what she wanted was for her soft-spoken, pious, scholarly husband to go to Law School, make lots of money and enable her to stay home, raise kids AND have enuf disposable income to hire a housekeeper so she could go to the gym, get her nails done, go to movies, come into “the city” with friends, shop without dragging the kiddies along and generally be a pampered princess (and devoted mommy) for the rest of her life.
But it wouldn’t be like she didn’t really have a career because his career would really be her career, you see. She was pushing him to go to Law School! She helped him with a recent speech! Everything he achieved in life would be because of her! Men, especially when they were smart, were surprisingly inept in areas that women were really good at!
As her ill-informed words fell like hailstones on our Shabbos meal, I wondered if this girl had been raised by the Jewish version of Kathy Hilton. Looking across the table, I saw my other friend, an assistant principal of a high school, the one with the new baby – I’ll call her Esme – looking nauseated.
Though there was a war waging in Iraq, the recent shocking death of Anna Nicole Smith, a black guy and a woman running for US prez and the impending opening of Loehmann’s on Broadway and 74th street, my gold-digging guest went on and on, oblivious to world events other than her own.
Over salad, turkey and cholent, she laid out her life plan for us, couching it all within a campaign against working mothers, plying our full-time mother-friend – I’ll call her Jen – with saccharine praise and enthusiastic approving nods, poking her husband in his bony ribs with a triumphant “you see??” every time Jen said something remotely positive about being with her children, exclaiming “a working mother could never have made a dessert like that!” when Jen revealed her glorious chocolate cake, completely ignoring the hilariously obvious fact that most of the pre-dessert meal had been shopped for, paid for and cooked by a full-time working mother (the cholent and turkey having been shopped for, paid for and cooked by a full-time working father).
Get out, I silently implored her young husband as he sat there, conditioned into a comatose state by his relentlessly-yappy Jappy wife. Get out while you still can. I was driven to bite my cuticles listening to her grating voice hammer home each point aimed at proving the unworthiness of women who actually toil to earn money while at the same time raising their children. I glanced at Esme, evil working mom, as she held the beautiful child whose life she was obviously screwing up by supporting her in addition to breastfeeding her.
When the sweet young husband had the temerity to point out that his own mother raised him well, despite being a physician, his know-it-all bride actually qualified her mother-in-law’s achievements by proclaiming her a workaholic.
It was at that moment that I had the urge to drive the challah knife into her chest. With violin music screeching in my ears (ree, ree, ree, ree…think of the shower scene in Psycho), I picked up the knife and…
The fact that I am blogging from the comfort of my overheated apartment instead of Rikers Island is proof that I restrained myself, excusing myself from the table to bring dirty silverware and plates into the kitchen. Jen followed quickly.
“What an idiot!” she whispered, eyes wide, mouth contorted in horror. I stared at Jen who has never said anything mean about anybody in her entire life and then the two of us collapsed in giggles next to the refrigerator.
Omigod, I thought, steeling myself to return to the table. If Big Babe ever showed up with a monster like this…
But Big Babe was raised in a prince and princess-free environment, together with Middle Babe, his 18-year-old kickass sistah, now spending her post-high school year studying and raising hell in the Holy Land, and their baby bro Little Babe, an adorable 11-year-old anime enthusiast and cellist whose truest passions are for small animals.
Our home, for all its clutter and loud voices and – until last year – lack of normal furniture, dishes, tablecloths and cutlery, was built on the combined efforts of parents who both earn and nurture. It has been messy and imperfect and yet marvelous in many a way. Our kids were raised by a father AND a mother who had equal responsibility for keeping the family ship afloat, equal parenting authority and equal decision-making power.
Our kids were read to and shlepped to our business meetings. Our kids were hugged by us and by our babysitters, who were mostly terrific. Our kids overheard our business calls when we were compelled to work at home because they were sick. Our kids were raised on daddy's chicken soup and mommy's roast chicken, daddy's paycheck and mommy's paycheck.
Sometimes it was – often still is -- hard as hell. We work well past the end of conventional work hours. But everyone does. We take our laptops on vacation. But everyone does. Our kids get sick at the absolute worst times. But that is always when kids get sick. Important meetings have to be cancelled. We’ve walked into conferences utterly unprepared. Projects are done on deadline or late.
Unless you have made peace with the prospect of complete child-neglect, all efforts to balance home and work are both noble and ridiculous. There is no balance. You just have to get used to having a lumpy life with days where it feels as if you are f*&#ing up your job and your kids and your marriage and your sanity, days where simply brushing your teeth is an achievement.
And sometimes you feel literally and physically lumpy. You haven’t been to the gym or even on your home treadmill in a week…or a month. You can feel your cellulite recruiting new terrorist cells. You are developing a secretary’s spread where your firm round buttocks used to be. You are eating Doritos because you are so stressed out. At 11 o'clock at night. And you’re allergic to corn products.
And there are times that you wish you married someone rich because this truly sucks, to be working all the time…to be feeling like crap, to have to endure the glares of your co-workers who think you’re a slacker because your son’s heart has been broken and you needed to spend two hours listening to him vent on the phone, or your daughter got in trouble for sneaking her boyfriend's puppy into her Jerusalem dorm room, to have cancelled your haircut appointment more than six times in the past two weeks because you simply do not have any free time, to have not read more than three opening chapters in as many novels over the past year because you fall asleep every time you turn your attention to something other than kids or your work.
And there are times when your heart feels like it will break from the sorrow of not having the time to really do the things you consider crucial to living: time spent with friends, time spent in nature, time spent pursuing higher education, time spent fulfilling your calling as a writer if you chiefly earn your income through another means.
But that is not unique to people with children and demanding jobs. The world is filled with the heartbreak of the unfulfilled.
It just feels more pressing and poignant for those of us who have been raised with the chutzpah to envision everything we might have, everything we might be.
There is a lot to this issue of men and women, marriage and money, fulfillment and responsibility, childrearing and career-building. Yeah, the presence of a high wage-earning husband would have likely made my life much easier in many ways. I’m sure that HOBB would likewise say that a rich wife would have made HIS life easier in many ways as well.
But we married each other without a checklist.
We married each other. Complete and imperfect.
We may have argued and bemoaned our insolvency and our 24/6 work schedules and 24/7 parenting responsibilities but we never set out to mold the other into a Stepford Spouse, according to our own specifications. We made a home and a family that has felt full unto bursting with ideas and adventures and passionate discussion and friends.
And I will happily admit to a tremendous feeling of pride in my ability to provide financial support to HOBB and the Three Babes, knowing that the sweat of my brow has helped to sustain my family and create opportunities for them. And because of my work, my world has been broad and challenging, taking me beyond my own family, whisking me off to faraway places, putting me directly in touch with important issues and people who have changed the world.
Between the bleary-eyed exhaustion, there has also been a tremendous amount of soul-satisfaction.
Thinking about the transparent ambitions of Little Miss I-Want-It-All-And-Dammit-You-Better-Give-it-To-Me I want to applaud her clarity of vision, the peace she has made with her inner spoiled brat. Honestly. She knows what she wants, and it ain’t deadlines and conference calls at 8 am. She wants the decorated home and the kids and cute European fashions for them…and for herself. She wants her hair done. She wants her sheitel restyled. She wants a housekeeper. And then she can cook when she wants and keep house and boss everyone around.
The girl does know what she wants.
Still, it was a shock for this product of 1960 to hear that among people my children’s age, the Mommy Wars are more compelling than the threat of global nuclear war. It was unbelievable that a shallow girl from Queens, born in the eighties, could so easily diss hardworking women of her mother’s generation, seeing neither valor nor value in their contribution to the world she lives in.
But maybe that’s what it was about, after all. Rebelling against mommy.
And what was her mommy up to, anyway, when Lil Lady Macbeth was small and impressionable?
“My mother wasn’t really into being a mom,” she revealed at one point in the meal, tossing her fake hair and shrugging. “She would leave us with my grandparents and run around, doing stuff. She didn’t work but she didn’t enjoy being with small kids. Recently, she said that she regretted not being around for more of my childhood.”
The sins of the mothers are visited upon the daughters for seven generations.
Seems like someone should look into spending some quality time on the couch getting in touch with their inner abandonment and rage instead of trying to force their husband to capitulate to an extreme make-over while compulsively trashing working mothers whose ability to operate in two realms only shines a brighter light on her slacker mom’s inability to even be present in one.
Hey, Bungalow Babe is back! So much to say, tons to catch up on. Yeah, yeah…I know I haven’t blogged since the summer. Life has been crazed yet interesting and some big changes are just around the corner. I’ll fill you in. Read on. Hugs.
*Do I really need to explain pisher??? A callow youth, based on the concept of a baby, known for wetting its pants.
*Yiddish for a wig worn by religious Jewish women, ostensibly for reasons of modestly. More often than not, the faux hair is way more attractive than their G-d-given locks. Explain the concept of modesty here, please. If ya wanna be modest, put a shmatta* on your head.
*Yiddish for rag