Personal Stories of America at Work

How an American Woman in the Middle East Changes Course on Career

This essay, by Devorah Lifshutz, was chosen from among the submissions on the topic of career change. Devorah, writing under a pseudonym, is an American writer living in Jerusalem, Israel.

"Like a feminist fairy-tale heroine, I went into labor at the office, my contractions beginning as I was completing a story."

I can still remember listening intently as opera legend Beverly Sills promised my all-female graduating class at Barnard College, Columbia University that we could “have it all;” all, of course, meaning motherhood and work, family plus career. I believed her. Back in 1981, the diva’s words seemed self-evident.

Five years later, I was a full-time reporter for The Jerusalem Post in Israel. I had exhausted the Jewish singles scene in New York and had moved to Israel to find a husband. Instead, I found a career (and eventually a husband too). I lucked out—having neither gone to journalism school, nor even taken a single journalism course—and was plucked from the editors’ pool because of my writing flair. My beat included everything. From demonstrations to gallery shows to visiting celebrities, I was there. I loved the job so much that sometimes I thought I should pay The Post rather than having The Post pay me. Then I became a mother. Like a feminist fairy-tale heroine, I went into labor at the office, my contractions beginning as I was completing a story. Thirty-six excruciating hours later, I was a mom.

During my pregnancy, an office pal convinced me to breast feed on demand: no bottles, my schedule set by her needs, not mine. My baby seemed to suck forever and then spit out nearly everything she drank. I worried, but the pediatrician said that she was thriving.

In Israel, women routinely get three months of paid maternity leave with an option for three months more unpaid. I took the half year, not thinking about the office until the final months when the baby clutter in my tiny apartment seemed to close in on me. I missed my clean, quiet cubicle, my work buddies, and my work. It was time to go back, albeit part time, but first I had to find a babysitter.

Ma’on, the standard Israeli day care (a kind of day orphanage), turned me off, so I sought another option—family care. After numerous calls, I found Shula, a kindly, soft-spoken woman who watched babies in her home. She would watch my baby three days each week while I worked. That seemed perfect, a fine compromise between my needs and my baby’s. My first day on the job felt like a homecoming: my co-workers crowded around my desk to welcome me back. But as the day wore on, I felt a familiar tingle. My milk was letting down and I was still at work.

I imagined my baby screaming and Shula silencing her with a bottle. I raced out of the office to grab the first taxi I saw, hoping to reach my baby before her belly was stuffed with (ugh) cow’s milk formula (I was a failure with the breast pump). Let’s just say that some days I made it, and other days I didn’t.

When my baby graduated to solids, my problems weren’t solved. She was a poor sleeper, waking several times a night with ear infections, teething pains, tummy troubles or just some sort of weird toddler insomnia. I was a zombie, especially on my work days. To make matters worse, work wasn’t going well.

As a part-time employee at a full-time newspaper, I was out of sync. Some days, I’d sit around the office with literally nothing to do—no story to cover. Then, after I’d gone home, my editor would call with an assignment to rush to NOW. When I turned it down, she sounded annoyed.

Almost a year into my part-time career, The Post changed management. The new bosses were downsizing. They offered all the employees a deal: quit and cash out your benefits, no questions asked. I was tempted. Then my editor told me that if I quit, The Post would never rehire me for as long as I lived. Since The Post was nearly the only game in town for an English-language journalist, I was terrified.

This being Jerusalem, I sought advice from an aged Rabbi said to have Ruâach HaKodesh, Jewish ESP, laced with prophecy.

“What do you earn?” he asked. I told him. “A cleaning lady gets more,” he said.

The rabbi had a point. Yes, the job had been fun, and yes, it gave me status, an identity, and a CV, but it cost too much. I was going mad racing back and forth from Shula’s to work and for what? An editor who scoffed at me and a paycheck that didn’t even cover the cost of my taxi rides?

The next day I quit. My husband, a research scientist, was fine about it. From now on I’d be a full-time mom. I had always wanted lots of kids, and pretty soon, I was expecting again.

I was thrilled to be on baby time, liberated from zombiehood and free to nap while my babies napped. I did the usual Mommy things—sandbox trips, supermarket outings, story time at the library, and visits to the doctor. I also swam at the local pool, studied web design and art, and continued to write freelance. I have many friends who work, even some with more than the seven kids that I have. But I feel blessed that I don’t have to continue that juggling act.

I’ve had ten pregnancies, three miscarriages—including one nearly fatal ectopic—and seven live births. Each of my seven kids is a blessing. I’ve broken up thousands of fights, survived hundreds of tantrums, wiped umpteen runny noses, and consulted with neurologists, urologists, psychiatrists, psychologists, ENTs, orthopedists, physical therapists, occupational therapists, play therapists, music therapists, riding therapists, animal therapists, speech pathologists and reading specialists—all on my children’s behalf. In Hebrew, I’m called akeres Habayis, which literally means the foundation, the root of the entire family. To me that sounds better than plain old Mom.

We are continuing to accept personal essays on career change. Check here for submission guidelines.

| June 28, 2011 | Publishing, Women, Working Mother | 1

One Response to How an American Woman in the Middle East Changes Course on Career

  1. Claire Wagner says:

    I remember this juggling act and today, with three grown daughters, I still speculate about what might have been with different choices. I loved what you taught us about akeres Habayis. Despite everything, that is what I remain. Thank you so much for writing for The Working Chronicles.

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