“I See My Sons on Sundays”: A Response to Sheryl Sandberg

“I See My Sons on Sundays”: A Response to Sheryl Sandberg

“I only see my sons on Sundays…”

A few months back I heard from an old college friend whom I’ll call Caroline. Even though we are rarely in touch, I love Caroline. She’s a person who is full of life, has an infectious laugh, is passionate about ideas. She graduated summa cum laude from Bowdoin, went straight to Wharton School of Business, and since graduation she’s been an irrepressible rising star on Wall Street.

7 years ago, at the age of 33, Caroline married a sweetheart of a guy whom she met at Wharton, and after a few years of fertility treatments she was thrilled to give birth to twin boys two years ago.

Recently, I heard from Caroline after nearly 2 years of silence…

She sent some photos, her Baby Gap boys were beyond adorable. Caroline wrote that she was working at a new firm, and she was very excited about her promotion to vice president of something or other. Her hours were crazy, most nights she didn’t come home before 9 PM, long after the boys’ live-in nanny had put them to sleep.

“I only see my kids on Sundays…” she told me, “They love their nanny, though. She’s the best.”

I was extremely surprised to hear that Caroline’s twins were being raised, essentially, by their nanny. I know Caroline. She’s a warm, loving person who adores her boys and is, in general, fantastic with kids (she even volunteered at a local school throughout college).

We Emailed back and forth a few times, and what shocked me the most about Caroline’s story was discovering that Caroline genuinely felt NO guilt for the fact that another woman was raising her children (her husband has a start-up company, and also rarely sees his sons during the week.)

I found this lack of guilt totally mystifying.

Who brainwashed my good-hearted friend to think that it’s OK to abandon her children for the boardroom?

Well, yesterday I discovered a likely culprit. And her name is Sheryl Sandberg, the CEO of Facebook.

A year and half ago Sandberg, the mother of a 3 and 6 year old, gave an influential TED talk that has been viewed, so far, over 1.2 million times.

In this talk, Sandberg implores her audience, “I want to start out by saying, I talk about this — about keeping [mothers] in the workforce — because I really think that’s the answer… I think a world where half of our countries and half of our companies were run by women, would be a better world.”

Again, at last year’s Barnard commencement, Sandberg pleaded with the graduates:

“Of 190 heads of state, nine are women. Of all the parliaments around the world, 13% of those seats are held by women. Corporate America top jobs, 15% are women…”

“And I hope that you—yes, you—each and every one of you have the ambition to run the world, because this world needs you to run it. Women all around the world are counting on you. I’m counting on you.”

“I know that’s a big challenge and responsibility, a really daunting task, but you can do it…”

I don’t have anything against Sandberg on a person level. The truth is, if you think about it, we are surprisingly similar. Like a microscopic percentage of the human race, we are both American-born JewishMOMs. We both have children the same ages. We both balance motherhood with projects we are extremely passionate about (Facebook for her and JewishMOM.com for me), and we both try to encourage other mothers to do the same. We also both feel guilty at times for our shortcomings as mothers, like all good moms.

My problem with Sandberg’s “this world needs you to run it” message is that it creates Carolines. It creates women who believe they are doing something fine and acceptable and even noble by sacrificing their children for their careers.

A few years ago, I learned an important rule of thumb about the work/family balance from Rabbanit Esther Levanon, which I would love to secretly add into Sandberg’s speeches.

Rabbanit Levanon explained, “If working makes you a better mother, you should work. And if staying home makes you a better mother, then you should stay home.”

There are mothers who come home from work energized to take care of their children. These mothers are better mothers because they work, so they should work. And there are other mothers who are better mothers when they stay home. And those mothers should stay home.

It’s a simple message. But it’s so important. Because it makes our children, rather than our careers, our top priority.

I heard a similar message from my teacher Rabbi Aryeh Nivin who explains, based on the teachings of the Netivot Shalom, that every single human being has two missions in life: a personal yeud (or mission), and a global yeud. For me, for example, my personal mission is running JewishMOM.com. And my global mission is the God-given mission that I share with you and every single JewishMOM: to be a good wife, to be a good mother, to be a good and observant Jew.

And the important thing to remember is that our global mission ALWAYS takes priority over our personal mission. If my child needs to be taken to the doctor one morning, no blogging, for example.

It’s a subtle point, but it’s a point that could save children and families.

It’s a point that could make well-intentioned mothers like Caroline (and Sheryl Sandberg?) take a good hard look at their lives and rethink where they are needed more, in the office or in their homes.

Because there are other people who can be great CEOs or vice-presidents, but only one special woman can ever be their children’s mom.

Image courtesy of Flickr.com user Victor 1588

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23 comments

  1. Jenny,

    And the real problem is that Sandberg knows that something is wrong with the system, because it took her years to admit she leaves work “early” to have dinner with her kids. And I am asking: what’s the point of having kids if you are not going to be there to raise them? http://ingathered.com/2012/04/08/whats-the-point-of-having-kids/

  2. beautifully said chana jenny. I go back and forth with this issue and although I am SO full of ideas and ambitions, at the end of the day I like to know my kids went to sleep and had me in their lives at dinner and bedtime…at least. Rabbi Nachman says, you are where your mind is…so sometimes stay at home or rather work from home moms sometimes are there but TOTALLY absent from their children…so Gd help us all focus on them when we are with them and on work when we are at work, and minimize the guilt….big time…

  3. B”H

    If you watch the whole TED lecture, Sheryl Sandberg says, “let’s face it, [staying at home] is the hardest job” to a huge round of applause. She talks about wanting her kids–her son AND her daughter– to have options in the future. She wants her daughter to be able to pursue a challenging career should she choose to do so, and she wants her son to be able to stay home if he chooses to do so.

    We all have to figure out what the right balance is for us, but I don’t think that judging others helps anyone. The “Caroline” example sounds extreme. However, we all have to make our own decisions about what works or doesn’t work for our families.

    Let us also remember that some women have no choice financially but to work full-time. I am among them.

    I encourage mothers to watch the full TED video, which I personally found very inspiring:

    • JewishMom

      miriam, thanks for your comment. I just want to clarify that I do not mean to judge women who work full-time.

      Some of the best, most devoted moms I know work full-time.

      I’m just saying that every mom needs to figure out whether working is good for her child/ren or not. And I think that this refers to a child’s emotional AND ALSO financial needs. If a family doesn’t have money to pay for the child’s basic needs (education, food, shelter, clothing etc) then a good mother (like you) needs to find a way to make money, as you have.

  4. We discussed this “I have to work financially while most of you who don’t work don’t need the money” topic. It’s not true! Lots of stay-at-home-moms myself included do not have money and of course could use the extra money. I don’t feel that it’s a good excuse at all.

    First of all, most of the money you’d make would go straight to child-care (babysitters, nannys).. look how much I save by staying at home.

    And second, when you feel that something is important, money will not stop you. There’s a G-d out there who listens and knows what you need. We don’t stop to think if we can afford another kid before we have them, so why should we give up quality time with our children because we think we can make more money.

    Again, not judging – just stating my opinion – don’t blame “I need money” for why you have to work. Blame something else.

  5. I will begin by saying the I work from home and scrounge every minute for work that I can, so that I can make enough money to be home with my kids and enjoy them the rest of the time. However, I could just as easily work full time at an office without feeling guilt that a live in nanny was raising my kids.

    I choose to be the one to do it, since we are not just talking about raising pleasant and honest people but Jews, someone with a sacred mission. When you see your children as the future who can better prepare them to run the world than me, for my sons and daughters?

    I disagree that a stay at home mother is better than a stay at home father though. I also disagree that the job description of mother can only be filled by a woman. If this CEO is fulfilling her personal yiud and her home is not neglected, her children are happy and well-tended by a “loving “Aunt” and her and her marriage are strong, I think we are judging her 100%. It was never said that she is unhappy or that her children seem unhappy or her husband for that matter, just that she doesn’t feel guilt. Good for her. Guilt is destructive. If more women ran the world I think it would be a better place. That doesn’t demean the job of raising children. It necessitates raising children that see that the personal and global purpose of life is important for everyone, man and woman alike.

  6. Actually, money CAN be to blame, and is a VERY GOOD and rightful excuse. Sure we could all “use” more money and many of us are pretty tight. But we must all realize that all financial strains aren’t the same for each family. If some moms did not work they would not have a housing or clothing or food on the table at all. Not all moms have the option to “work from home” as that is a privilege only a select few have. For instance, the state will often give vouchers for working moms for child care but they will not just hand over money for groceries and rent. The reality of people actually ending up on the streets isn’t an excuse people make up as a reason to work–it’s a reality. Do we all not pass every day, normal looking, tired faces on the side of the road asking for food, money, clothing and jobs? Those are real people!

    In reality having the financial ability to stay home full time is a gift from Hashem! One should praise him that you are able to do so, and never take for granted that there might come a time when you are called to work outside the home to meet your family’s needs. It can happen to any of us at any time.

    I think this entire “working mom vs. stay at home mom” thing is so ridiculous. Both sides trying to prove why they are right and why the other disillusioned. Haven’t we all learned by now that you can never, ever, ever assume you truly understand what it is to be another person in another family with different needs?

    I agree the Caroline situations ARE sad–horrific even. But it’s entirely possible, for instance, that she feels no guilt because she feels she has no choice. Perhaps, for all we know, she decided that to walk around sobbing because of her in ability to be there for her kids like she wishes would be unprofitable for everyone. Of course maybe she is just selfish. I don’t know. And to tell you the truth, I’m not personally all that certain I could ever know so I wont try and guess.

    p.s. no disrespect to your blog is intended. I just wanted to give me own POV.

    • I agree that money is necessary–but that’s why the point is not work/not work but rather career/no career. There was a point in my early motherhood when I had to choose between continuing my career and never seeing my kids vs. just getting a paying job that gave me more reasonable hours. Career moms need to think about that choice, and people like Sandberg are giving them another “v” to put in the “pros” column–even when the “con” column includes “never seeing my kids”!
      My family and I actually discussed Sandberg’s TED talk a long time ago, with the same disagreements (my mother is an ardent feminist and careerwoman who admires Sandberg). Believe me, you don’t want to be the child of that kind of parenting decision.

      What proves Sandberg’s truly warped outlook was her statement that “the most important career choice is who you marry”? Typical western backwards mentality. Soon she’ll say the biggest factor to success is having docile independent children who don’t wake her at night!

  7. I think a mistake Sandberg and many others make is thinking that what shapes future leaders is solely their schooling and jobs. They seem to be unaware of the tremendous life skills and strengths that parents give their kids.

    Also, I think your point, Chana, about a person’s yeud is very important. People forget that if Hashem gives you kids you should take care of them!

  8. I think this post would have been better sent as a letter to Caroline with the added question–how are your kids doing(would she even be able to answer that)?
    I am saddened to think how her children will think of themselves as they grow up…that Mom (not because of financial need) chose work over being any real part of their lives. How anyone can think this is a legitimate way to raise children is truly beyond me.

  9. Forget about judging, not judging.
    Look at the child’s life through the eyes of the child. That’s all.

  10. society brainwashed us, its totally contrary to our jewish values but unfortunately jewish women have been brainwashed too and i know many mothers who are religious but who raised their daughters with this brainwashing….

  11. While I agree with the majority of your opinion, Chana Jenny, there is a point I disagree with and it could be thst I just didn’t understand properly: “if a woman is a better mother when she works, then she should work, etc.”
    In my opinion, it’s not only what makes a better mother but what makes a better child that counts. Yes, what makes Mother better is important but just as imp. is what is better for the child- a nanny or his mother.
    I can’t answer this ques for anybody as that would be too judgemental but I can say that the book To Kindle A Soul does shed light on the subject for anyone struggling with this. It certainly influenced my decision to leave my career and stay at home with my kids. It helps to quiet the guilt pangs, too. 🙂

    • JewishMom

      thanks for your comment! I don’t exactly understand, though. What’s the difference between being a better mother and making a better child? I think the original intention of this concept is that mothers need to think of what’s best for the child.

  12. elisheva

    What about another option that could use some real leadership (which is does sound like Sandberg is trying to provide): making workplaces more mother-friendly? It’s an economic reality that two incomes in North America today bring home what a single income did in 1950. Many, many families, both Jewish and not, must have both parents working in order to put food on the table/pay tuition/cover the mortgage/etc. Why not focus our energy on making the workplace a better place for families? Job-sharing, working at non-traditional hours, on-site daycare…all things compassionate companies should be considering.

    I feel very sorry for Caroline. She has had to participate in the workforce on men’s terms and at the expense of her children. Perhaps if, like Sandberg said, half the companies in the world were run by women, Caroline could have a better balance.

  13. Hadassah

    My thought about the title was based on the mistaken belief that the reason she saw her kids only on Sundays was that she was divorced! I was waiting to see that detail in the article as I read it. How sad to think that a mother only gets to see her kids on Sundays. Why would anyone want to inflict pain on themselves or their children? They are young for so short a time. I work full time but fortunately my hours coincide with my children’s schedule so that when they are home so am I. I was also fortunate that our school where I worked when they were younger had on site day care, so that I could take my break and nurse them or just visit. Most of the time when they were babies I only worked part time.
    Kids can get used to any arrangement because they don’t know of anything else to compare it to. We don’t have to judge, but we can feel sad that someone would willingly, and of their own free choice make such a decision for their family.

  14. Charlotte

    What really bothers me in this debate is that no one seems concerned about fathers working late hours, rarley being home etc… Isn’t just as important to a child to have a father as it is to have a mother? If Caroline was a man, no one would even reflect of her being away fron home so much, it would actually, seem natraual and be fully accepted

  15. Today many of the litvish Kallahs are going to work as accountants and architects to keep their husbands in learning. So the days of the non-working religious Mom may well be over.
    I find it is much easier to be a non-working Mom so that you can be at home when the children are sick and you can help them with their learning problems and take part in their lives, Its a wonderful experience.
    However if one has to work they have to work and if one has a challenging and stimulating profession it is also better than having to go and clean your friend’s house and be exhausted.

  16. When I read about chareidi fathers who abuse their children and the Mom looks on and does nothing. It is important to realise that the Mom looks on and does nothing because she cannot support her children on her own because she cannot earn a living. I have helped many non-religious women in this situation and they walk out straight away and take their children with them, because they can manage financially without their incestuous husband. This in our world is an important point to remember. I know women who didn’t like the way their father treated their mother and they went out and learnt a well paying profession so they would not be stuck in the same situation if they married.

  17. nechama

    Chana Jenny,

    Thanks for this thought provoking article.

    As a mom of older married children as well as younger children and grandchildren, when I look back at my decision to make my family my priority, I’m glad I did. I worked at jobs that added to the family income on and off when it fit with my family first priority.

    My decision back then was sort of an out of the box idea. I was one of the only moms in our community that stayed home. Our house was an open house where all the kids in the neighborhood could come whenever they wanted to because they knew ‘mom’ was home and available to them.

    I’m excited that even as teenagers, my kids love to bring friends home for Shabbatot and holidays.

    Each woman is different and needs to make her own decision about what is appropriate for her, but after 33 years as a wife and mother, the world is still going around without me in the corporate workforce.

    There’s no question that the ‘stellar’ career in business I didn’t have would have made an impact, but I’m proud of the impact I made raising the next generation of Jewish children.

    Kol ha kavod to you Chana Jenny! Your website gives phenomenal chizuk to women no matter what their choice.

    Nechama

  18. Hi,
    This may have already been pointed out in the comments, but I thought it was worth repeating. Sheryl Samdberg’s plea has already been answered. The world is already run by women – the mothers who bring up their children!
    And now, I have to get back to work, my kids are coming home in a few hours…

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