For an Israeli, Stay at Home Mom in Manhattan Is No Fantasy Job

The key to sanity: Remembering that it’s all temporary. In the meantime, enjoy painting that poster and organizing that bake sale for the kids' school.

Attorney Alona Vinograd as a stay-at-home mom in New York, 2015.
Gali Eitan

“Lucky you,” my friends said about the news I was putting my career on ice and moving to New York for two years, following my doctor husband. “I’d change places with you in a heartbeat,” “You’ll be able to spend time with the kids,” “You realize you’ve lost the right to complain for two years, right?”

Everybody said stuff like that. Everybody can’t be wrong, can they?

New York would be the chance to escape the Israeli quagmire, if temporarily. Two years isn’t so long (“We won’t forget you that fast”), and the kids were at a perfect age to move and get the chance of their little lives (“After two years in New York they’ll come back sooo cool”).

Meanwhile, I’d have time to invest in them, my husband and myself. What could go wrong?

I did what I was supposed to. I joined the right Facebook and WhatsApp groups, registered for yoga class and even began drinking Starbucks coffee (it really is horrible). As a dear friend said, “From a CEO, you’ve turned into ‘the wife of.’”

Being a doctor’s wife (or husband) isn’t trivial. Go prioritize your career when your spouse is saving lives. The Lives of Doctors’ Wives Foundation is stereotypical and whiny but it’s best at illustrating the helplessness of living in a default position of subordination.

I had never felt like “the wife of,” and the transition from a balanced life of motherhood and career (lawyer and director of the Movement for Freedom of Information) to total motherhood threw me into unknown territory: mainly existing for others rather than myself. Post-career depression didn’t take long to set in.

After veganism, the environment, political awareness and transparency, the latest wrinkle is to preach about how to combine career and caring. From Angelina Jolie to Marissa Mayer to the star Israeli politician taking a time-out, Gideon Sa’ar, everybody has an opinion on parenting versus career. These days the argument isn’t only about Mom staying home or having problems finding a job afterward. It’s about Dad as well.

If there’s one thing motherhood has taught me, it’s that parenting is the most individual thing in the world. What works for child 1 won’t work for child 2, and what works for child 2 is insane for child 3. Motherhood is a state of constant change and adaptation. And if there’s anything my career taught me, it’s that no juggling act is perfect.

After interviewing more than 80 women and one man about how they balance parenting, couplehood, career and themselves, Susie Orman Schnall began her blog, which turned into a book, “The Balance Project.” Her first conclusion was that living a balanced life requires sacrifice.

Rivkah Levin, left, a midwife and temporary stay-at-home mom in New York.
Rivkah Levin (Courtesy)

To have everything, you have to let some things go. There’s no such thing as the woman who has everything. Whether it’s sleep or business opportunities, something’s got to give.

Another conclusion was that a lot of the pressure originates on social media. Women, Schnall claims, don’t give themselves a break. Even when they carve out leisure time, they spend it on social media, which is time-consuming and can lead to anxiety exactly when they should be relaxing.

The next conclusion made me sigh; I discovered that the most common answer to the question “What part of your life would you outsource?” was cooking. A lot of mothers consider the planning, shopping, preparing and cleaning-up involved in cooking a key reason they don’t have enough time for themselves and their families.

My favorite Schnall conclusion from the interviews has to do with guilt. Regardless of the women’s background or profession, many mentioned guilt about every decision regarding their parenting or career.

The project offers advice, as American projects of this ilk do, that sounds just like advice for dieting. A bit of struggle, organization and planning every day help achieve the desired balance. Yes we can.

Note that the project, as Schnall herself says, doesn't represent the average American woman but better-off ones who can afford the privilege of combining mothering and career.

The women she spoke with are enthusiastic about their work. They love it. It’s a source of confidence, a kind of discipline not found in the home. And they fear losing it like they fear losing family.

A shocking adventure

Rivkah Levin, 38, a midwife and mother of three kids 5, 3 and a year and a half, has lived in New York for two and a half years. In Israel her family lived on a moshav and both she and her husband did shift work, only sharing weekends off once a month.

Running the home was her job. She also loved her job and still found time for self-development. What she wants is interest in life, and she had that in Israel.

Still, the couple made the joint decision to move to New York for the husband’s work. Levin was happy about it; the kids were small and the timing seemed good. “I looked at it like an adventure, a fun experience at the right time,” she says.

But she spent the first month in shock. “I was at home with two small children. Avi started working right away. Just leaving home was a nightmare. I had no family and support network, which I had in Israel,” Levin says.

“At first I didn’t know how to handle living in an apartment with children used to having a backyard. The noise. At first the city noise was terrible. I didn’t sleep that first month. Everything I looked at was new and different. Then time simply did its thing about a lot of things, and with time, I learned.”

With the move, Levin discovered she was pregnant and wanted a home delivery. She found a midwife online. After the birth she felt her role was more defined; the bigger children went to school and she had some time to herself.

She felt she had to work to escape the bubble. Unable to work as a midwife for technical reasons, she trained as a research nurse and began full-time work eight months ago.

“I was racked with guilt for putting the little one in preschool so young,” she says. But working was her ticket to getting to know the place and culture. In a way, it’s like a kibbutz without the grass; everything is nearby – the schools, the stores and friends.

As Schnall says, there’s no perfection. At best, you can achieve balance. What happens when the balance is undone and fear and uncertainty arise? Is it okay to say it’s hard and it feels incomplete to be a full-time mother?

Many stay-at-home moms, or SAHMs – trust the Americans to brand every state of existence – feel guilt at the vast sums spent on their education going to waste. Economics is inevitably part of the story.

It’s said 43% of American women leave their jobs, permanently or temporarily, to bring up children. In 2003 federal acts entitled mothers to 12-week unpaid maternity leave if they meet the requirements, including a job at a company with at least 50 employees, and having worked at least 12 consecutive months for that employer. Some states have expanded the rights.

New York has no law entitling biological or adopting mothers to maternity leave, but women can take advantage of accrued vacation time. To Israelis, where maternity leave is enshrined in the law, this state of affairs is incredible.

Moreover, only 74% of women who left work following the birth were reintegrated into the job market, and only 40% full-time. The later a woman waits to reenter the job market, the harder it is.

In May, Fortune magazine ran a feature titled “Which gender is most likely to sacrifice for work-life balance? You may be surprised.” The piece discussed findings that men are more likely than women to make career concessions in the name of work-life balance.

So women already in the job market will not miss advancement opportunities in order to maintain a balance between career and home. Men, by a significant margin, are more likely to sacrifice advancement opportunities.

A little sleep helps

One explanation is that young men who saw their mothers try to balance work and family understand the sacrifices and are willing to do more. That’s a very optimistic interpretation.

SAHMs in America don’t lack employment; the ones I knew in Israel were also sometimes busier than mothers with full-time jobs. The American school system relies heavily on volunteer parents.

I found myself preparing the class for autumn, cleaning tables in the cafeteria and combing the kids’ hair for the annual photo. Isn’t that what a stay-at-home mom wanted? To be part of her family’s life? So pick up that broom, paint that poster, bake some cake and organize a bake sale for school. Your time is their time.

Israeli women who have moved to the Big Apple find that seeing it all as temporary helps them cope. Most say the beginning was hard, even very hard. But some find work, even if not a great job. So what; it’s temporary. Again, it’s all about balance, including in the couplehood. Sometimes he makes a sacrifice, sometimes she does.

Adi Or Barbash, 36, is very happy with her move to New York and time-out from her career. She just completed her residency as a doctor. In Israel both she and her husband worked intensely in shifts. They made sure to work different nights so one parent would always be at home, but that parent would always be tired.

The price was not going out; no self-development unrelated to medicine, she says. Also, in Israel, they had a support network of grandparents.

“What I did for myself in Israel was my profession. I worked in what I wanted. But on second thought, I did make sacrifices, mainly in the way I viewed my home,” she says.

“You can’t have two career-oriented doctors in one house – I wanted one parent to be home, and it was mainly me. In Israel, managing the home was also my task.”

In New York, with Omer doing his residency, Adi’s on vacation and she’s happy. She spends hours with the children.

“I have the privilege of being with them when they have problems. In Israel they needed me less,” she says, adding that she also sleeps seven nights a week, for the first time in six years.

“Of course, the temporariness of the situation frees me to enjoy it. Being on vacation is addictive,” she says. “I don’t know what will happen if we stay here another year, but now I’m having fun. It’s a fantasy. I feel like I’m living somebody else’s life.”

Omer works nonstop, comes home, eats dinner, says good night to the kids and goes to work on articles. The housework is on Adi. “During my six-year residency in Israel, I lived with a lot of guilt,” she says. “Now I have been given the opportunity to correct this.”

In my case, I know time will heal. That’s clear. And all the advice will turn out to be true. The years at the Movement for Freedom of Information, the privilege of having influence and doing something meaningful has never been clearer to me. The moment everything stopped and the whiplash I suffered as the handbrake of my life was pulled will probably stay for a while.

And as the family acclimatizes to the new place, on the way home from another day at the school cafeteria, I try to tell myself that it’s okay not to want to be just “the mother of.”