Torah Musings: Conflicting Messages


Conflicting Messages

Sarah Pachter

When I was a teenager, I often read Seventeen Magazine. I’ll never forget reading an article about body image that highlighted how important it is to eat healthy food such as whole grains, fruits, and vegetables. I found it ironic that on the very next page there was an advertisement for candy with a beautiful model eating a Snickers bar. Flipping through a few more pages, I spotted an article about the importance of preventing sun damage. It was now “uncool” to lie out in the sun. But then further on – wouldn’t you know it – there was an ad for tanning oil. I wondered: How is it that a single magazine has two conflicting messages right next to one another?

As a culture, we are constantly bombarded with conflicting messages. When driving in Los Angeles, one will find a tanning bed salon right next to a botox center. Pay to get wrinkled! Pay to delete your wrinkles! Similarly, a “freeze the fat” billboard might be seen atop a McDonald’s restaurant or a Krispy Kreme donut shop.

We’re not just presented with conflicting messages about food and beauty products. We’re sent conflicting messages from the greater society at large – about our values, our morals, who we are as people (men and women), and our families.

Women are expected to be the best moms in the world, always being present with their children while simultaneously succeeding in the workforce. This balance is a tight rope and rarely pulled off with grace and ease, yet we are expected to be perfect, to be involved in PTA and other community activities while simultaneously cooking beautiful meals, not to mention keeping our home clean. And we’re supposed to do it 1950s-style, with an effortless smile, a cute outfit, and high heels.

There are great expectations on Jewish men, as well. They are supposed to accomplish it all: pursuing and achieving a higher education degree while succeeding in their Torah learning. They are expected to pay tuition and standard bills, while being charitable with their time and money. And they are supposed to be sensitive and understanding towards us, but should never seem vulnerable or weak in any way.

Researcher and author, Bren Brown, writes in her book Daring Greatly that we as women ask men to be vulnerable, and share their “real selves” by letting us into their private thoughts, the way we women often share our innermost feelings with each other. We plead with them to tell us why they are afraid. But the truth is that most women can’t stomach it…we want our men to be strong! Aren’t women sending men a conflicting message: I will provide you a safe space to share your most vulnerable selves…as long as you aren’t too vulnerable?

Other examples of conflicting messages in our time, as outlined by Brené Brown, include:

  • Don’t make people feel uncomfortable, but be honest.
  • Be perfect, but don’t make a fuss about it, and don’t take time away from anything like your family or your partner or your work.
  • Just be yourself, but not if that means being shy or unsure.

I once saw a store with mannequins wearing all the latest trends. At the bottom of the storefront display it said, Be yourself. Inherent in such a display is that we are expected to wear their clothing and that doing so makes you more you.

The bottom line is that it is not possible for any of us to be all things to all people. Just as we cannot possibly expect to eat Snickers bars all day and maintain a healthy lifestyle. We cannot expect to visit tanning beds while staying wrinkle-free. We cannot expect to be everything to everyone else and still maintain inner happiness.

Gevurah, one of the character traits that make up the sefiros, is about setting healthy boundaries. Gevurah, strength, sometimes requires that we figure out what we deeply want and then say “no” to something else that we also want in order to achieve the primary goal. Do we want health or the Snickers bar? Well, maybe both. But when we decide what we want more, it makes the other choice less appealing.

I believe that in the realm of child raising the issue of time management is the hardest balance to achieve. If we are out every night at a community event or dinner, we are missing precious time with our family and not giving them the attention that they desperately seek and need.

Women bear the brunt of judgment for the choices they make in order to achieve balance. If a woman tells people that she is a stay-at-home mom, they often look at her like she must have a brain the size of a pea, capable of only holding information about diapers and wipes. “Oh, that’s all?” they will ask out loud.

Simultaneously, if she tells others about her professional work, they may very well look at her as though she has committed a heinous crime. “Well, who is caring for your children then?” This is the standard, accusatory response. It is easy to feel like we are trapped between a rock and a hard place.

Whether we as parents decide to work or stay at home, we must all use gevurah to help us maintain balance. We must also stick with a balance that works for us, and not necessarily others. Whether it means never attending functions on weeknights, or going out as a married couple when one spouse or both need a replenishing break, we must all do what works for us as individuals, regardless of what popular society demands.

Here are some practical tips on how to achieve the work-home balance despite these conflicting messages we are constantly bombarded with:

  • Decide how often you will work and when you will work, and stick to it. For example: I personally aim to only teach a maximum of one night per week. Once I am booked, it doesn’t matter how enticing other lecture opportunities sound; I decline. Even though it is hard to say no, I’m saying yes to my family.
  • When you aren’t home, don’t feel guilty about needing childcare to watch your children.  And don’t try to accomplish anything work-related when you are with your children. Rebbetzin Heller once said, “When you are with your children, be with them, and when you are at work, be at work.” Creating that compartmentalization can certainly help us achieve a better balance.
  • Cut back and delegate. This cannot be said enough. Either cut back on household responsibilities, childcare, or your work load. If it is impossible to cut back, then try to find help, either with family, paid help, or volunteers.  Delegate areas that can be done by someone else. We don’t need to feel guilty about taking these measures for it can help in every facet of our work/home balance.

Despite conflicting messages in child raising, or any other aspect of life, we can all learn to achieve a better balance. When a real balance is established and maintained, both career and family life will benefit mutually and beautifully.