by Deena Fuchs
In April 2006 I learned that my husband and I were expecting our fourth child. My first thought: thank G-d for another blessing. My second: this 2 bedroom rental on Manhattan’s Upper West Side was not going to cut it anymore. It was time to move to the suburbs. My third: how am I going to make this all work – with work?
I was clearly not the first working mother to worry about that, nor will I be the last. In truth, I think the same thought almost daily. The truth is: being a hands-on mother with real career ambitions is just plain hard.
The recent Atlantic Monthly article by Anne Marie Slaughter’s (yes, I read the whole thing – the one benefit of commuting from the suburbs!), the recent news about Yahoo’s new CEO Marissa Mayer and the recent eJewish Philanthropy coverage of the Jewish community’s leadership and succession crisis, have made me think anew about this issue. I wonder whether they are not all pieces of the same communal challenge. Let me explain.
Six months after learning about our impending good news, my husband and I took the plunge and bought a house on Long Island. Our daughter was born soon after. I was officially panicking. I had four children under six, an hour and half commute each way, and I loved my job as the AVI CHAI Foundation’s Director of Communications.
I was not alone at AVI CHAI dealing with these issues. We were at that point a young staff, many of us women, beginning families. My needs were not unique and AVI CHAI’s Executive Director, Yossi Prager, as well as the Chairman, Arthur Fried, recognized the challenges we were facing. They also understood that helping us address our work-home conflict might be the only way to keep some of us employed full-time at the foundation. They listened to us and came back with a proposal.
We could work from our homes two days a week – Tuesdays and Thursdays, enabling the full office to be present on Monday, Wednesday and Friday. We had to be set up to work effectively with both hardware (funded by AVI CHAI) and childcare. And, we had to be flexible so that if we were required to attend a meeting on either of our home days we could and would commute to the office, even on little notice. In all honesty, I knew Yossi was nervous. His unease required us to prove that this was doable. Intellectually he understood that “face time” was not essential for good work, but he worried about how to keep staff accountable. Initially, Yossi insisted that we provide him with weekly progress reports of what we were working on – both at home and in the office. At some point that requirement was lifted, as we proved that the new situation was working and that the amount of time spent accounting for our activities would be better spent working! He made his point, though. We were accountable for our work. We were offered a privilege and it was ours to maintain.
I made sure that I had full-time child care, a home office with the requisite equipment including a webcam for skype meetings and a designated phone line that my office phone is forwarded to. No one knows whether I am home or in the office. I schedule my work flow to accommodate where I am situated. Conference calls and writing are scheduled for Tuesdays and Thursdays since it usually quieter at home and with fewer distractions. I schedule in-person meetings and strategy sessions on Mondays, Wednesday and Fridays whenever possible.
When I am home, my work day starts as soon as my children are off to school, significantly earlier than when I am in the office. And, my day does not end as abruptly as it does when I am running from the office to catch the train that gets me home before the babysitter leaves. I am also a lot less tired at night when work requires a few more hours, which, like for many of us, is fairly often.
Because my work days at home are longer, I allow myself scheduled breaks to meet family responsibilities. For two years I needed to participate in a preschool carpool. I blocked off a half hour each Tuesday to meet that obligation. One of my children requires occupational therapy. I now can drive her myself and speak face to face with the therapist. And, most important to my children, two days a week I am there to put them on the bus and wish them a good day, good luck on a test, or a blown kiss, and I am there when they come off the bus bubbling over with good (or bad) news.
The feedback to date on my work has only been positive. I have grown professionally within the foundation and have taken on more leadership roles within AVI CHAI and the greater philanthropic community. As the foundation’s first Director of Strategic Partnerships I regularly work with board leadership and others outside of the foundation.
This is where the issues of working motherhood and the leadership crisis come together, at least for me. If I had not had the flexibility of working from home, I probably would have spent my 30’s working part-time. I would have put my family first and my career, and thus my opportunity to serve the Jewish people, second. Maybe I would have struggled to maintain my full-time position, but I imagine that I would have been too overwhelmed with the juggle to seize opportunities to challenge myself, demonstrate leadership and grow and take on more responsibility. I don’t yet have professional plans for after AVI CHAI closes in 2020, but I am confident that I am better poised for a leadership role because the foundation enabled me to work full-time without a greater sacrifice to my family.
And, I think it is accurate to say that the foundation has evolved as well. Professional staff are measured on productivity rather than time in the office. Distributed leadership is more common than in the past, with trust and responsibility – and accompanying accountability – being placed in more hands. Office morale seems even higher than it had been. It would be wrong to attribute all of these changes to the flexible work arrangement, as the foundation’s culture has also been shifting over time due to a series of changes related to the 2020 spend-down. But I believe that the successful implementation of a more flexible work environment has played a role in the AVI CHAI leadership being open to new ways of operating and thinking.
I am not writing to recommend the exact arrangement we have at AVI CHAI for every environment or every mother. To be sure, it won’t work in many Jewish organizations for a variety of reasons. But our experience at AVI CHAI has been sufficiently successful to justify encouraging other organizations to experiment with models that may not be intuitively comfortable to leaders and managers.
On a Tuesday or a Thursday two years ago, I was on a call with a talented colleague at a Jewish non-profit. She heard my doorbell ring and since that was not a typical office noise, she asked where I was. I explained the arrangement to her. Her response, “If only my organization could offer me such an opportunity.” We talked about the challenges of professional growth and hands-on motherhood. She was really struggling. Soon after, I learned she had left her organization and Jewish communal life. She has the potential to be a real leader. I hope the Jewish community will find ways of recruiting her back – and of ensuring that many other ambitious mothers have the opportunity to balance their family and professional lives in a way that will enable and inspire them to meet the critical leadership needs of our community.
I welcome the chance to continue the conversation. Feel free to comment here or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org with any questions or to discuss ideas.
Deena Fuchs is Director of Strategic Partnerships of AVI CHAI NA.