Making Motherhood Work – With Work

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 dfuchs@avichaina.org with any questions or to discuss ideas.

Deena Fuchs is Director of Strategic Partnerships of AVI CHAI NA.

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Comments

  1. Deena,
    thanks for writing this. I am hopeful that perhaps others will come out of the woodwork to tell us of the ways in which their organizations are beginning to accommodate these real needs. 15 years ago when my boys were 2 and 4 I became the Principal of Beit Rabban. I lived in CT. The school as in NYC. I left the house before my kids woke up and came home too many nights after they were asleep. For 4 months I took heart that our nanny was a better mom than I could ever be and my kids loved her. Then she had to leave and I made a terrible error in hiring her replacement. My kids emotional state deteriorated.
    I asked the board of our still small school where I was chief cook and bottle washer if I could work from home one day a week. This was unprecedented. A principal to work from home? And yet, this amazing group of people agreed. Somehow we made it work but it was clear to me that this was not sustainable for the school or our children. I did have to leave what was -in many ways a perfect job at the most problematic time in my children’s lives.
    I of course stayed in the field and continued working in other ways.
    My basic belief is that caring and committed boards and professional leadership can find ways to shift our ways of working.

  2. Deena,

    Thanks for sharing the impact of flexibility on your careeer trajectory and on Avichai’s culture.

    The link between creating a robust, deep and diverse pipeline for leadership and offering formal flexible work arrangements was made very clear to us at Advancing Women Professionals & the Jewish Community by hundreds of women (and young men too) whom we interviewed when we first launched in 2001. Over this decade, we have sought to enlist Jewish organizations in putting these kind of policies in place – assuring CEOs and Boards that formal flexiblity is great for talent retention, and equally important, it can improve results by focusing professionals on strategic outcomes rather than facetime.

    We invite those inspired by Deena’s piece to check out our website wwww.advancingwomen for information on our Better Work, Better Life campaign aimed at making these policies the standard practice in the nonprofit sector, and in our country.

    Or write to us at info@advancingwomen.org

  3. Deena, Thank you for sharing your story, and thanks to the leadership of The AVI CHAI Foundation for being a pioneer in this area. When embarking on my career I knew two things: I wanted to work in the Jewish community to align my calendar (Friday afternoons, holidays) with my personal life as seamlessly as possible, and that I wanted flexibility to take care of myself and my (not yet conceived) family in the ways that made the most sense to us. Running my own business puts a ton of responsibility on my shoulders, and while I don’t get to the gym or read novels as much as I’d like, I have been blessed to work hard, play hard and parent fully over the past several years. I do believe creating this culture is important, valuable, and in alignment with our Jewish values. While I agreed it can’t work for every person or every situation, the parameters (all in the office together MWF) and tools (forwarding phone number for smooth transitions) are great suggestions to set yourself up for success in this arrangement. And as we know, flexibility can buy trust, dedication and commitment. I know we are both often found emailing at 11pm! For me, it’s a simple trade off for being at the bus stop or piano recital.

  4. Rachel Slaton says:

    As a late 20s Jewish professional and an “in-the-next-3ish-years-God-willing” aspiring future mother, I deeply appreciate how this national conversation is seeping into the Jewish professional world. I’m encouraged by the steps AVI CHAI and, I’m hopeful, other Jewish organizations are taking to support a work-life balance that allows for excellence in the work place and excellence in the home. I hope to hear about other models in our communities that are working, or not.

  5. Lisa Langer says:

    I so appreciate this conversation among Jewish communial leaders! I too have been blessed to serve the Jewish community, doing what I am educated and trained to do while fully parenting. For eight years I have worked part-time, moslty from my home office, for the Union for Reform Judaism. I feel so blessed to be able to do meaningful work that I love while also driving carpools, welcoming my children home from school and getting the laundry done. I thank the pioneers who came before me, my colleagues who advocated and succeeded in this endeavor along side me, my child-care providers, husband and neighbors, all those who understand when the doorbell rings while I’m on Skype, ooVoo or the phone, and especially the URJ leadership for recognizing that flexibility, trust and support for employees is one of the many ways instill dedication and committment to work alongside family. I have never found ‘balance’ but I have always found meaning!

  6. Yossi Prager says:

    I have little to add to Deena’s superb piece. As AVI CHAI’s North American director, I was the nervous architect of the foundation’s policy — after seeking advice from leaders at other organizations (I remember talking with Alisa Kurshan and Shifra Broznick among others). As Deena explained, the policy has worked very well for our foundation: we have retained exceptional talents and enacted our Jewish values. As I reflect further as a result of Deena’s post, there are two main reasons for the success of the policy. First, our staff see their professional work as a personal mission. They are therefore highly motivated to advance the work whenever and wherever necessary. Second, I ride herd to ensure that everyone not traveling is in the office on M, W, F. Having the whole staff together for three days each week enables not only in-person full staff meetings but also smaller meetings and important “water cooler” conversations.

    If anyone is interesting in learning more about how the policy has worked from my perspective, feel free to email me at yprager@avichaina.org.

  7. Elana Sztokman says:

    Great article except for one thing — this should not be seen as an issue of MOTHERHOOD but as an issue of PARENTHOOD. All these policies should apply equally to men and women, and men everywhere should be encouraged to be full parents. Because if we continue to think of this as a “mother”‘s problem, we are perpetuating the very stereotypes and poor understandings that promote inequality and unfairness.

  8. We’ve had this arrangement for many years. Seems like a “no-brainer” for any organizations I would be happy to hire a Director of Communications who could work from home. Just can’t find one!

  9. I would add that everything Deena artfully notes applies to working fathers, too.

    As the co-head of a dual-income household, making my family priority #1 while leading a rapidly growing organization would have been impossible without the family-first (not just “family-friendly”) policies that allow all of us at RAVSAK to thrive as professionals without having to fail as parents, partners, adult-children and friends.

    Over the years I have frequently been the only father at school events, day-time ballet recitals, and afternoon soccer games. I am not sure that years from now I will remember every school play or at-bat, but I know that I would never forget the sting of missing an important moment in the life of any of my children.

  10. Deena- thank you for voicing the thoughts running through my mind! I too am a full-time working mother in the Jewish community. My work involves frequent travel to Jewish day schools all over North America and I have had to make sacrifices, missing a school event from time-to-time or delegating carpool driving to my babysitter. But I think your point and Yossi’s about being driven by passion and mission is what makes it all worthwhile. I am greatful for the flexibility and understanding Amy Katz, executive director, PEJE has given me over the past 5 years. I am priveledged to work at an organization where it is the work and committment that are valued most. While I don’t have a specific work-from-home policy, I know that my decision to put my family first while pursuing a career in the Jewish community is supported 100%. Having been a working mother for almost 12 years…I hope that our path will make it easier for future parents to remain professionally committed to our Jewish community while raising the next generation of Jewish leaders.

  11. Yossi Prager says:

    Marc, can you tell us more about the “family first” policies that you mention above as beng in place in RAVSAK?

  12. I applaud AVI CHAI for its forward thinking about creative work environments and schedules. As a half-time, work from home professional and single parent, I see the benefit of this every day. Being present and accountable at work is absolutely possible from home and allows professionals to be present in their family lives at the same time. I find my work more meaningful and am able to focus in on projects without office distractions, and continue to build my career skills without sacrificing the important moments with my family. It’s not just for parents with young children either, but a family issue regardless of age or stage.

    There are many Jewish organizations like AVI CHAI and Hillel (my employer) who are building a strategic approach to balance these challenges. Hillel and several key partners, including Shifra Broznick’s team at Advancing Women Professionals & the Jewish Community, convened to create a rich guide on Work-Life Balance for the entire Hillel field. It’s clear that, to retain quality professionals in the 21st century, we need to really look at how work and life intersect. Our technological capabilities can create flexible space to allow for both face time and think time. If the Jewish world can be the fore-runners of modeling work-life balance, we will most certainly see higher retention rates and compelling reasons for employees to stay in the workforce.

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