My mother told me many times that as she aged, she understood her own mother more and more. And as I have become a mother, different realizations, understandings, and sympathies I have also acquired. But especially after my second child, as I floundered around and resorted to taking antidepressants in order to function through the lack of sleep and intense stress and worries I felt in a world of turbulence and lack of support, I felt something else was going on. The question always going through my mind that got me down was :" Why can't I do this?" " Why do I need so much help?" And I would "see" all these women who could handle what seemed like equal to my load and more. What is wrong with me? I wondered, as one day's enormous strain blended into another, as I forked over all of our money to sitters and cleaning ladies and still I floundered. Imagining myself as some defunct human being who just couldn't get it together like everyone else, I began to sense there was something more to the picture.
When I saw the title of Martha Beck's book :" Breaking Point: Why Women Fall Apart and How They Can Recreate Their Lives", I had a feeling some of my questions could find some solutions in the book . It was all worth it, and more.
We don't understand our present lives until we go into the past to see ourselves, our expectations and our struggle, in context. To understand my own life, I have to also understand the life of my parents, and what world they were born into. Martha Beck interviewed over 300 women from different cohorts. Of my mothers cohort in the 1950s, a surprising dramatic shift occured. Those born in the 1950s were raised in new ideas of women's rights and abilities in the workplace. By the time these women finished school, and college, and had begun raising families in the 1980s and 1990s, these philosophies were tested for the first time. As Beck explains about this "double burden" and its first generation of philosophical testing in the real world:
"In preindustrial days, grandparents, aunts, and uncles hired hands and a variety of other adults might be present in the home at any time. Children were raised by groups of adults, not isolated caretaker...While American morethers born in the fifties got less help raising children than any group before them, the standarads of "good motherhood" were becoming higher and higher. The result of all these forces was that between the mid 1980s and the early 1990s an enormous cohort of young women underook the task of fulfilling both modern and traditional roles at their most difficult levels. The women's movement had popularized the idea that this should not be difficult.."
This radical theory that surrounded the culture that women should be able to be both a successful workwoman and raise a healthy family had never even been tested, but accepted as fact. The beginnings of " what is wrong with me?" as women struggled to come to terms with why society's expectations and their own reality collided.
" All this occured at a historical moment when American conventional wisdowm decreed that women should have no problem raising children and succeeding in the workforce at the very same time, with no help from anyone. The cohort of women born in the 1950s was the first group to actually test this believe in the real world.As the last vestiges of that "typical"family have begun to fragment, women have taken more and more of the blame for things they cannot control, and received less and less of the credi for holding their families together in the face of enormous social and economic pressures."
( On a sidenote, Beck also mentions that also " the notion that men should share household and parenting chores. This seems to have led mainly to a rise in the amount of domestic work men thought they did, rather than the amount they actually performed." I find this quite humorous.)
Rabbi Shalom Arush, in his Breslov approach, recommends one tactic when faced with what seems to be enormous challenges: understand that it is a gift. Sometimes, I try to visualize my challenge in a neatly wrapped gift wrap descending from the heavens, delivered to my overwhelmed hands, as I feign a smile, shake my head, and whisper, incredulously but knowing somehow, yes: "Thank you."
So what could be the gift of this impossible paradox that women are living in today? How is this madness at all a sign of redemption? Beck herself offers part of a convincing answer. After conversations with over 300 women who had arrived at breaking points and those who had transcended them to a higher place, something kept yn coming up: women would talk about a moment in which everything in their reality "flipped" and all of a suddent they saw things differently. Beck couldn't understand it until she learned about the Japanese Zen idea of "satori" in which a pilgrim sojourns in the forest to meditate on a koan, a concept that is intended to boggle the mind, like " If a tree falls in the forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?" As she explains, "archetypal Asian pilgrims seek englightenment by deliberately creating paradoxical problems, and moving into those problems until paradox fills their consciousness "
" The way American society defines women's roles may be seen as a kind of backhanded gift. Without even knowing it, American women are being forced to take the pilgrim's journey, to struggle with contradictory defintions of their own role, to move past the breaking point, to stay in the strange loop of paradox that permeates everything women are to supposed to do and be. As the tensions between the two incompatible sides of our culture continues to place paradoxical pressure on women, more and more of u will find ourselves following this path all the way to satori- and without ever having to shave our heads, live on bamboo shoots, or retreat to caves in the mountains."
So what do we do, holy, overburdened, underappreciated, hardworking impossible standards fellow women? Instead of raging against the system, writing up manifestos to take down all of the hypocrisy that is tiring our mental and physical limbs, we have another solution, much easier to do from the confines of our own, imperfect living rooms: use it as an opportunity for transendence. Use the paradox as a way of seperating ourselves from the culture of insanity that surrounds, as a way of taking a step back when we feel the sensations of being overwhelmed, stressed, frustrated at our inability to "Get as much done" as we think we "should", be the perfect mother/wife/woman/worker/etc etc etc and to shout back, to the air, to anyone who wants to listen: " I"M not crazy! YOU the CULTURE are crazy!" "It's not me, it's you." There is a reason you feel stressed, overwhelmed, and frustrated that you can't reach these expectations that it seems you should be able to. And the reason has nothing to do with you. The reason is because the expectations are literally impossible. That's the first, healthy, step to create distance between ourselves and the culture around us.
When I discussed Beck's ideas with my lovely friend Dalia Shusterman, she excitedly offered a story from the Rebbe in which she saw a correlation. A man came to the Rebbe, she explained, explaining how much was on his place and desiring advice on what he should let go off. "Let go?!" The Rebbe responded, in his classic manner. " Take on more!"
But how can we understand this without falling into the breakdown trap? How can we see shluchim who are doing SO MUCH and not get bogged down by our own inability to do as much? I think that we should first understand what is going on. What is the standard for expectaton? For shluchim, theydo not see themselves as fulfilling society's expectations. In classic Chassidic behavior, they know they are doing the impossible, they know they are going above and beyond, that the only way they are doing it is through blessings from a higher source. That difference in perspective makes all the pyschological, emotional, and physical difference.
We soul sisters can go even furthur (not because we should and not because we naturally can, but because as souls we are connected to something even greater. This is the only solution to giving beyond the depths of our being because we are limited creatures and to expect so much is crazy, is impossible. But to tap into that which is beyond logic, beyond possiblities, and give because we are connected with the Infinite Creator and not because we should. Because we are walking, living, miracles.
And anyone who tells you you should be able to do more is INSANE. You shouldn'tt be able to. You are already probably attempting to do way too much. But we can set our limitis and when there's something that we feel we want to do, to give ot humanity, we can say heavenward: Gd, i have no strength, no time for this, it's imposibl.e but i want it, so please let it work, somehow.
Miracles and Infinity are the only "rational" fuel we can count on.
There is another option as well, in addition, that can please our mind's thirst for knowledge. Chassidus itself thrives on paradox, on presenting two opposing ideas that though contradictory, coexist.Chassidus itself offers the type of philosophical mental gymnastics of meditating on a confounding paradoxical idea, ruminating on it, going over the concepts again and again through philosophical dissecting until one reaches a higher place of awareness in which conflicting paradoxical concepts can coexist. This too is quite healthy.
Beck offers a beautiful mashal to understand what happens when we undergo great stress, breakdown, and then rebuild. She describes how a caterpillar, before it becomes a butterfly, actually melts down, into irrecognizable goo, before becoming a beautiful new creation. And the "data" for the butterfly always existed within the caterpillar. We, modern, overburdened in this insane world that keeps on pushing us to do more and more and more, have a unique advantage. We have within us the ability to transform and fly. All we have to do is find the strength within ourselves, set up realistc limits, tell society's expectations to go climb a tree, and attach to the Infinte. And then we will fly.
Let's fly. On the wings of eagles, let's fly.