Families First Revisited

Over the years, as the school year comes to an end, every couple of years, one the people who I had seen as a future leader of ICS has left.

 Oh, many have left but a few have jolted me. I had not expected it. I felt the loss immediately. Dani. Kerri. Most recently Mariem.

Mariem had just taken on a leadership role in the Lavelle high school. She was going to be part of the facilitation team for our ongoing discussions of diversity, equity and inclusion.

A Muslim woman, Mariem wears a hijab. When I first met her, I assumed she was a math teacher. A strange and humorous example of stereotyping: at that time, the other women at ICS who wore the hijab were all math teachers.

I reached out to Mariem when I heard of her decision. I am always hopeful that I can help to resolve the problem which is leading to the exit.

“I need to do what is best for my family.”

When I am told by the exiting stars that they love ICSW but that they need to do what is best for their families, I have always failed to find a way to keep them. When they are upset or angry or disappointed by something that has happened at ICSW, we can almost always find a path to healing.

 “I have to do what is best for my family.”Families first.

I hear the sadness in their voices. I feel the dystonia .

Maybe I see some things differently because my mother worked.

Growing up in the post-World War II world of burgeoning suburbs, I felt acutely the strangeness of being the only kid whose mother worked, the deprivation of only an empty apartment to come home to after school. For years, I never went home after school Even when my parents got me a puppy, so that I would have company in the otherwise empty apartment, I never went home to walk Susie. Susie had to be returned. I felt guilty. But I didn’t go home. I went to friends’ houses where their mothers provided the milk and cookies. I would hang out until my father picked me up on the way home from work.

Well, there was always an apparent necessity in my mother’s working. My father was a wonderful artist and craftsman. His paintings never sold much, although they were treasured by those who owned them. His metal sculpture sold better. But he made a “living” making custom furniture for the modestly wealthy.

From an early age, I knew that we needed my mother’s income. I realize now though that her income was really partly a “luxury”. It allowed my father to be an “artist”. I remember now that he turned down opportunities to be more successful.

But my mother loved teaching, — when I was younger she was teaching elementary school, 4th and 5th grades, and then for many years tutoring remedial reading and math privately, — she had never wanted to leave the classroom but she loved the tutoring relationship and she made more money in private practice. It’s what she talked about at dinner, her classes and her students.

As I gain appreciation of my mother’s balancing act, I can see the negativities of a unbalanced life. This experience prepared the ground in my life for one of my early memories of Bernie’s teaching.

It was during my first year at ZCNY, in my first Ox Class. Jishu was leading the class, and Bernie would often sit in. He was the spiritual leader of ZCNY, and Jishu was a Dharma Holder, had not yet received transmission, so when Bernie was there, — in those days, we called him “Sensei” and not “Bernie”, — much of the class would taken up in Q&A with Bernie.

I was a real beginner. I didn’t talk much. I asked no questions of Bernie but I was soaking up everything.

One day a student asked Bernie, “How do you balance spiritual practice with career and family?”

As soon as I heard the question, I knew that this was an answer that I needed. I was feeling pulled in so many directions. I had already heard Bernie say that zazen and social action were both part of a spiritual life.

“Put 100% of your into your spiritual practice,” he said. I felt my heart sinking. This was not my answer. This was a solution for some people, for Thomas Merton for instance. I might be jealous of this, might wish that I was such a person, but it was not an answer for me. This is no help, I thought.

But Bernie continued. “Put 100% of your energy into your career. Put 100% of your energy into your family.”

Pointing to a balanced life. Recognizing that my mother had embodied a balanced life.

Families first. I see now that it is an important antidote to the organizational culture in many work places. In the context of work, it is a refreshing departure that we are always saying to our team members when they face family crises, “Go. Take care of your family. We will cover.”

I have been proud that we are different from so many workplaces in which bosses demand and expect that employees will leave their family stresses at home. I continue to proud of our work environment where teachers who get a call from their child’s school that she is sick, “Go. Pick up your kid.”

Families first.

Missed in my enthusiasm is that for so many of our teachers, “families first” is not an antidote to an unbalanced life. It is a formula for an unbalanced life. “If you are an inspiring teacher, if you are already inspiring your peers to grow as teachers, you have talent for teaching and leading. You have a gift, a wonderful gift. Why were these gifts given to you?

“Is this the work of the Universe?

 “Is this the will of God?”

Families first was and is a healthy antidote to the American emphasis on the job and career must come first if you hope to be successful, the constant remaindering that if you are ambitious, if you wish to achieve success, that you cannot allow anything to distract you from this goal. No to that.

I don’t remember if my mother told me this or if I figured it out for myself from her example: A parent who is fulfilled in his/her life is a better parent.

Looking back over the years at our schools, it seems clear that this is a bigger problem for women than for men. Women are far more likely, facing what they perceive as the need to choose between family and career, to choose family first.

American employers play a big part in this. Parental leave disrupts careers. Women are far more likely than men to fall victim.

I am proud of our effort to support parental leave. A year and a half ago, we offered a promotion, a principalship, to one of our rising stars. She was honored, flattered, but felt she needed to be candid with us. She was hoping to get pregnant again, very soon.

“Not a problem,” was our response. “Principals can take parental leave, too.”

She accepted the position. She got pregnant. She had her baby. And then much to my disappointment, she decided that she didn’t want to come back as principal. She wanted to come back part-time, in a less stressful and demanding role.

I was disappointed, and we moved forward.

A few months later, another principalship opened up. WE offered this position to another rising leader.

She was moved. She was flattered. And she wanted to be candid. She was pregnant, very early in the pregnancy, hadn’t been planning to tell anyone until the end of the first trimester but felt, under the circumstances, that she needed to tell us.

I am very proud that our response was the same.

“Wonderful. Principals can take parental leave, too.”

Families first. A wonderful counterbalance to the American work culture which rewards (and very often demands) an exclusive commitment to work and career.

But like all words, all expressions, always, inevitably one-sided.

I say this as a recovering workaholic. Leading a balanced life takes practice.