What Is a “Sabbath” When You Are a Caregiver?

The idea of weekly Sabbath in Judeo-Christian traditions seems created by and for the benefit of men. A traditional Sabbath is predicated on the idea that “women’s work” is not labor at all.

What Is a “Sabbath” When You Are a Caregiver?
Photo by Svetlana B / Unsplash

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If you asked me before I had kids what I’d imagine to be the highlight of family life, I might have said, “all of us sitting around the dinner table, sharing about our days, enjoying our food, talking and laughing.” In my current moment, that kind of idyllic image is a hilarious joke. Our typical family dinner with my husband and three kids often goes something like last night. The twins (almost 3) didn’t want to come to the table. Asher (7) immediately started angling for something different than what I was serving. Jonah wanted a “small” lemonade and not a “big” lemonade. Miles only wanted to sit in my lap, not his chair. He ate about one bite of rice. Jonah ate about three bites of rice but was mainly interested in dumping condiments on my husband Travis’ dinner and trying to feed his dad with chopsticks, which meant most of Travis’ dinner ended up in his lap. Miles took a piece of challah and shredded it like confetti all over the recently cleaned floor. Then everyone screamed for lollipops and screen time. During this mayhem, Travis and I attempted to shovel food in our mouths. “When will family dinner stop being so terrible?” I lamented. “Probably in about two years!” Asher piped up helpfully.

It was against the backdrop of this daily reality that I listened with eager interest mixed with rageful resentment to a podcast episode of The Erza Klein show called "Sabbath and the Art of Rest." Klein interviews Judith Shulevitz, who wrote a book about the lessons we can learn from Sabbath practices in the context of our modern world. I found some of the insights from the episode fascinating, like the idea that Sabbath rest really can’t be effectively done in isolation, it has to be done in community.

The conversation made me think a lot about the historical and gendered context about who Sabbath rest is typically for. Jewish traditions highlight a big Friday night meal with fresh baked challah and inviting friends and family over, and can include Friday night or Saturday religious services. Many denominations of Christianity have Sunday morning services followed by a large family or community meal. I can’t help but think about, traditionally, WHO did all the work to allow for this “rest?” Who’s making elaborate meals in advance of the Sabbath? Who’s cleaning the house before extended family arrives? Who’s doing all those dishes from friends coming over for dinner? Who’s making sure everyone’s clothes are clean and ironed and that the children are bathed before church? Who’s outside soothing a fussy baby and missing the sermon? Women and mothers, of course.

enjoying lollypops after another chaotic dinner
The very idea of weekly Sabbath in Judeo-Christian traditions seems created by and for the benefit of men. A traditional Sabbath is predicated on the idea that “women’s work” is not labor at all.

If some of our religious contexts for rest were never really meant for caregivers, how do we bring “rest” into our current modern, rushed, and spread thin lives?

Ezra Klein, who has two young children himself, asks Shulevitz directly how we can connect with this idea of Sabbath rest when we have little kids to take care of, and when the idea of planning, cooking and cleaning a Shabbat meal doesn’t seem restful at all. I found Shulevitz’ answers vague and unsatisfying.

I don’t have any perfect answers for how to bring what I'm calling “rest culture” into our lives when caregiving responsibilities are hugely consuming. I fully recognize that we can’t fix the demands of modern capitalism with micro-solutions. But I’m still going to share a few concrete ideas in the hopes of allowing us to take baby steps into imagining a more restful world.

  1. Digital mini-breaks: Probably most American adults feel like they can stand to look at their phones less, but it’s HARD, especially given how dependent we’ve become on them for, well, everything. We’re socialized to believe we need to respond to everything immediately and our devices are full of addictive dopamine-giving distractions. Something I’m experimenting with is while I’m doing things with the kids, just leaving my phone in another room. The idle distraction of checking it constantly takes me out of the moment of whatever I’m doing, and it can feel more satisfying and restful to give my brain a break.
  2. Challenge productivity + hussle culture: It is very hard when we have precious time off from paid work and caregiving to not fill it with “productive” activities, like running errands, working out, meal prep, laundry, grocery shopping, home projects etc. etc. etc. In our society, mothers are often socialized to justify “personal time” by filling with domestic needs that serve others. and we multitask like crazy, often leading us to feel even more distracted and depleted. FYI: Fathers on average take three hours more of leisure time per week than mothers. A powerful way to challenge the status quo is to use personal time for mono-tasking and pleasurable leisure like a hobby, taking a nap, walking in nature or catching up with a friend.
  3. Normalize the personal retreat: I am a huge fan of the personal retreat as necessary for mental health and the well-being of our relationships. Taking them has been life-changing for me over the course of the pandemic. I know for some they can feel intimidating, hard to plan, expensive and lonely which is why I’m super excited to have recently learned about A Mother’s Rest. It’s a non-profit with three retreat properties. Their mission is to restore caregivers’ physical and emotional health through affordable and restorative respite opportunities. They are not kidding about being affordable, and they offer very reasonable rates and even some full scholarships. I am just so happy that this exists! This is not sponsored, and I haven’t been myself, but seriously, bookmark this!
  4. Fiercely protect downtime: Too many times while my twins are napping on the weekends, I’ll fill the two hours with cooking or cleaning and general busyness and then think, “oh wait, I should chill out, sit down and read my book and rest for a bit,” and as soon as I sit down, they wake up. I’m attempting sometimes to start leisure FIRST during these windows and do chores second. The other weekend after we’d been dealing with the whole family having the stomach flu, as soon as I got the twins down for their nap I turned on the next episode of White Lotus 2 that I was dying to watch. I DIDN’T EVEN FOLD LAUNDRY while I did it and it was the highlight of the weekend.

I’m acutely aware that creating space for rest, whether it's a personal retreat or just an hour of alone time can take work itself, to the point where it can feel like “why even bother?” But do. DO BOTHER! I know how much it can take to leave your family behind, but I also want to assert that it can be OK to let our absences be felt.

This week’s members-only thread will ask a very simple question that I’m guessing might have complicated answers. “How do you rest?” I love the incredible, thoughtful comments our members post, and if you want in on the fun, become a member of The Double Shift. It starts at $7/mo.

Also, I found out about A Mother’s Rest from Double Shift member Elisa. Elisa is a Champion monthly member, which entitles her to sign up for 1:1 office hours with me. I LOVE getting to know Double Shifters this way, and I so appreciate those who are able to support this work at Champion level, which starts at $30/mo. Not everyone can make this kind of financial commitment, but if you are someone who’s in a position to support this small, feminist, mom-run operation, please consider joining or upgrading.

Jan 27th Double Shift Member Hangout + Angela Garbes Event

DURHAM!! Come on out!! At 7pm THIS Friday Angela Garbes will be in town giving a talk on The Ethics of Now: a conversation on radicalism, justice, and mothering, through the Kenan Center for Ethics at Duke. It's at The Durham Arts Council downtown. Admission is free but first come, first serve – and The Regulator will have copies of Essential Labor there is you'd like her to sign a book. This event is free and open to the public!

Double Shift Members:  We’re making a full evening of it –Join me for a “pre-game” hangout at 5PM nearby to Angela’s event and we’ll walk over together and make a robust cheering section. Feel free to come to just the hangout, just the talk or both! Details should be in your inbox. If you are a member and you didn't get it, email us.

Want in on the fun and the deets to come to our IRL Durham hangout? Become a member, it starts at $7/mo


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