Survival of the Self: Continuously Cultivating an Independent Identity

Like everyone else, I balance different aspects of my identity: American, Jew, New Yorker, educator, feminist, mother, white, spouse, runner, daughter, Ashkenazi, tennis instructor, photographer, Talmudist, attorney, writer, friend, and more. Overarching much of the balancing act is the need to be both a developed individual and a member of a group – in fact, a member of many different groups, sometimes overlapping and sometimes divergent.

So questions of identity are constantly on my mind. I even have the good fortune to teach a course on Jewish identity each year to high school seniors as they are about to embark on the next leg of their educational journey, leaving the safe cocoon in which they were raised and grappling with the questions of their multi-faceted identities. Earlier this year, when the opportunity arose, then, to explore questions of identity, especially Jewish identity, in a multicultural European setting in the Swedish countryside with a small cohort of Americans, Europeans, and Israelis for a weeklong intense seminar, I jumped at it. My reflections on the experience, which turned out to be very powerful, are here.

Before embarking on the trip, I was quite surprised by the judgment with which I was met. I was not at all expecting it. In casual conversations, people raised eyebrows, literally, figuratively, implicitly, and explicitly about the fact that I was going without any of my four children. Of course, it was difficult to leave everyone, but the kids were great and left in the excellent hands of their other parent, with whom I created an egalitarian household, and one in which we constantly re-assess and re-calibrate the time, demands and opportunities that arise in our personal and professional lives. I fully expected the program to be an eye-opening and broadening one, and while it may help me professionally, more importantly, it thrilled me personally and I deeply enjoyed being immersed in a week of conversations with interesting people of varied backgrounds. Overall, it was, as expected, an experience that is important for my own development as a person.

Interestingly, my spouse went on a different kind of trip a few months ago, accompanying a group of his college students on a service trip. At the time, we only had three children to leave behind; I was pregnant with our fourth. As he recalls, no one asked him why he thought it was okay to leave his family behind; instead, people told him how wonderful his wife was for “letting him” go. Clearly there are different expectations at work here: my husband is expected to go out and do interesting things, as long as he is not held back by his wife. I, on the other hand, am to some extent expected to give up the chance to do those very same things so as not to sacrifice my role as wife and mother.

Fortunately, these different parts of my identity do not compete in a zero-sum game. On the contrary: in order to bring the most to my family, to my job, and to the other groups of which I am a member – sometimes a very central member – I need to be a well-developed individual. If my identity were only defined in relation to others, whether those others are my spouse, my children, or my students, I would have very little to contribute to those relationships. It is because I cultivate a sense of independent identity that my relationships can deepen and flourish, and perhaps others can even grown because of their relationship with me.

It’s often hard not to lose oneself in the midst of the chaos that is life. But I find that it’s both fulfilling and important to keep working to develop myself as an individual even as I engage fully in various relationships. This does not need to involve trips to Sweden, although if you have the opportunity to take one, I highly recommend it. But to avoid being defined only in relation to others, it may require time away from those whose presence we treasure most.

We all work to balance our roles as parents, spouses, professionals, and as full-fledged individuals with our own aspirations and goals. Let’s support each other as we all find the best balance available for each of us.

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