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Briendy Stern & Dr. Frimi Faye Walkenfeld

The Akeres HabayisChanging Times, Redefined Roles

 It is 10:00 pm on a weeknight and a class of college students has just been dismissed. Although this seems to be a normal occurrence, the differences between these students and the average college student in the United States are quite significant. This class is made up predominantly of “Charedi” Orthodox Jewish mothers who are juggling multiple roles. For many of these women, attending college in pursuit of a better job is having an impact not only on their own lives but on their families, as well. As a researcher (Stern) and professor (Walkenfeld) working with these women, the authors of this article have gleaned insight regarding some of the new challenges confronting both these women and the broader community. Based on research both from the general population and from an ongoing study with the aforementioned student population, this article highlights the impact that changing roles are having on family dynamics.

Growing up in the traditional Orthodox Jewish family, both boys and girls are taught that their respective roles are prescribed. Boys are taught that it is the man’s role to be the breadwinner, as it states in Beraishis, “b’zeias apecha tochal lechem” (by the sweat of your brow shall you eat bread). Girls are taught that their role is to be an “akeres habayis” (principal of the home), having and raising children and caring for their husbands. The historical roles traditionally played by men and women in the general population reflect these expectations. However, due to both economic and social change, the gender roles in secular society have shifted, affecting the Orthodox Jewish community as well. As challenging as these shifts have been for general society, it has been that much more challenging for an Orthodox community with its added set of expectations, higher cost of living, greater family size and need for private education (Longman, 2008). In addition to these pressures, imposing a need for dual income is the emphasis on men learning in kollel full-time, which often necessitates that women take on the role of breadwinner (Shai, 2002). Parents, mechanchim and mechanchos (educators, male and female) are faced with the dilemma of asserting that women’s role is to be at home for their families, while acknowledging in the next breath that women need to enter the workforce to support their husband’s learning.

These tensions regarding a woman’s role are not unique to the Orthodox community. Research conducted on the general population has shown that in order to cope successfully with multiple roles, women depend on familial support, both emotional and tangible (e.g., Kasworm, 1990; Van Meter & Agronow, 1982; Zimmerman, et al, 2008). The Orthodox community must begin to recognize these trends and to support women and men alike, whether in kollel or not, as they adjust to their changing roles.

These changes have had a significant effect on the sense of identity of both men and women. Men can no longer view themselves as the “provider” and women have compromised their “caretaking” role. This raises a number of questions. What changes are observed in family dynamics when a woman becomes a “provider,” whether due to financial needs or for personal fulfillment, or when a man becomes a “caretaker,” whether because his wife is pursuing her education or is at work? How do these shifting identities impact relationships and are these changes necessarily “bad” or “good?” More importantly, how can we, as a Torah observant community, prepare our children for these new, less-defined and dynamically shifting roles?

Many of these questions relating to changing prescribed roles and their effect on identity and family dynamics have already been, or are currently being, addressed in the research literature.

For example, an area that has generated much research relates to the impact that a mother’s employment has on her children. The research is rife with conflicts to the extent that it has been coined the “Mommy Wars.” On one side of the coin, Nomaguchi and Milkie’s (2006) research found that children whose mothers were employed most of their lives reported receiving less support and less discipline from both parents compared to children with stay-at-home mothers. Other research comparing such children found that a mother’s working outside the home has either no influence or a positive influence on her children (Hoffman & Youngblade, 1999). Another factor that impacts children is the number of hours, along with the degree of stress, in the mother’s employment. Children reported that they received less attention and suffered greater conflict with their mothers during their mother’s more stressful periods of employment (Crouter, Bumpus, Maguire & McHale, 1999; Repittia & Wood, 1997). Lefevre (1972) reported that, contrary to popular belief, working mothers were found to enjoy a better relationship with their children, despite parent-child conflicts. Similarly, Gerson (2002) found that children whose mothers were employed regarded their mother’s employment as beneficial to their lives. Though the above research is surely inconsistent, it needs to be closely examined to delineate what contexts foster what outcomes. Unfortunately, such efforts are beyond the scope of this article.

In addition to secular research, there are studies being conducted regarding the shifting role of women within the Orthodox Jewish community (e.g., Longman, 2008; Shai, 2002). Additionally, as mentioned previously, the primary author of this article is currently conducting research on the effects of attending college on married women. Though distinctions can be drawn between mothers working outside the home and mothers attending college, the study is nevertheless instructive. This research has not been completed, so any firm conclusions would be premature. However, snippets of the interviews offer insights into the changes taking place in these Orthodox families that should aid parents, mechanchim and mechanchos in equipping children for the new economic and social challenges. All names have been changed to ensure anonymity.

The “Good Mother”

Research literature regarding society’s view of motherhood observes how little has changed regarding the dominant motherhood ideology in the United States since the 1950’s. Motherhood is still perceived as “natural” for women, and those perceived as “good” women tend to be mothers with a primary focus on their children (Hays, 1996; Russo, 1976). Mothers who are working, or who have other additional roles, are commonly seen as not “good” mothers and are characterized as “lesser,” “deviant” and/or “bad.” The “ideal” mother is one who has given over her identity to motherhood, without dividing her time among any other roles (Sears, 1999; Smith, 1993). For many women who, whether by choice or necessity, are not stay-at-home mothers, this construction of the “good” mother often creates feelings of loss, sadness, or guilt.

The idea of being a “good” mother in the Orthodox Jewish community is reflected in the very powerful and religiously hallowed image of the Eishet Chayil, the “woman of valor.” From early on, Orthodox Jewish women are taught that to live up to the ideal of the “Eishet Chayil,” the woman must support her husband, help with – or even carry – the responsibility of financially supporting the family (“mimerchak tavi lachma” – “from afar does she bring sustenance”), while also nurturing her children (“vatiten teref l’veisa” – “she gives food to her home”). This is the Jewish version of the “good” mother, and it is the “ideal” of what a Jewish mother is intended to be. Unfortunately, little if any attention is given to the question of how women are to carry out these multiple roles, which has only become more challenging in today’s complex environment.

Changing Roles & Ensuing Conflict

Whereas Orthodox Jewish women traditionally define their role as an altruistic caretaker and homemaker, the emerging role of the contemporary Orthodox woman is difficult to define. Gitta, a working mother with four young children, described this shift in the role expectations as the community being “confused.” She feels that while it is understood within the community that women are expected to be mothers while husbands are expected to be providers, today’s economy often requires that women attain degrees securing them a higher salary than their husbands. At the same time, Naomi said that members of the community who have heard that she is going to college and plans to start a career have told her, “You’re crazy. Look what you did. You’re losing your kids.” Thus, she is stuck between helping to bring in a parnassah (livelihood) while being viewed as a bad mother by members of her community and by society.

General research regarding the changing roles of women working outside the home indicates that, despite their additional responsibilities, their roles at home are not substantially altered. Women continue to complete most of the household chores and family care-giving, despite working outside the home. This has imposed Hochschild’s (1989) “second shift,” as women return home after a full day’s work to begin their “second shift” at home in addressing the needs of the family.

In the Orthodox Jewish community, where the role of mother and wife are instilled not only as a cultural norm but also as a religious obligation, the tensions inherent in these multiple roles appears to exacerbate women’s internal feelings of conflict and guilt. Women who take on other roles often begin to question their assumption that care-giving is solely their responsibility, and not one to be shared with their spouses. For example, women interviewed about the effect college has had on their home roles initially described their husband’s participation using terms such as “he babysits” or “he watched the children for me.” After using this wording, many stopped midsentence and questioned their own use of the terms “babysit” or “helping me,” recognizing that the children should be a shared responsibility. As Itta stated, “…he’s not the babysitter, he’s the father.” This clearly illustrates shifting expectations which have an effect on marital relationships. This often causes anger, self-reflection and possible disrespect for one another as each spouse independently feels that the other is not fulfilling his or her role in the marital relationship.

Though the choice for women to enter the workforce or enroll in school is usually a joint decision between spouses, conflicts arise in day-to-day living, as the ingrained expectations from childhood are difficult to overcome. Although this is understood by both spouses on an intellectual level, it is difficult to deal with on a practical level.

Bina, a mother of five who is in her forties, highlighted these feelings. She explained the difficulty of the transition on the marriage relationship:

At the outset of our marriage [my going to college] wasn’t the plan. He supports it but, on the other hand, sometimes he feels like I shouldn’t be going out at night. But why am I leaving the kids at home? I’ll say, if I’m going to a wedding it wouldn’t be a question.

Bina is using the wedding to indicate a double standard in her husband’s expectations of her role; it is “expected” in our society for women to go out for a social occasion such as a wedding, but not “expected” to go out for college or work. She further explains the conflict with her divided responsibilities at home:

If I am doing [my own] homework sometimes he’ll say that even if I’m home, I’m not really with the kids. Or when it comes crazy time like finals and I’m up late hours, it can get to him. But otherwise, he’s supportive. He also obviously sees the reality of it, and that this is the only way to advance.

Lest one think this is an isolated case of a husband’s questionable behavior, Naomi, a mother of six, described a transition in her relationship with her husband:

I think up until now I was like a worker. I don’t mean a worker getting paid, but I was like the wife taking care of the kids. Now [that I have additional roles outside of the home, his view of me is] ‘she’s her own person, she has a goal in life.’ It has somewhat equalized the relationship.”

For Naomi, this new respect and responsibility came with challenges. She explained that since she began attending school, her husband feels “gypped.”

He’s used to “my wife is always home and my supper is always there.” I don’t compromise on that part, but he doesn’t have the automatic presence that he’s used to. There are times when I have finals that I’ll say, “I’m sorry, please take the children.” He has more responsibility now at home. It’s a challenge.

These scenarios reflect everyday conflict and may seem trivial to the reader. However the reality is that even when both spouses agree to such arrangements, they fail to fully grasp the repercussions of their new lifestyle. This often causes conflict as couples need to compromise their expectations to make their plans work.


As the shifting roles of men and women become more acute, our children rely on parents, mechanchim and mechanchos to clarify how these changes may impact them. Many women interviewed lamented that the Chareidi schools are not preparing their children for the outside world or for their new roles in these changing times.

In our view, the community’s infrastructure must confront the societal and economic pressures that are changing the family dynamic. Rather than ignoring these new realities, the changes should be recognized and dealt with. Having guilt-ridden and conflicted spouses results in marital strife, and can lead to depression in both children and parents. If there is acceptance, we can be more open about the challenges women face in the workplace and in college and can better address them. Our community is resilient and often identifies solutions to formerly unrecognized issues, once the problems are acknowledged. Similarly, recognition of the new role of women would allow for a greater focus on identifying practical solutions and making necessary adjustments. This would be an important first step in alleviating the widespread difficulties being experienced as families confront a changing world.



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Briendy Stern, MSW, is currently in the Social Welfare doctoral program at The City University of New York working on her dissertation.

Frimi Faye Walkenfeld, PhD, is a Deputy Chair of Psychology at Touro College.

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