The Expanding Roles of Contemporary Orthodox Wives and Mothers
Addressing changes that have affected traditional marriage within the Torah world is a daunting challenge. So many couples within the community struggle with financial stresses and various other challenges. Each situation and each relationship differ, and the effects of these factors further vary with each couple. In seeking descriptive information to better define the actual stresses and their possible connection to changing roles in the marital home, I interviewed a number of religious couples, each of whom was committed to live within their selected Torah environment. The couples varied in age; some of the husbands were in kollel full time, while others have entered the workplace. In each instance, however, the wife was the primary source of family income.
Some of the wives interviewed reported that they viewed their husbands’ Torah scholarship and dedication to full-time learning as the pride of their families. As one woman said, “I may have a Ph.D. in genetics, but in my home, my husband is the crowning glory!” They reported that neither their degree nor their professional achievements reduced the respect they had for their husbands. Higher earning power is seen merely as a means to support Torah learning. They made a point as well to model these values for their children, encouraging their daughters to pursue a career that could enable their own husbands to dedicate themselves exclusively to Torah.
Interestingly, some husbands pointed to an additional factor that, together with their wives’ careers, left them feeling concerned about earning their wives’ respect. They noted that their studies did not include sufficient grounding in the practical halachos that are most relevant to families, such as Shabbos and kashrus. In the words of one husband, “Sometimes it seems that wives know more than their husbands about the everyday halachos that apply to families, since that was a focus of their education but not ours. We are becoming Torah scholars and learning all day, but when our wives need us to answer a simple question at home we don’t know how to answer it.”
Couples who reported a sense of satisfaction and personal growth tended to be those who were able to take pride in their contribution to the Jewish world – whether through their reputation in learning, leading classes or chaburas (study groups), doing outreach or joining community kollelim that provided salaries and other benefits. One husband in an out of town kollel said, “I make a comfortable living for my family – the kollel pays my rent and provides me with a generous monthly stipend. With my wife’s part-time teaching job we are able to live and afford the life we dreamed of.”
Based in part on the personal input shared by the couples interviewed and in part on my professional and community experience, I would propose the following set of themes and observations to consider in creating a plan for preparing the community’s children for marriage.
Prior to marriage, couples need help identifying their own interests, goals and “passions.” Many young couples (both husbands and wives) describe having followed the socially-acceptable path, simply because it was being followed by “everyone else.” Ultimately, choices on this basis may risk breeding a lack of satisfaction and stimulation down the road. Some girls (and boys) are getting academic degrees online. This may be more convenient (and economical) but forfeiting the opportunity for the kind of experiential education that can prepare students for the workplace often leaves them feeling ill-equipped to take on responsibilities. Others admit that they have pursued a “popular” degree – but that they are really not interested in speech therapy or one of the other standard careers!
Similarly, many young men have not sincerely thought out their future goals, desires and wishes. Some young men express discomfort about discussing their future, fearing the disappointment of their parents, wives, peers or rabbeim.
In the words of one young man, “Our wives are becoming more professional and more accomplished every year. After five years of learning, when we need to support our families…we have no job, no leads and no guidance… We are afraid of being judged for leaving learning…how could our wives respect us then?”
Specifically, some young men need assistance developing their passions and setting goals. They need a non-judgmental environment in which to speak to a supportive rebbe or parent who knows and respects them and can provide responsible life guidance: When and how should they look into a community kollel? How can they know if that is a good option? What would come next? Or, for those interested in pursuing careers, how can they retain a close connection to the yeshiva world? How can they explore whether their interests can lead to a successful career? Many young men long for a system that would train them to become working talmidei chachamim (Torah Scholars) but, absent that, they are unsure of an appropriate path.
Some couples described how important it is to have modest and realistic expectations when making choices for their future. “I always wanted to marry someone who would learn for a very long time. I have a been married for 30 years, have a good job, I live in a rented apartment, we share one yeshivishe car, and I don’t own any designer clothes or furniture… This is the life I chose and I don’t regret a day.” Another young woman shared that she works solely to support her husband. She is neither interested in a career nor in bringing work home, and finds that her job as a bookkeeper is perfect for her needs and her family life. In both cases, clear goals and realistic expectations helped pave the way for fulfilling lives.
Simply put, parents need to take responsibility and engage in safe and honest planning discussions with their children before marriage and career choices are explored. Parents need to ensure that their children feel free to express their interests and passions and to allow them to develop a realistic plan for their lives with realistic expectations. Most importantly, parents need to teach their children communication skills to continue those discussions throughout their marriage so that decisions become more fluid. And, perhaps most difficult, parents need to learn how to refrain from judging. Each child is unique and has a unique path appropriate to them. Whether the child chooses to remain in learning or klei kodesh, go to an out of town kollel or enter the work force, the child needs parental encouragement and support as well assistance in creating realistic expectations for the subsequent phases of their lives.
Talk to any Orthodox woman and you will hear how busy life is in the “frum lane.” Wives describe themselves as having to be “superwomen,” trying to take care of children, shop, cook, clean, do errands, make shabbos and yom tov, be a good wife and a good bas Yisrael and maintain a part-time or even full-time job – all while balancing community and chessed activities. Husbands, having their own very full learning sedarim or work schedules, come home and try to pitch in and help as much as possible, while attempting to keep up with their night seder and myriad other responsibilities.
Couples who feel they cope best with their busy day-to-day lives identify four coping skills; (1) planning as a team and setting priorities; (2) “success is in the little tips” – adopting good ideas observed in other homes; (3) weighing carefully which community obligations justify the sacrifice to self and family (it is often difficult to keep in mind that family needs come first. That instinct to be the “community superwoman” is a powerful one); and (4) learning how to let your spouse know when you need their help.
Jewish home life has changed. Our homes once offered the nutrients and ingredients that shaped our children. Due to parents’ work and learning schedules, children may be in daycare, after school events and play dates from earlier ages and for longer periods. For these and other reasons (such as the intrusion of technology), even when everyone is home, family time has been significantly compromised. Awareness and appreciation of the current challenges to the family unit can empower parents to be more proactive in developing and preserving a family environment in their homes by bringing everyone together socially, intellectually, recreationally and spiritually. The key focus is to prevent daily life from taking over by making the active choices necessary to be a family.
Marriage Comes First
All couples interviewed, regardless of educational or professional status, clearly articulated that multiple commitments translate into greater domestic pressure. Couples overall describe being more stressed and having less time for their relationships and their children. They typically cope with these competing demands by prioritizing children’s immediate needs, and then work and other responsibilities, before attending to their marriage. This order needs to be seriously reconsidered. Marriage cannot afford to be relegated to the end of the list, regardless of how stressed a couple may be. The marriage relationship needs to remain on top of the list, since all else flows from its success. When a couple is connected and working together, everything else works more smoothly. When they are not connected – or when there is friction or conflict – not only is the stress multiplied, but their family’s direction is placed at risk.
Many of the topics addressed in this article are not at all unique to the frum community, but rather reflect dynamics and challenges in society at large. In an article in USA Today (September 3rd, 2009), Dennis Cauchon noted that women are on the verge of outnumbering men in the workforce for the first time in history. Gigi DeVault, in an article entitled Dual Career Couples – Tips for Making It Work (The Glass Hammer, July 27, 2010), states, “Story after time-bound story relates extraordinarily long work days followed by grueling sets of errands and household chores….even on days when nothing went wrong, it seemed an unsustainable pace.”
The world is far more complicated than it once was, and our couples face even greater struggles, with serious financial stress and many other day-to-day stressors. Yet, it is refreshing to note that our deepest value remains our families. Parents and educators need to find ways together to educate and communicate with our youth in setting up homes steeped in Torah values while providing them with the ability to make active and realistic choices for their future.
This article ends with a challenge. Ours is a large and complicated system – let’s begin by each committing to make a difference in the lives of our own children.
Mrs. Debbie Fox, LCSW is Director of Aleinu Family Resource Center and Child Advocacy in Los Angeles.