How Does She Do It?
Many years ago, after I had my first child and prepared to go back to work, I wondered about the answer to this question: How do women do it? How do working mothers in the Jewish community manage all of their responsibilities? From my viewpoint as a newly-minted working mother, it seemed an impossible task, albeit one that I was undertaking with hope, optimism – and not a small amount of anxiety.
More specifically, I wanted to know: How could I be the warm, nurturing and influential Jewish mother I wanted to be while spending so many hours of the week with my attention and energy focused outside of my home? How could I make the most of my time with my children after a long day of work? How could I make Shabbos when I worked on Friday? How could I be an eizer k’negdo [helpmate] to my husband when my physical and emotional energy was already depleted between my job, my house and my children?
In order to find out, I interviewed more than twenty working women in the observant Jewish community, which became the basis of a book I wrote on the same topic (to be released by Feldheim Publishers in March 2012). What I discovered were many women with different personal variables and environmental conditions that contributed to their need to work, who employed as many different strategies to manage their myriad responsibilities. Yet there were common themes that emerged as well.
A good percentage of the women interviewed were not fully at peace with their decision to work. In some cases, there was a strong desire to remain home with their children, but economic or idealistic considerations compelled them into the workforce. In other instances, women were comfortable with their decision to work (many having them validated by da’as torah), but were forced to defend themselves against condemnations by others, or the insinuation that they were less-devoted mothers to their children than their stay-at-home counterparts.
In almost all instances, the women interviewed presented with a genuine and heartfelt desire to “do right” by their children, striving to fill their homes with the warmth, spirit and nurturance that is the hallmark of the Jewish mother, despite spending so many hours of the week at their place of employment. These women were working exhaustively to juggle the needs of their children, marriage, household and place of employment – not to mention community and chessed obligations – and being made to feel guilty and apologetic about it to boot. The mother of eight who supported her husband in kollel while still managing to be close and connected to her well brought up children, was rewarded for her efforts with these accolades at her son’s high school graduation valedictory speech: “Even though you worked and were never home, he still turned out so well.” This was by no means an isolated incident, as most of the women routinely faced similar comments and judgments by others.
The paradoxical pressure placed on the working mother in today’s Jewish community: to be the self-sacrificing mother completely devoted to the needs of her home and family, while at the same time becoming a career woman who spends much of her time in the workplace. This can take a tremendous toll on the working mother, and can detract from the emotional energy and simchas hachayim (zest for life) that are so vital for her to cultivate and bring into her home.
While some women choose to work for personal fulfillment, most others are driven into the workforce by sheer necessity. Dialogue about whether or not it is right for a woman to work may no longer be constructive, as the train has already left the station. The dialogue, in my opinion, should instead focus on the following: How can we support these working women and strengthen their role as mothers, wives, nurturers and builders of the Jewish home?
Many of the working women I interviewed were overwhelmed and were experiencing an inordinate amount of stress. Others had a successful routine in place that allowed them to effectively juggle their multiple responsibilities. The majority of the women, however, fell somewhere in the middle, managing one day at a time and figuring it out as they went along.
There did seem to be a number of factors that promoted more effectiveness as a working mother and a greater amount of menuchas hanefesh (inner peace) in doing so, which can be instructive in guiding and educating the next generation of women who find themselves in this position. Feeling some sense of meaning through working, and being able to convey that sense of meaning to one’s children, was an important factor in some women’s ability to handle the accompanying challenges as well as the judgments of others.
Rebbetzin Shelia Feinstein, who was an interview subject, worked for over thirty years as a teacher and principal. She advised that “children should feel that there is a tachlis (constructive purpose) to their mother working that goes beyond buying the newest-model car.
“My children knew that I worked for a reason — so that my husband (HaRav HaGaon Rav Reuven Feinstein, shlit”a, Rosh Yeshiva of Yeshiva of Staten Island) could grow in Torah. Each family’s tachlis is different, but no less worthy. Perhaps Mommy works so Daddy shouldn’t have to take a second job and instead he is able to learn at night. Maybe she works to help out so there is less financial stress in the house and so that all the children can have what they need. If there is this attitude and feeling in the house that ‘my mother is working to help our family grow in some way,’ then everyone will be in it together and will be able to feel good about it.”
Having a Rav to turn to for guidance, as well as a mentor to provide support and a “reality check,” was extremely helpful to many mothers. Working at jobs that they genuinely loved, that allowed them to do chessed and make a kiddush Hashem, also seemed more positively correlated with a successful experience.
It can be postulated that “forewarned is forearmed.” Some women seemed to be simply shell-shocked. Not at all prepared for what was in store, they often resorted to self-blame if they couldn’t pull off what they felt was expected of them. One woman, “Yehudis,” acknowledged: “I learned how beautiful it would be to support my husband in kollel. But I never learned how hard it would be. I didn’t realize the effect that being out of the home for so many hours a day would have on my home.”
Too many women like her described their days as running around like chickens without heads, starting with tension-filled mornings with their children, trying to get everyone (including themselves) up and out on time, squeezing in errands and/or phone calls during their work day, coming home and managing the demands of supper time, bath time and homework while physically exhausted and sometimes falling asleep in their children’s rooms or with their clothes on, only to wake up and start the whole thing over again the next day. Yehudis shared, “For a long time, I thought there was something wrong with me that I could not run the home of my dreams.”
The women who seemed more at peace were generally more experienced and had the benefit of perspective, with many acknowledging, “if I knew then, what I know now (i.e., my children are resilient, my home does not have to be perfect, it is normal to have some hard days, etc.), it could have saved me a lot of agmas nefesh (aggravation).” Yehudis did not think that she would have made a different choice, but she would have been more prepared.
Additional variables that eased some of the stress included a shortened commute and flexible work arrangement. Women who had flexibility in their employment situations for, say, a sick child or school play, found that it eliminated a good deal of the stress of being pulled in multiple directions at the same time. Many women actively sought out a flexible work arrangement – even relinquishing salary, position and prestige in the process – and found that it was well worth the sacrifice.
A woman’s working outside the home gave rise to some ambiguity between the roles of husband and wife. This was exacerbated when the woman was the primary breadwinner and/or when she was working in a worldly, secular environment that her husband could not relate to. It helped many of the couples to be attuned to this issue and to make active attempts to maintain a healthy equilibrium in the marriage. Strategies that worked for some included creating rigid boundaries between themselves and their male colleagues at work, respecting their husbands’ time learning Torah as sacred and certainly not viewing the time as dispensable, including their husbands in their work lives as appropriate, asking his advice for work-related issues, discussing and problem-solving any tznius issues or dilemmas together, and tapping into feminine pursuits regularly, such as engaging in a crafts project or a women’s tehillim group.
The women who had the support of their husbands fared far better than the ones who felt they were essentially a one-woman show. The importance of this support cannot be overstated, as one woman shared: “I have no pressure from [my husband] to live up to certain standards. I don’t have to convince him how difficult it is. He gets it, and that makes everything okay for me and my family.” I was privileged to interview some children of working mothers who validated this perspective, sharing that their father’s support and respect for their mothers was a key factor in making things work for their families.
The lure of technology and round-the-clock availability presented another challenge to many working mothers. It made it difficult for them to give their families their absolute focused attention when they were home with them. Many jobs expect 24/7 availability and working mothers need help setting limits and navigating the constant demands that technology imposes on its workers.
Last, but certainly not least, the issue of separation from their children was a painful and personal one for most mothers. As one mother described, “I felt a lot of sadness over leaving my children. It is a sacrifice. You lose something you can never recapture.” This is a painful reality and it is helpful to acknowledge it, mourn the loss that this sacrifice entails, and make active attempts to compensate for it. Working mothers need to make up for not being there in those moments when their children come home from school to see them, hug them, laugh with them, feed them and hear what trips off their tongues.
Based on my interviews with both working mothers and their children, it seemed that these effects were mitigated if the children felt that they were their mothers’ absolute priority, and that she would always strive to give them time and attention whenever and however she could. Many of the mothers interviewed made a tremendous effort to be attuned to their children and spend meaningful time with them. They were always looking for ways to give their children more time, and their kids felt that their mothers were always seeking them out and appreciating her time with them. This seemed to go a very long way to enhancing the children’s self-esteem as well as their connection to their mothers.
There were some mothers who expressed their belief that their personal temperaments were such that being out of the house for several hours per day and having the outlet of work, was the very thing that allowed them to shine and become the patient, loving mothers that they wanted to be. In fact, it was very heartening to unanimously hear all of the children that I interviewed express very positive feelings of love, closeness, pride and respect toward their working mothers.
In conclusion, it is not easy for women to fully engage in the workplace and still do justice to their home and family lives. It is challenging and stressful for all women, but with education, self-awareness, strategies and support, it can be both manageable and rewarding. However, women need education before they enter this stage of life so they understand the realities of this lifestyle. They will need to relax their expectations in many areas of their home lives, and will need support and concrete assistance to make it work. They should seek out halachic and hashkafic advisors as well as mentors who have been through similar challenges.
Husbands play a crucial role in their wives’ ability to manage their multiple responsibilities effectively. They, too, need to be educated and taught about the demands of working motherhood and how they can be helpful. What expectations are realistic for a husband to place on his wife given her schedule? How can he preserve his role in the husband-wife relationship when his wife has assumed the burden of parnassah? What can he do to support his wife and children? What should a man do, halachically, if his wife is exhausted and needs his help when he is heading out to daven or learn? Is this bitul Torah? Halachic and hashkafic guidance should be offered.
So how does she do it? There are no easy answers to this dilemma, but there should be support, empathy, direction and chizuk readily available, both on an individual and communal level, to those many women who struggle with the question.
Tzivia Reiter, LCSW-R is a Director at OHEL Bais Ezra. She is the author of the soon to be released book, “Briefcases and Baby Bottles: The Working Mother’s Guide to Nurturing a Jewish Home.”