Winter ’12: Responses
For the questions, click here.
The current issue is devoted to the 21st-Century Orthodox family, with a specific focus on the changes created by the increased presence of women in the workplace.
The classic values that informed our parents’ approach to their respective roles seem to have gone by the wayside in our generation, with serious implications for our families. Today, fathers often do not assume the ultimate responsibility to provide and mothers are frequently less focused on their critical role in the home. But there are steps we can take to restore these classic values to their rightful place.
Over the last five decades, there have been numerous empirical studies conducted in the general population about the impact of maternal employment on a child’s development. The results of this research can help guide the Orthodox Jewish community as we make important decisions about mothers working outside the home.
Are the superwomen of today, who both work outside the home and attempt to be effective wives and mothers, subject to both of the primal “curses” of Adam and Eve? Somehow, they are expected to deal with the challenge of giving birth to and raising children as well as the curse of “by the sweat of your brow shall you eat bread.” There is something intrinsically insane about this picture.
There are many dangers that go with the changes in our traditional family structure and there is a need for continual vigilance in many areas. Husbands and children depend on the spiritual presence of their wife and mother, something that can be eroded in the workplace. Steps must be taken to ensure that young women are prepared for these new challenges, that their career choices are made carefully and that their family decisions are made with proper guidance.
Women face challenges today both from within and without. From within, the immediacy of society’s demands and rewards has drowned out the subtle yet vital appreciation for the long-term pace of spiritual development; and from without, the demands of work distract her from her mandate to create an environment in her home that is conducive to the spiritual, emotional and physical development of those who enter.
The Orthodox Jewish community is in need of all of the human and capital resources that can be mustered. It therefore behooves the community to appreciate the role of women as resources to the general community in ways that far transcend the roles of wife and mother. Yet at the same time, we live in a world in which the very notion of family is under fire, and Jewish children need both their fathers and their mothers to excel in their respective roles.
The marital home is changing in response to many new stresses on the family. To better prepare our children for marriage, we must (a) help them develop a realistic life plan based on their interests, goals and “passions,” (b) provide practical guidance for coping with the pressures of day-to-day living, (c) encourage them to actively preserve a family environment in their homes and (d) remind them that the marriage relationship must remain their top priority, since all else flows from its success.
The Bais Yaakov movement founded by Sarah Schnierer was enormously successful at teaching and inspiring its students to carry on the traditional role of the Jewish wife and mother. As a result, Frau Schierer was credited by our gedolim with no less than saving Yiddishkeit. Slowly and almost imperceptibly, however, we have been drifting away from her vision and we don’t even realize how far away from it we are.
More important than whether a mother works outside the home is how much true joy she takes in being a mother to her children – spending time with them, caring for them and teaching them – and whether she has the self-confidence to define standards and to maintain them consistently.
Women today are caught between two identities as they tried to excel at both. They want to take pride in their professional endeavors but they also want to “do it all” at home. In keeping up with all the demands, they often become harried, impatient and filled with guilt when expectations are not met. Three areas of focus can help: Setting realistic expectations in defining “success,” educational workshops for young people preparing for marriage, parenting and career and ongoing programming for the general community.
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? More importantly, how can we, as a Torah observant community, prepare our children for these new, less-defined and dynamically shifting roles?
It is not easy for women to fully engage in the workplace and still do justice to their home and family lives, but with education, self-awareness, strategies and support, it can be both manageable and rewarding..
In the past, a leading opportunity for women seeking employment was teaching part-time in Bais Yaakov. Poor teaching salaries and increasing financial demands have led women into full-time professions, which are far more burdensome. Perhaps it is time to reconsider some of our assumptions about men’s availability to share in carrying these burdens.