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Zlata Press

Women Working Outside the Home – How Serious a Problem?

The questions posed to the respondents are carefully, even-handedly worded but they are based on the premise that the fundamental problem to be addressed is that of the women’s employment outside the home. How different would this conversation be were we to frame the question to center on the economic challenges faced by today’s Torah-observant community and the concomitant problems which arise from these challenges.

The major drivers of women’s out-of-the-house employment are true economic need – or the sense of such need because of the community’s standard of living (two cars, decent shaitlach, seminary for the daughters, baalebatishe simchos – and tuitions! Of course, tuitions). My conversations with young women lead me to believe that the feminist influence is overrated as the motivation for women to work outside the home. Perceived financial need is a much stronger motivation.

What price do we as a community pay for a woman’s extended time out of the home?

Day-to-day tension in the house almost certainly increases. A woman must be a master organizer and function on little sleep to provide for her family’s needs while adhering to her own work schedule. When mothers have to be out of the house at 8:15 A.M. and the kids have to be roused and prepared for the day at the same time, there is little “give” to spare for a misplaced school book, a last-minute signature on a permission slip, or the white shirt that must be ironed for picture-taking. If a working mother doesn’t learn thoroughly the lessons of keeping a family calendar, checking knapsacks regularly, preparing clothing, breakfast, and bagged lunches the night before, the morning air will resound with screams and tears (mother’s and children’s).

Stress and its concomitant snappishness, is very, very unpleasant. It diminishes the quality of family life. And the schedule of a working mother does add stress. It is important to note, however, that the increased level of household stress we experience today has many causes – a mother’s working outside the home is only one of them.

Consider the following list of activities and ask which of them absorbed time and attention in the 1960’s (the list is written in no particular order and deliberately mixes noble and mundane activities):

1) The simcha of a close relative requires that we attend the l’chaim, vort, wedding, sheva brochos.

2) Parents and grandparents are urged to attend many school functions, PTA meetings, teas, science fairs, brochos fairs, siddur parties and chumash parties.

3) We are offered a rich array of shiurim, speeches, classes on child rearing, audio-visual presentations and fund-raising events many nights a month.

4) Do you have a child in shidduchim? Enough said.

5) Jewish holiday celebration has expanded. Consider Purim mishloach monos, Chanukah gifts and trips, and elaborate Shabbos and Yom Tov meals requiring hours of preparation encouraged by contemporary cookbooks.

6) When our children are having difficulty in school we are encouraged to avail ourselves of a specialist or therapist – reading, speech, occupational, psychological. A few such services are provided in school and not at our expense but most require that we pay and drive.

7) And hovering over it all, the need to “parent” well.

True, throwing a full-time or major part-time job into the mix is an added stressor. But the demands of contemporary frum life can easily overwhelm even the lightest schedule. As desirable as it is to minimize stress, and as pleasurable for the family at it is to have a woman focus single-mindedly on her family’s schedule and needs, stress is a part of life, and it can be managed. There is a more important point to be considered:

What long-term effect does a mother’s more limited availability have on the children she is raising and on the adults she wants them to become? Is the woman who is working outside the home doing so to the detriment of her children? Are they being raised less well?

I am very uncomfortable saying what I am about to say, but say it I must. I have been in chinuch ha’banos (girls’ education) for forty-five years. I have taught about 3,000 high school girls. I cannot draw any clear lines of cause and effect between a mother’s out of the house employment and the quality of the daughter I see in front of me. Some of the finest, most mature, happiest, most productive, most thoughtful young women were raised by women who worked outside the home for many hours a week. And needy, irresponsible immaturity can be found among girls who had the benefit of a stay-at-home mother.

I am not saying that the working mother necessarily raises the first while the stay-at-home mother produces the second. I am saying that I see no patterns.

Children like having a mother home. They say with pride, “My mother didn’t work until I was in the 6th grade.” But wonderful young adults are being raised by women across the spectrum of no employment, full-time employment, part-time employment.

What does matter in raising children well?

Here is what I have heard as a consensus from the women I have talked to – grandmothers, young mothers, mechanchos (educators) and housewives. The overriding need is for women to like being with their children, to enjoy their company, to take pleasure in being mechanech them, and also, to have the self-confidence to define standards and to maintain them.

Many have observed that those who have much discretionary time available do not necessarily spend it with or for their children. A graduate of my school, raising children in Israel told me with pained surprise that all children are expected to start gan (pre-school) at 2½. Her choice to keep her toddler home was seen as a bit odd. Assured by well-meaning friends that Morah Tova was great at teaching middos, my graduate reported to me her reaction. “My little girl accompanies me to the market. She hears me say ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ to store keepers. On the way, we stop in to visit an elderly neighbor in case there is something we can pick up for her. We hurry home to prepare the midday meal for Tatty who is coming home after long hours of learning Torah. We play quietly so as not to disturb Tatty while he catches a short nap. And these interactions are not teaching middos?” Keep in mind in which society formal school at two-and-a-half is the norm. These mothers in Israel are not by and large running off to jobs as business analysts and occupational therapists.

Similarly, a graduate living in an economically well-off community outside the New York metropolitan area where many mothers do not work outside the home tells me that part-time (rather than full-day) kindergarten for her 4 ½ year old is not available because there is no demand for it in their area.

The school day for many 4½-5 year-olds runs from 8:15-3:45 (and don’t forget bus or car-pool travel time.) What compels this system of early formal education? In the late 1950’s, we all started kindergarten at 5½ and first grade at 6½. Nurseries for four-year-olds were rare. Playgroups for three-year-olds were non-existent. While we are concerned with the problems of mothers out of the house, what of the more widespread problem of children out of the house? Early education has not been simply a response to working mothers.

Where is the husband-wife relationship in all this?

It is unrealistic to discuss the effects of the wife’s role as breadwinner without considering the role kollel learning plays in contemporary, Torah-committed life.

Yes, the balance has shifted. Women who contribute to the family income take a more even share in family decision-making. But “el ishaich t’shukasech v’hu yimshol bach” is built into the fabric of creation. Women want husbands to be the respected head of house. When tensions do arise as a result of the wife being the breadwinner, I would venture to say that in most cases those tensions are primarily adding stress to a pre-existing fault line.

One of the unintended consequences of the kollel life is the necessity – and ultimately the pleasure – of the husband’s involvement in child rearing. Ask the wife of an aspiring surgeon, lawyer, accountant or business owner how much time her husband has for family life. Kollel families are very often partnerships with both spouses sharing involvement in all areas.

Yes, women are overburdened, overworked and stressed. Our hearts go out to them. In a solid marriage, they are lauded and aided by attentive, caring husbands who appreciate their extraordinary contributions.

Too often, however, these husbands are underemployed. While this is not a problem unique to the Torah world (lawyers, actuaries, social workers, nurses, academics are trained for positions which just aren’t available), it is a problem which we should address in our community.

The young man who knows he isn’t cut out for a life devoted solely to Talmud Torah, chinuch or rabbonus finds his way to college or a program for professional preparation early in the game. He spends a solid two or three years in the bais medrash and then turns his attention to preparing for a parnassah (livelihood). This pattern is true of hundreds if not thousands of our young men.

But what of the young man who learns well? Nafsho chashkah b’Torah – his soul thirsts for Torah. He has enjoyed a deep sense of accomplishment for a decade or more of his life. This young man hopes beyond hope that he will merit one of the very limited “shtellers” (rabbinic positions) within the Torah community. And when he is not? Here is where the tensions mount. An exhausted wife, a sizeable family, mounting expenses and waning parental subsidies – now what? This young man is not 22 or 23. He is 32. He needs to earn a parnassah now. Long-term preparation for a career is no longer possible.

This is the question to which I have no answer. How does one offer – sooner rather than later – empathetic, realistic life guidance to the very strong learner without sending the young man a message of failure or of second-class citizenship?

Some would recommend that yeshivas sort and track early on. The yeshivas in America can rightly take pride in their outstanding success in building a strong community of serious Torah learners. Are we now to ask them to change their mission to produce solid baalei batim (homeowners)? That sounds absurd, unfair and certainly detrimental to the best interest of the Torah-committed world.

So what can be done? None of the women I spoke to – and many of them were highly-regarded mechanchos – thought we could turn back the clock to an era when women were primarily at home. Even if we could, though I don’t know very much about pre-WWII American society or about the lives of Jews in Eastern Europe, I am sure that viewing their all-day presence in the home as having enabled attentive care to any but the essential survival needs of the family would be an anachronism.

Some obvious and not-so-obvious thoughts: Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could accustom ourselves and then our children to needing fewer things, eliminating shopping as a recreational activity and spending very, very carefully? Wouldn’t it be wonderful if the word “frugal” re-entered our vocabulary as a lauded virtue? High fixed expenses are not ours to control – but isn’t it our expectations as consumers that drive up some of the costs of camps, schools and seminaries – and, in some communities, schools? Living poor is no longer an option!

Wouldn’t it be nice if our parents, and more so our sons’ rebbeim, would courageously counsel individual young men honestly and realistically as to what hard choices they had to make – sooner rather than later – to provide for their family’s parnassah? No, the yeshivas cannot and should not institute a formal program of triage (the Chazon Ish warned us of the dangers of institutionalizing beinonius – mediocrity). But caring parents and revered rebbeim might be more proactive in guiding individual young men appropriately into the world of parnassah well before the wolf starts howling at the door.

Finally, and this is the easiest, the hardest, and certainly the most controversial suggestion: all of us – especially those of us in chinuch ha’banos (girls’ education) as well as chinuch ha’banim (boys’ education), from pre-school moros to seminary rebbetzins – might broaden our vocabulary and the range of role models we hold up to our students. A prominent mechaneches shared the following story with me: Asked by a student to reconcile the emphasis of a wife’s supporting Torah financially with the emphasis on a mother’s being home with her children, she wrote a moving piece about the many derochim (approaches) in hachzokas haTorah (supporting Torah) and the many shevatim (tribes), each with its own derech. She was gently reprimanded for introducing the possibility of less than “ideal” choices to her students at their tender age. Time enough later on, she was told, for “compromises.”

For over sixty years, pure Talmud Torah had to struggle to establish itself as a desideratum in America. The ideal had to be made real for our sons and daughters for only with the primacy of Torah learning could even our baalebatishe way of life survive this golus (exile). Are we secure enough now, perhaps, to send a slightly modified message? Can we send powerful messages of the grandeur of Torah-committed Jews in the marketplace? Can we tell stories of their yiras shamayim (fear of G-d), ahavas Hashem (love of G-d) and kiddush Hashem (sanctifying His name), alongside the stories of the chashivus (importance) of Talmud Torah? Or do we consider that as soon as we allow “equal time and respect” many of our best and brightest will choose to leave the bais medrash? I don’t know.

“Are we preparing our daughters sufficiently in such areas as hashkafa (beliefs and values), halacha and limud Torah to succeed in this new environment?” I would like to address this question as the principal of a Bais Yaakov high school.

I occasionally hear from graduates that “nobody told us. I wasn’t prepared.” We do tell them, all the time. In halacha class, hashkafa class, Chumash, Navi and historia we tell them. “V’lo sasuru acharei l’vavchem v’acharei eineichem” – do not turn after your hearts and eyes. We teach them hilchos yichud (seclusion). We tell inspiring stories of those who overcome trials, holding firmly onto their trust in Hashem. We talk of kedushas Am Yisroel (the holiness of the Jewish People) and tznius (modesty). We talk of the sanctity of the Jewish home. We talk, we have workshops, we conduct panel discussions, we bring in powerful speakers.

Are we successful in preparing our students? Much less than we would like to be. The reason is simple. We are talking to fifteen and sixteen year-olds. The young women in front of us are literal and focused on the here and now. If the message doesn’t apply obviously and immediately, it gets quickly forgotten as something that was interesting to learn but not imperative to absorb as a guide to lifelong conduct.

We could make many of these lessons more memorable by telling stories. But many stories of life outside our four walls are warnings that titillate. I am one of the more outspoken women in chinuch today. I would rather be less effective than buy effectiveness at the price of the purity of the child sitting in front of me – even if this same child will be in need of this message a few years hence.

Having said this, there is something we can do once we acknowledge – without an accompanying message of disapproval – that our young women will be out there. We must balance the conversations, workshops and panel discussions that are aimed at preparing our daughters for the nisyonos (challenges) of the work place with conversations which extol the value and the joy of raising children. These conversations should not be set in opposition to each other. The conversations should center not on work/no work but on the vitally important ways in which our interaction with our children is fundamental to creating the adults we want them to become.

Both “derech eretz kadmah la’Torah” (proper ways preceded Torah) and “raishis chochma yiras Hashem” (the pinnacle of wisdom is the fear of G-d) are instilled in countless minute, repeated interactions between parents and young children. The maamin (one who believes), the m’dakdek b’mitzvos (one careful in mitzvos), the reader and the scientist are sparked in the following moments:

A toddler giggles in merry disbelief as he listens to his mother’s bedtime story. “The people in Avraham’s time worshiped avodah zarah dollies? And they thought those dollies could do what Hashem does?” How absurd!

A three-year-old walks out of the bathroom mumbling, “flush, wash, asher yatzar” (the blessing of appreciation following use of the bathroom). And so both derech eretz and Torah are embedded in the habits instilled by a mother’s repetitions.

A bright-eyed little girl snuggled near her father on the couch avidly drinking in one story after another asks, what does “regret” mean, what does “ecstatic” mean? And so, the foundation of a lifelong pleasure in language develops.

On a walk, the mother of an 18-month-old names the first flowers of spring – crocus, tulip, daffodil. A father or a mother retells midrashim, comments on the halachic requirements of the moment, makes a brochah carefully and loudly.

We spend so much time seeking to provide in later years – artificially and through the cold medium of formal education – that which should have been implanted organically, rooted in the loving warmth of interaction with parents.

Emunah, dikduk b’mitzvos, fundamental yedios (knowledge), kavod ha’briyos (respect for others), literacy and love of language and curiosity about the physical world are some of the values we embed in our children as we spend valued time talking with them, being with them and modeling for them!

Do all our adult children embarking on their own lives as parents know how important and how pleasurable are these interactions? Many do, as their own parents model and verbalize this. But in our age, many of our high school students need to be taught “artificially,” through education. We address these lessons not just to those who will one day work outside the home but just as necessarily to those who – not working outside the home – are preoccupied with the myriad distractions of contemporary life.

More and more we should invite into our high schools, for workshops, graduates who are out there in the working world, savvy in the use of technology, balancing work, home and family, models of thoughtfulness, tznius and yiras shamayim. More and more we should invite in for presentations women who will present with verve, warmth and passion the joy and the value of motherhood.

I want to close as I opened. The problem is not limited to the woman’s assumption of greater breadwinner responsibilities. Like the mythical Hydra, each question we address leads us to “yes, but,” “on the other hand” and three more problems. If we are to engage in a conversation, I recommend that we take the question of women working outside the home off center stage and replace it with a discussion of the entire economic underpinnings of our community.

Mrs. Zlata Press is the principal of the Bnos Leah Prospect Park Yeshiva High School.


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