Latest update: September 26th, 2012
It is ten o’clock in the morning. I am at a local park with my daughter. A number of children are climbing and sliding, imbibing the fresh air. In their orbit are a smaller number of women, some milling around on foot, others sitting on the benches conversing and minding strollers. Trailing my own child, I play a silent game: Who is a Mommy? Which, if any, of these women (who range from lovingly attentive to disturbingly disengaged) are the children’s mothers, and which are babysitters?
These days, a majority of women in the frum community go to work. Whatever the calculus, few make a full-time occupation of childrearing. This is not a value judgment but a fact. Whereas frum women juggling career and family once felt alone and disparaged, their struggles and triumphs are now much better appreciated within the Orthodox community. Whether in Flatbush, Teaneck, or Yerushalayim, it’s not hard for a stressed-out working mother to find fellow gainfully employed n’shei chayil who know just what she’s going through.
Those of us who toil full-time in motherhood have become a minority, our numbers decreasing as the younger generation embarks on family-building in a Jewish world where working mothers are the norm.
When I was a child, only a couple of my friends’ mothers worked. Both worked in the neighborhood, one on a part-time schedule. No one was picked up by a babysitter, though grandparents figured prominently at pickup time. There were afternoon play dates, occasional midday runs to school to drop off a forgotten assignment or permission slip, and a generally less frenetic sense of pacing. Today, a majority of mothers in my children’s schools work in some capacity outside the home. The landscape has changed. The cultural tide has shifted.
Undoubtedly, financial pressure is the primary factor that has led so many Orthodox women into the workforce. I am not, chas v’shalom, here to criticize working mothers or judge the very personal calculations that go into each woman’s decision. It is what it is, as they say. Living a religious life, raising a frum family – in many cases just getting by at all – takes an awful lot of money these days. (Even without expensive vacations or Jacadi yontiff outfits for the kids.) And regardless of the reasons behind it, working does not, in and of itself, make one a lesser mother, or a better one, any more than not working does.
Good parenting is, as our pediatrician would say, “multi-factorial.”
Before I go further, let me offer a little background. I worked for several years after college in the publishing field, then (still single) returned to school for a law degree, then (newly married) worked in that field for a couple of years, and then, after the birth of my first child, took maternity leave and never went back.
Here I am, five years later, a stay-at-home mother (I prefer the term “full-time mother”). We are neither rich nor poor. There is no money tree in our backyard – living in an apartment, we don’t actually have a backyard – so we struggle like the rest of the masses. But my being there to care for our children – physically, emotionally, spiritually – is of supreme value to my husband and me, and with siyata d’Shmaya we have managed so far.
And let me tell you: It’s lonely out here. When my oldest was a baby, I was part of a Mommy & Me group organized by another frum mother. Of the six women who participated, half now work. When my second child was a baby, a friend and I wanted to organize a Mommy & Me group but had a hard time finding enough Mommies to join. Eventually, we managed to form a small group, which included one babysitter and two mothers who have since gone back to work. Last year, I joined a women’s rosh chodesh group that meets, with babies and toddlers in tow, to watch a Torah-inspired video presentation one morning each month. Now, as we try to shore up membership for the new Jewish calendar year, it’s harder than ever to find women who are available to come.
No, I am not looking for sympathy. I feel truly fortunate to be in this position. But it is worth noting that full-time mothers these days are hard-pressed to find the kind of moms-in-the-trenches camaraderie that provided much-needed support to similarly situated women in the past.
I think we can all agree that parenting is the world’s most challenging profession — and the most important one as well. How many times a day do our children try our patience? How often do we feel flustered, frustrated, or disappointed, in them or in ourselves? When any of us feels alone in our struggles, it saps our morale and lets what my mother calls the “negative tapes” play. So a sense of support is crucial.
But the problem is not simply a dearth of social support. Quite ironically, as working mothers gain more acceptance and respect, those of us at home are increasingly misunderstood. Not by everyone, not all the time, but enough to mark a troubling trend in the frum community. Especially since leaving the legal field, I am often questioned, with incredulity, about my decision to drop it all for my kids. Frum men (including a former co-worker of mine) seem to have the least understanding.
One of the first questions people like to ask is “What do you do?” Just like the colossally insensitive “How many children do you have?” this question assumes, as we say in law, facts not in evidence. They are eager to know when I’m planning to go back to work and what I’m doing to keep professional doors open. They wonder if I miss working and how my intellectual curiosities are satisfied in this role. They ask why I don’t do more freelancing. These are not unreasonable points of inquiry, but the timing and prominence of these questions, sometimes from people I barely know, disturb me.
Being a full-time mother is very much a job. It is not a gap-filler or an easy out. We do not have wide swaths of time to fill, and many, like myself, have no regular childcare at hand. (Hence, the challenge in accepting even freelance, work-from-home assignments.) Just as a night watchman is working even as he sits and guards his bailiwick, we are on duty no matter what we are doing. We do not have to focus on quality time because it typically bubbles up naturally in the course of the day. Yet for us, too, the day is always shorter than the to-do list.
Just as we as a community need to be attuned to the challenges faced by working mothers, whose ability to keep so many balls in the air is truly remarkable, we must also take care not to undermine mothers whose workplace is their home. Because who would want to choose a path that will not only earn her no money but also no respect? A new mother for whom it could be feasible to take time off from her career might be less likely to do so if that choice will be met with bewilderment and even belittlement from within the frum community, let alone the outside world.
I know how easy it is to become discouraged about the job of full-time motherhood. One of the reasons is that I look around and see so many working mothers who somehow manage to shoulder responsible employment while still making Shabbos and Yom Tov and raising happy, well-adjusted children. Yes, self-doubt is my own problem to get over, but the point is that stay-at-home mothers, too, need – and deserve – validation. Properly valuing their contributions benefits all our children, now and in their future lives as adults.
In assuaging the guilt and ambivalence working mothers often feel, it’s a natural next step to turn working – specifically, balancing work and family – into the new ideal. For example, it’s been suggested that children of working mothers are better off: less clingy, more independent, more industrious. There’s nothing wrong with pointing out advantages in a situation to create a more positive outlook. Let’s be careful, though, not to implicitly denigrate the value in children being cared for by their parents whenever and wherever possible.
Parenting is truly avodas hakodesh. Whether we are working full- or part-time, caring for our kids full-time, or shifting from one mode to another at various stages, to do our best work we need Hashem’s guiding Hand – and some positive reinforcement from those around us.
Ziona Greenwald is a full-time mother who has worked as a court attorney and magazine editor. She currently does freelance writing and editing from her home on the Lower East Side of Manhattan.
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