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.