Briefcases And Baby Bottles: The Working Mother’s Guide to Nurturing a Jewish Home
(Feldheim; April 2012)
By Tzivia Reiter
Work-life balance has been in the media a lot lately. Anne-Marie Slaughter, a Princeton professor who served as the first female Director of Policy Planning for the U.S. State Department, wrote a groundbreaking article in The Atlantic entitled “Women Can’t Have It All.” Slaughter writes about her struggle with balance—parenting and working, and the importance of being present, as well as the importance of absolute boundaries between work and parenting. As evidence—both of the compartmentalizing men are capable of and as an example of the type of behavior women should engage in more, Slaughter writes about Orthodox men she has worked with: “Come Friday at sundown, they were unavailable because of the Jewish Shabbat.” Slaughter contrasts the absolute boundaries between work and Shabbat for these men and women who, even when home, mothering their children, are supposed to be on call for work. What Slaughter doesn’t consider, what I and many of my cohorts immediately thought of, I’m guessing, is the Orthodox working mother – she who has absolute work and Shabbat boundaries but also functions in a constant negotiation between work and child-rearing pressures. That, as they say, is not all. The Orthodox mother, working or not, is expected to be involved in her community, to host elaborate Shabbat and Yom Tov meals and volunteer in her children’s schools. Of course, as she is Orthodox, her family is probably also substantially larger than Slaughter’s two-child household.
A book that addresses the enormous pressures and pulls the Orthodox working mother feels is long overdue. Thus, Briefcases and Baby Bottles: the Working Mother’s Guide to Nurturing a Jewish Home, by social worker Tzivia Reiter, is a welcome addition to any library. The book is thorough and the author reassures again and again that everyone does it differently and that is okay, reflecting, correctly, I think, that one of the biggest enemies of the working mother is guilt. Validation is no small gift to the constantly self-doubting mother—especially one who believes that a good mother does not work outside of the home. One of the best aspects of the book is how Reiter positions herself not as an authority who will guide you down the road that she traveled so successfully, but as a fellow traveler herself, noting: “I did not write this book because I think I have all the answers. Rather, I wrote it because I think I understand the questions.” The book succeeds because of Reiter’s curiosity, her determination that being a working mother can work as well as her conviction that it will all be okay.
Brief-cases and Baby Bottles is not all assurances. The book is divided into chapters that address different aspects of the unique challenges of the Jewish working mother and offers suggestions, resources and strategies throughout. In a chapter entitled “Accentuate the positive,” for example, Reiter points out that children are extremely tuned into their parent’s moods. A happier mother means a happier child and Reiter offers suggestions to help lift the mother’s attitude about working, such as reflecting on how “your job adds value to your life.” While some mothers choose to work for personal fulfillment, others work out of financial necessity and most out of some combination of the two. Thus, it is important to embrace the positive aspects, like providing for your family, a concept Reiter suggests sharing with your children by pointing out that school, food and books cost money.
Chapters such as The Good Jewish Mother, Goodbye to Guilt, Accentuate the Positive, Mommy and Me, Marriage Matters, Partners in Care and Home Fires address issues in a down to earth, accessible way with suggestions and examples from those who have been in the trenches.
With all the pressures of children and work, marriage can seem like an added burden. An actively nurtured marriage is a happier one and a happier marriage leads to happier parents and, inevitably, happier children. Though it seems indirect and farfetched, it is anything but. My husband and I make time for ourselves without the children and omit the guilt simply by reminding ourselves that the children benefit from our healthy relationship. Reiter doesn’t offer the simplistic, magazine-style advice of having a monthly date night with your spouse. It is a particular strength that the book is largely void of one-size fits all solutions. Reiter offers several strategies such as dividing tasks between the spouses, preparing simpler weekday and holiday meals and simply sharing the joys and trials of raising a family with your spouse. My favorite strategy comes from Mindy, an actuary who writes,
“I find it helps to write down my daily responsibilities. I include big things like doing three loads of laundry, and little things like arranging a playdate. Nothing is insignificant, because it is the cumulative nature of all the details that creates the stress. Doing this makes me feel more accomplished, but it also helps my husband see what it is that I do throughout the day. I give him the list and ask him what he would like to take on. I let him choose whatever he wants. I do the same thing with my children’s appointments. I give my husband a calendar which I update every week, so he can see all their appointments. I ask him which ones he thinks he can cover. When he sees it visually, it is very powerful; much more so than my telling it over or nagging. It has made a big difference to us and he definitely helps out more because of it.”
This advice works on several planes. First, as David Allen and countless others point out, making comprehensive lists is the first step to getting things done. Secondly, writing down the “small” responsibilities that take time away from what you think you should be doing validates how sneaky those little tasks can be. Third, a comprehensive list reveals to your spouse just how much goes into running a household and raising children and last, it offers your spouse concrete ways to participate.
Reiter’s list of contributors includes women in a range of occupations including a tax accountant, nurse, as well as plenty of therapists and social workers like her. She also includes women in different positions of authority and addresses concerns that are particular to the workplace – although there is very little about male-female relationships in the workplace which is relevant both to religious and secular work environments.
“The Myth of the Perfect Balance,” a chapter title, should be on a bumper sticker. Not only does every mother have to find her own working rhythm but even once she finds it, she will still have to do so again and again, depending on the season and what is going on with both her career and each of her children.
The most important message in this book is that just like there is no longer a single career trajectory for either men or women, there is also no single way to be a successful Jewish working mother. Keep that in mind, press on, and when you need some concrete advice, some comforting voices and cheerleading, put up your harried feet and crack open Brief-cases and Baby Bottles.
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