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.