Friday, January 18, 2013

An Imbalanced Look at the Orthodox Working Mother

Jewish Action published a recent multi-page spread on working mothers, during which a number of working women were interviewed about how their careers affect their ability to care for their families and their children. Does a full-time job have any negative impact on a Jewish, Orthodox mother? According to Jewish Action, the answer is a clear, emphatic, "NO". The introduction to the issue says it all.
Overwhelmed. Exhausted. Stressed. Somewhat surprisingly, few of the women we interviewed for our cover story on balancing career and family used the words above to describe their very full lives.
Their lives aren't "stressed". They're full. Balanced. Just ask the women themselves. Here are a few choice quotes.
"Even though the fellowship was very demanding with a sixty-hour-a-week commitment, it gave me the independence I needed to balance work demands with family."
"Currently, I have a very large and busy solo practice; I deliver around 600 babies a year...It used to be extremely frustrating for me when there was some school event that may have been important to my kids but wasn’t important enough that I could arrange for coverage at work. I would feel terrible missing it, but I knew if I started taking off for the little things, it would all come apart. Did I want to go help my daughter pick out her wedding dress when she was a kallah? Of course I did! But she managed on her own, and sent pictures to my phone as she shopped...
"Hashem blessed me with deep reservoirs of energy. In my day, there was no such thing as telecommuting, so I would sometimes come home from work at 5:00 pm, put the kids to bed, then go back to work until five in the morning. Then I would come home, get the kids off to school and go back to work. But not everybody can handle such a physically taxing schedule. You shouldn’t feel guilty or like a failure if you’re not able to function at full capacity on almost zero sleep.
I did certain things to stay close to my kids. When they were little, I would record stories for them to listen to..."
The irony in these pieces is that they weren't written with a sense of irony. Delivering 600 babies a year while raising a family? You can never do anything outside of work - and she alludes to the fact that they was barely at her own chidren's weddings. Recording stories to play for your kids while you're at work? Really. Here we read about women describing ridiculous schedules, which made serious demands on their time, and they really think that those choices didn't affect their families and their children? Of course they did. To think differently is naive. Some also make allusions to difficult life events: divorces in the family, problems with children's development - but the article makes no attempt to connect between the choices these women make and the results of those choices.
And what about the husbands and children? It would have been interesting - and to my mind far more informative - to ask the family members of these superwomen how they viewed the fact that mom was working so hard. Were they really as fine with it as their mother seems to think? Or, is she sweeping a great deal of dust under a very large rug?

The entire piece left me feeling confused an a bit angry. Countless families make tremendous sacrifices so that they can raise their children on their own, without relying on full-time nannies. How does an article like this one make them feel? Well, obviously they just can't get their act together. After all, look at the success of these career women who didn't have to make any sacrifices! (at least according to the article). A great line in the article: "We also pay full tuition, and sometimes I wonder if I’m killing myself trying to pay the bills while other people are getting breaks because they’re not working. It’s hard enough to pay our own tuition, so I don’t really want to subsidize someone else who’s not sweating as hard as I am to meet the payments." Now it's not just a choice. No, it's wrong for a parent to work less. That costs everyone else more!

I don't know how I feel about the issue of working mothers. My wife works, and we depend on her income to survive financially. (she doesn't work full-time, but when you add the hours of grading that she does at home, it comes close!) Moreover, she needs the intellectual and personal stimulation from her work, her teaching colleagues, and her professional life.
But I still struggle with the issue (and I've got a good amount of Judaic knowledge and learning in my background). So I began to wonder: doesn't Judaism have something to say about this? Wouldn't it have made sense for the OU to ask...a rabbi about Judaism and the role of women? Or a female scholar? Someone with some Jewish knowledge?
Does the Torah have anything to say about an issue that the vast majority of Orthodox families struggle with? I daresay it does.
Moreover, the OU should have at least have interviewed the other side of the coin, families where parents do stay home and work less. What sacrifices does that entail? How hard is it really? What are the ramifications of making that type of choice?
Then the article about "Striking A Balance" would have been somewhat balanced. As published, the Jewish Action piece on working mothers had very little to say about a very important issue.