Reviewed by Leah Krieger
The Jewish world has an uneasy relationship with the working mother. On the one hand, we understand that she is an economic necessity, and we sometimes—as in the case of the kollel wife—even admire her. But she does not match our ideal of the Jewish mother who always has a pot of chicken soup bubbling on the stove, visits the sick and lovingly engages in every detail of her children’s lives. This stereotypical Jewish mother probably never existed; exigencies of life ensure that most mothers must scatter their attention, but she is nevertheless alive in the imagination of today’s mothers and their observers.
Tzivia Reiter, with her book Briefcases and Baby Bottles: The Working Mother’s Guide to Nurturing a Jewish Home, certainly fills a critical need for working mothers. She tackles issues facing working mothers head-on, including this disconnect between the ideal and reality. Reiter explains that similar to stay-at-home moms, working moms are primarily mothers; both kinds of mothers must find a balance between their own needs, those of their families and those of the community. Many of the suggestions that Reiter provides to working moms are applicable to all mothers. After all, they have the same goal of raising well-adjusted children with a strong Jewish commitment.
Yet, working mothers often feel an added burden of disapprobation and consequent guilt. They hear the implied criticism in statements such as, “Your children are so wonderful even though you work.” Guilt, Reiter informs us, is destructive. In fact, the best gift a working mother can give to her children is the “feeling that it is normal, acceptable, and even positive for women to work.” If the mother is happy, it is likely that the children will be happy as well. Reiter advises mothers to focus on the positive, even in cases where the job is not particularly satisfying but is simply a way to meet financial obligations.
The tone throughout the book is that of a seasoned advisor working with mothers to find solutions to the myriad problems working women face: balancing work with marriage and community, finding time for yourself, dealing with crunch time in the mornings, maintaining tzeniut in the casual business world and locating the all-important good babysitter. Most essential is acceptance of the reality that perfection is not attainable—working with the most important priority of each day is the best we can do. This is a book that I wish I had read during my younger years as a working mother. Now, as a grandmother, I appreciate the wisdom of this advice.
Each chapter of the book opens with the author’s short personal vignette related to the topic at hand such as child-care or separation anxiety. This is followed by quotes from mothers interviewed by the author and the author’s tips and comments. The book is at its absolute strongest—almost leaps to life—in the several longer interviews with well-known community figures such as Rebbetzin Sheila Feinstein and Dr. Susan Schulman who describe how they managed to make things work. The shorter snippets from anonymous mothers, while helpful, are less engaging. In fact, the sameness of the book’s structure gives it an almost textbook-like feel and makes for a tedious read in parts. I found myself longing for a dramatic arc and wished the author had stepped out a bit from her professional persona and invited us into her life and the lives of her interviewees on a deeper, more emotional level. Reiter does acknowledge emotion but tends to use professional labeling rather than let the story speak for itself. The result is that some of the discussions leave one feeling somewhat detached.
Like a good therapist, Reiter gently challenges her readers to recognize the difference between normal family chaos and a situation that is really not working, and to take action when needed. For example, one’s hours can be too long or her work situation too inflexible. In that case, changing jobs or negotiating a change can make a difference; not every job is suitable for a working mother. Several women who successfully switched careers are quoted in this book. For some, the change eventually led to greater professional success as well as better home situations.
In the final analysis, our children need us, and all of us—mothers and fathers, both working and not—have to find a way to meet these needs. With a baby, it might mean time to pause and, as Reiter writes, to “rock gently together. Back and forth. Back and forth,” for that extra minute, even though we are late for work.
To hear an interview with author Tzivia Reiter, visit http://bit.ly/T5QbcR.
Leah Krieger, an intermittent writer, raised a family while working for many years as a computer architect. Her book, A Widow’s Tale, and other articles are published under the name Dina Bar-Tov.