Two weeks ago, the man who was reading the announcements at the shul we were visiting decided to have some fun: As he read through the various upcoming classes, he announced an upcoming women’s Seudah Shlishit with a well-known speaker who would speak about the following topic: “How to effect positive change in your slouch of a husband”. (or something to that effect).
The room was silent, as he quickly amended, “ummm, actually… Effecting Positive Change: from Galut to Geulah”.
It took a good minute for the room to stop laughing- both men and women. Clearly, in part due to the quick timing and shock value of the comment, but also because what woman doesn’t complain that her husband doesn’t help as much as she would like?
And I was laughing along with them. After all, this has been a topic of conversation amongst my friends, for years. In fact, one of my Israeli friends has even coined a phrase that many of us laughingly use when we are frustrated with our husbands: “mens is mens” (with her incorrect grammar softening the blow).
It’s not that any of us truly have slouches for husbands. They are hardworking and intelligent men, and great fathers. But they don’t have eight arms and laser eyes behind their heads like us Moms. And today, with so many working mothers who have less and less time, there can be a sense of frustration towards our husbands… who as wonderful as they are, aren’t Moms.
My husband and I both grew up with stay-at-home mothers. When I think back to my classmates, it was the rare student whose mother worked as many hours as my friends and I do. Today, in my circles, it’s rare to find a woman who doesn’t work. The dynamics in the home have changed and yet for many, the domestic roles have not been reassigned accordingly.
And from what I’ve seen, this has created strife in many homes. In the days when the husband worked and the wife was home with the kids, the roles were clear. Perhaps the wife felt stifled being at home and wanted more help with the kids when her husband came home, perhaps the husband felt frustrated at having to carry the financial burden for the family. But it was more or less clear who did what.
Today, in many homes, that’s just not the case. The husband works, the wife works. He comes home, tired. She comes home, tired. The kids are ready for dinner and attention. And each parent expects the other to do the duties they are too tired to do. Often, it falls to the mother. She gets frustrated. After all, she worked just as hard. She complains that he doesn’t help. He says she’s nagging and feels she’s negating his hard work. And so begins the vicious cycle of arguing.
I don’t think this is because men are slouches. The reality is, most men didn’t grow up seeing their fathers taking on the responsibility of caring for the children (although they did take on the responsibility for supporting the family, no easy task) and therefore didn’t have that modeling at home. In many cases, women are more emotionally in tune to their families. Women tend to be better multi-taskers. And when men don’t do things in the home in the way the wife thinks they should be done, women tend to take over and men take a step back.
There’s also no question that today, men are more involved in family life more than ever before; we are seeing more and more fathers on the carpool lines, doing the grocery run and getting the kids off to school. My husband makes dinner a few nights a week, is the one who stays at home with my kids when they are sick and taught each of my kids how to ride a bike. There is no question that he, and many of my friend’s husbands, do many more domestic chores than our fathers did when we were young (though despite not being domestically inclined, my father was always a very involved Dad and is World’s Best Grandpa). This is no easy task when men are juggling their jobs, minyan, learning and volunteering, along with their families. You can read more from Allen Fagin’s excellent article in Jewish Action about the time constraint reality today facing our frum families: Do We Have The Time and Energy to Lead a Torah Life?
But it seems that by and large, women are still the primary caregivers even if they are working as many hours as their husbands. Although there are certainly exceptions, in most homes, it’s the mothers scheduling the doctor and dentist appointments and taking them to each, she researches which camp is best and signs them up by the deadline, it’s the mother who sits with her kids when they cry about problems with friends, she takes them shopping for clothes and school supplies, packs for camp, and in many homes, it’s the mother who cooks her children’s favorite foods for Shabbos and Yom Tov. (If you are a man and shaking your head as you read this and thinking, hey, I do that!, then that’s amazing but let’s be honest, how many other men do you know who do?)
And women are overloaded.
Here’s a glimpse of the juggling act and the accompanying stress: On Sundays, do we do something fun with the kids or catch up on household errands that we didn’t have time to do all week because we were working? On the days when our kids have off from school and we have to work- either from home or the office, how do we manage when we can’t give our full time and attention to both, and the resulting guilt that we are failing someone. When we receive a call for a chessed request and we think about how many hours we’ve been out of the house that week already and how much our kids need us, but the school or shul or the woman who just had a baby who needs a meal, needs us too. Not to mention, finding the time to cook for Shabbos or a three day Yom Tov when there’s already too little time.
For many women, there isn’t a choice but to work: with tuition costs so high, it’s too difficult to afford Jewish education without a dual income. For other women, they work because it offers intellectual stimulation and for them, staying home with kids just doesn’t rival that fulfillment. For many women, both reasons come into play.
Even for those families who employ a nanny or some kind of household help (and I am not one of them), the reality is that children come with many needs that only a parent can provide. And juggling two hats, that of worker and parent, comes with a tremendous amount of pressure and ever-present guilt.
What’s the answer?
I don’t know but surely the first step is that we become cognizant of the problem. It is not normal for women to be juggling so many roles. It’s not good for their stress levels, it’s not good for a marriage (certainly if there’s resentment) and it can’t be good for the children if they don’t get the attention they need.
While I certainly don’t have the answers (and struggle with this, as well), here are some thoughts of how to make things a little easier:
- Both parents need to attempt a better work-life balance, with which cell phones and being always available is hard to achieve. Putting the phone away or on airplane mode can allow us to give more attention to our spouses and families when we are with them. (I’m really not good at this). Learn how to say no when something isn’t necessary and is taking away from family time.
- In some cases, a father needs to step up. If a husband and wife come home after a long day of work and he’s watching TV and she’s cooking dinner, maybe he needs to assess whether he’s being considerate. (This is true even if a wife does stay at home; a job harder and more exhausting than most office jobs!) Sometimes it means that if a wife is completely overwhelmed, it might not be the right choice to go to an event or a class that night. Maybe a husband needs to consider what else he can do to take something off his wife’s plate. Even one errand can make a difference.
- Sometimes, a wife has to take a step back and let her husband do more. Maybe the husband doesn’t do the errand as perfectly as she might like but it’s more important for him to be involved than for it to be done perfectly. Maybe she needs to try to do less, wherever she can. You just can’t do more without cutting back somewhere. Or in other words, you can do it all and but you can’t do it all well.
- Maybe we need to ask our kids to take on more chores and responsibilities in the home. Chances are, they aren’t doing as much as they should be and aside from being helpful to us, this teaches them responsibility.
- Women should try to make an hour of guilt-free Me-Time, whether once a day or once a week, either by leaving kids with a husband, (yes, they can handle it) or paying a babysitter for an extra hour, or even putting on a video for the kids, closing the door and spending the time reading a book. Not every stage of life or home situation is conducive for this but it should certainly be a goal.
- Both spouses need to take a moment to think about what their partner has gone through during the day, rather than just focusing on how exhausted they themselves are. This can help us become more sensitive and empathetic to our spouse’s needs and not just our own.
- Perspective. For everything on our list that we women take on and that our husbands don’t do and the frustration that creates… our marriages are more important. A healthy family life is more important for our kids and our own mental sanity than anything else on our to-do lists. Keeping checklists of who does more never made anyone happy.
The line said at shul was funny. But the fact that everyone laughed struck me as not so funny. It was a wake-up call to me to make changes in my own marriage and outlook. It might be worth it for all of us to do the same.
Ariela Davis is the Director of Judaics at Addlestone Hebrew Academy and the Rebbetzin of Brith Sholom Beth Israel, the historic shul of downtown Charleston, South Carolina. She writes and speaks about issues related to Israel, the Holocaust and Jewish thought. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.