A Working Jewish Mother: Not Super, But Trying

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06 Dec 2006

The article was written in response to Diary of a Professional Mother which appeared in Shabbat Shalom a little over a year ago.

imageI had a moment of pride when my little daughter was setting up a play table with papers and with a little pocketbook over her arm and I asked “Are you playing house?” And she immediately put me right, “No, Imma, I am playing meeting.” Ah!!

I knew she was getting all the messages from my busy life, as ‘playing meeting’ was balanced with playing ‘low-carb ice cream store,’ shabbat and the ever popular chicken soup making. My daughter was always wise. She also knew a great time to get undistracted mommy time. Before she developed an independent social life (she’s eight and a half now) she used to glue herself to my hip as I lit candles Friday night, and with the exception of sleep time, unglue 25 hours later as the havdalah candle (candle lit to signify the end of shabbat) went out motzei shabbat (the close of Shabbat).

I guess I always expected to be a working mom. My mother worked – full-time as a department manager for A&S (a New York area department store – of blessed memory, both my mother and the store…) Her mother, my Omi worked, both in Germany as a bookkeeper and then when they arrived in America as a maid and cook – as their lives had been transformed from comfortably middle class to literally keeping track of each and every nickel. Thanks to them my vision of Jewish motherhood includes both working outside the home and baking from scratch.

Can you do it all? No. Should you try? Sure, if you need to or want to. Perhaps you are a single mom or the primary income in your family. Or perhaps your education and drive necessitate your working. Perhaps your working is precipitated by the enormous obligation of day schools, living ‘inside the eruv’, synagogue, camp, tzedakah and all the rest of the expenses of living Jewishly. And being a working mom will require you to make choices – do your closets and drawers need to be perfect? or should you not entertain quite so much? or do you need some cleaning help once in a while, e.g. every Friday? or maybe even (dare I say it!) to order in a meal or two? You may lose some balabusta points here and there, but don’t worry, you’ll get plenty.

I must admit to trying to do it all. And the all includes going to school plays, parent teacher conferences, baking, making soup, taking kids to museums, entertaining, rarely turning down a chessed (kindness) request in our synagogue, a full-time job (with Friday’s from home…,) sitting on volunteer boards and committees – as a board member and committee chair for a not-for-profit which makes sure children with learning issues can stay in Jewish day schools and that educates Jewish children with moderate to severe disabilities, and the other as the co-chair (what was I thinking?) of my synagogue’s capital campaign.

Is there quality time left over for my children? For my husband? For me? Well, for my children, always. I arrange my schedule so that I am here when they leave in the morning and either my husband or I are home when they return from school (my husband’s career – as a tenured academic – also gives him considerable flexibility.) I schlepp them to activities and play dates. I help them with homework. I work but I also make sure that I can give my kids the ‘full beam of my headlights’ in the evening. And my husband rarely complains and is also very ‘there’ for our children. His being an active part of family life – from driving car pool to serving as sous chef – makes our family life possible.

I have made three bar/bat mitzvahs, so far; taught one dyslexic child to read; raised a step-daughter to successful young womanhood and been there for my parents, as well. And my children, like all children, are wonderful but not perfect. The one thing people say about them consistently is that they are mensches, popular with fellow-students and teachers alike. The older boys are great babysitters and mentors. Mom’s call me after my kids babysit to report on how kind and good they are. Recently my older son was babysitting and his five-year-old charge ran to put on one of his new school kippot (yarmulkah/skullcap) so he could be like his new role model, my son. Young kids run up and jump on them as they walk down the hall at school or into shul or kiddush. My sons are respectful, smart, outgoing and even eat vegetables, well at least some vegetables. Being their mother, I can also say, that they are also tall and handsome. So far so good.

Do I think I missed anything by working? Not really. I have a veritable library of precious moments to recall. Children are smart. They can tell the difference between a nanny and a mom and will pick the moment when they have your attention. I remember one day, about twelve years ago, on the way home from a late evening (after work) errand my older son asked “Imma, why is the sky blue?” and I answered…. thinking him a tad young for refraction, “Blue must be one of hashem’s favorite colors.” Skeptically he replied “Really?” “Yes, really” I reassured him. “It is one of my favorites too,” he told me. More recently discussions with my younger son (just bar mitzvah) have been about animal sacrifice, evolutionary biology and the superiority of the species (his topics, not mine!!)

I truly believe that if I had been home all day with a toddler or two I would have, as my husband says, “gone bonkers.” Nothing was lost by the fact that nap time, laundry, shopping, picking up toys and schlepping was done by someone else for some hours of each day. I always thought that my children would turn out much less neurotic for my not being with them 24/7, as I was more fulfilled and able to focus on them in the most positive of ways when I was home.

You can’t do it all perfectly, but you can sure try. I guess that needs to be the motto of the working Jewish mother. Whether you work because of necessity or because of the fulfillment working gives you, or some combination, the attempt to balance work, family and Jewish commitment is a mammoth task but a worthy one. No one should make you feel bad for taking it on.

The article was written in response to Diary of a Professional Mother which appeared in Shabbat Shalom a little over a year ago.

Miriam May is the Executive Director of the Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation, Massachusetts Affiliate, the wife of Professor Shaye J.D. Cohen and mother to their four children.

The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.