“They make it look so easy,” my mother sighed, as we sat together in front of the TV set watching a figure skating competition. I was all of eight years old, and I watched with admiration as the sequined couples whirled and glided in seamless synchrony. “You know,” my mother felt compelled to point out to me, “it takes hours and hours of practice to be able to do that, and to make it look so effortless.” I didn’t need too much convincing. I’d been on a pair of skates a few times myself, and while I’d managed to push myself around the rink without sustaining any major injuries, I knew the fancy jumps and pirouettes were way out of my league.
It never occurred to me that my mother’s job, which never seemed terribly difficult or complicated to my eight-year-old eyes, might also have required hours of practice to look so effortless. Like most eight-year-olds, I was still very much the center of my own universe, preoccupied with school and friends and toys, and it never dawned on me to question how it was that dirty clothing magically disappeared and reappeared, clean and neatly folded, in dresser drawers; how empty cabinets mysteriously became restocked, and those contents then transformed into hot, tasty meals; how the mud we tracked in somehow vanished from the floors and dirty plates became clean once more. When I came home from school each day, I found my mother at the kitchen table with the afternoon newspaper and a mug of hot tea, and it never occurred to me to imagine that she had been doing anything else the whole day besides that.
I knew that my father “worked,” whatever that meant, since I was equally clueless about what he actually did during those daytime hours when he was absent from the home. He seemed to get a lot of respect based on the fact that he went out and Worked At A Job. But Mom? She seemed to just be hangin’ around the house all day.
When I got to college ten years later, my childish perceptions were only exacerbated by the aggressive feminism in vogue at the time. Taking care of a family full-time was demoted from position of honor to a badge of shame; housework was labeled at best boring and at worst brainless and degrading, certainly nothing an intelligent woman should ever deign to dirty her hands with. Kids? Cute, for sure, but what a damper on your career! Nobody bothered to stop and consider that perhaps many jobs, for men as well as women, are much more boring and repetitive than taking care of a home and family. Banished was the idea that investing oneself in creating a particular quality of home life might be equally if not more important than investing in one’s bank account or fancy titles.
I went ahead and got my college degrees, so that, unlike Mom, I wouldn’t find myself in the position of having no other options than to stay home and take care of a home and family. I was going to be glamorous and independent! I was going to have an exciting job and make good money!
The upshot? The truth is, I enjoyed my working days. And once I had a husband and a few children, I found an added benefit to going to work: sitting at a desk job is so much easier than being home full-time with two or three toddlers! At work I could sit at my desk for as long as I liked, undisturbed by requests for drinks of juice or diaper changes; I could drink a cup of coffee from start to finish without anybody spilling it or trying to take it from me; I could talk to adults; I could feel in control. I never had to wait very long for feedback or reassurance that I handled things the right way. When the work was done, it stayed done—nobody unwrote what I just wrote, unfiled what I just filed. And when it’s all over, I got a reward in the form of a paycheck and sometimes even a few ego-boosting words of praise to boot.
At home, of course, it was quite another kettle of fish. Oh boy! There’s no such thing as being in control with two toddlers underfoot. Either somebody’s flushing pennies down the toilet just to see if they’ll disappear, or overturning a bowl of salad I never should have left sitting on the counter, or having an “accident” that requires a complete change of clothing. A whole new set of skills was now called for: physical stamina to shlep around babies and run on two hours of sleep a night, emotional stamina to aid in overcoming the urge to blow up at the sight of a toilet clogged with stuffed toys or a large glass of chocolate milk lying in a puddle on a freshly-washed kitchen floor. It was hard enough with one baby, but with two I found myself outnumbered until my husband walked in the door. Going from crisis to crisis, there’s no time for self-evaluation; in fact there’s no time for anything, except maybe managing to throw in a quick load of laundry.
Caring for toddlers makes working in an office look like a joke! And obviously, nobody comes to you at the end of the week with a nice fat paycheck for all your hard work. Even praise is hard to come by; the lady on the bus says, “Why isn’t the baby’s hat covering all of her head?,” and the husband walks in the door and says, “Geez, how come the house is such a wreck?” How can you possibly know if you’re doing it right when everyone’s a critic?
Once my family reached critical mass, I finally cried “uncle” and stopped working, tired of never being caught up at work and never being caught up at home. I thought I would be bored, being home full time. I wasn’t. Because I found it isn’t so easy to run a household if you really take it seriously and want your children to grow up nourished by food that doesn’t come out of pizza boxes or Chinese takeout cartons. And because a mother does often need a half an hour to sit down with a cup of tea and refresh herself before the kids come home from school, so that she can greet them with energy and enthusiasm, and be able to take a lively interest in what happened during their day.
So sometimes you have to come full cycle. I’m glad I got my college degrees and work experience; they enriched my life and gave me skills that I expect to put into practice again. But I will never again put down the “traditional” woman’s role of wife and mother, because doing it well is not as easy as it seems, not in terms of homemaking skills, not in terms of emotional challenge, not in terms of physical challenge.
When an author writes articles, the biggest challenge is to present complex ideas in such a simple, straightforward way that the reader feels the words just flowed out of the pen. Like those Olympic ice skaters I watched many years ago, the challenge is to make difficult moves look effortless. Not only effortless, but enjoyable. So thanks, Mom. You made it look enjoyable, so one day I wanted to do it too; and you made it look easy, too, so that I thought it was child’s play. It took many years and a bunch of kids to make me realize that “child’s play” is always the result of a lot of very adult effort.
Barbara Bensoussan has worked as a college instructor and social worker and written for many Jewish magazines, newspapers and websites. She recently celebrated the release of her first novel, A New Song, from Targum Press and lives in Brooklyn with her husband and six children.
The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.