Finding The Elusive Work/Home Balance

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Book Review By Rochelle Maruch Miller

Juggling motherhood and employment is about as simple and spontaneous as walking a tightrope. With uncommon common sense and candor, Briefcases and Baby Bottles: The working mother’s guide to nurturing a Jewish home (Feldheim Publishers, 2012) provides the needed support and security net, giving gentle guidance and practical pointers that make this book a must-read for all working women and their loved ones.

In this essential guide, social worker Tzivia Reiter, a director at Ohel Bais Ezra and a busy mother of a growing family, addresses the unique challenges and issues faced by Torah-observant women who work outside the home.

Based on in-depth interviews with over 20 women, Mrs. Reiter recounts tales from the front lines of real-life frum working mothers of many stripes, and culls their most effective tips for reducing stress, maximizing time, enhancing shalom bayis, and more. Part how-to guide, part chizuk booster, Briefcases and Baby Bottles covers topics that every working mother will identify with and does so with sensitivity, insight, and humor. The author strikes a perfect balance by providing a mix of validation, reassurance, and practical advice for mothers who are facing the competing demands of childrearing, marriage, work, and community obligations.

Many women harbor the “superwoman” ideal, feeling pressure to inundate themselves with endeavors—and to complete them to perfection, all too often pushing themselves beyond their strength.

Consider Rachel, director of a nursing home. “I grew up with the ideal that the Jewish mother is supposed to do everything. Allowing myself to get help was hard, because it would show everyone that I couldn’t cope on my own. But after 15 years of working, I learned that I don’t have to do everything myself. I decided to get household help to clean, and that was a great decision.”

The key component to meeting the demands of family responsibilities and work is to identify your weak spots—those aspects of your work or home life that leave you devoid of energy or morale, while offering little or no payback to render them worthwhile. Delegate responsibilities to others in these areas and remove them from your daily routine.

Regardless of the responsibilities and challenges of family, career, and community, be sure to prioritize yourself by allocating sufficient time to rest, refresh, and rejuvenate—regardless of your frenetic lifestyle. In order for you to focus on your family and maintain their optimum health, it is imperative for you to be healthy.

So many of us neglect ourselves while taking care of our families’ needs, whether it be skipping meals, postponing a dental appointment, or simply not finding the time to catch our breath. As a result, we become overstressed, irritable, and depleted of the energy necessary to function.

A dentist by profession, Devorah is a devoted wife and mother who used to forgo her own needs until she realized she was being counterproductive. “If my baby got up in the morning before I had a chance to take a shower, I would go in and get her, even though it meant that I lost my turn to shower for the day. This was after typically getting up for her at least twice a night! When I went through the day without taking care of myself first, I felt horrible and unkempt; it really started me off on the wrong foot. I ended up resenting the situation I was in. Finally I realized that if I let her play in her crib for an extra ten minutes, nothing terrible would happen to her and I would have time to take a quick shower.”

Considering all the pressures of children and career, marriage may seem like an added burden. An actively nurtured marriage is a happier one, making for happier parents and happier, well-adjusted children. Rather than offer simplistic one-step solutions, Reiter offers practical strategies, such as preparing less-complicated weekday and Shabbos meals, dividing tasks between spouses, and savoring the nachas of raising a family together with your spouse.

“I find it helpful to write down my daily responsibilities,” writes Mindy, an actuary, describing her strategy. “I include big things like doing three loads of laundry, and little things, like arranging a play date. Nothing is insignificant, because it is the cumulative nature of all the details that creates the stress. Doing this makes me feel more accomplished, but it also helps my husband see what it is that I do throughout the day. I give him the list and ask him what he would like to take on. I let him choose whatever he wants. I do the same thing with my children’s appointments. I give my husband a calendar which I update every week, so he can see all their appointments. I ask him which ones he thinks he can cover. When he sees it visually, it is very powerful—much more so than by telling him or by nagging. It has made a big difference to us, and he definitely helps out more because of it.”

Included in the author’s diverse list of contributors are a nurse, a tax accountant, and numerous therapists and social workers. Mrs. Reiter includes women in various positions of authority and addresses areas of concern that are particular to the workplace.

“The Myth of the Perfect Balance” is both a chapter title and a succinct message in contemporary times. There is no magic formula to being the “perfect Jewish working mother,” but, aided by Tzivia Reiter’s sound advice, empathy, and encouragement—plus great strategies from 20 moms who share many of your own experiences—you will find the balance that works best for you.

Children don’t just say the cutest things—they have great wisdom to impart. When it comes to the best practices for working mothers, theirs is the voice of experience. “It behooves all of us working mothers to hear, observe, and most of all listen,” Tzivia writes. Listen to the wise words of these children of working moms:

“Try not to bring work stress home with you,” writes Binyomi. “If you are stressed at work, don’t talk about it in front of the kids. My mom barely ever brought her work stress home, but the few occasions she did, it made me scared and even angry at the people who were giving her a hard time at work.”

“When a mother comes home, the first thing she should do is give her kids attention, before she makes dinner or goes to do anything else. She should talk to them and hear how they are doing. My mom walked into the house, put her stuff down, and immediately gave us attention. After we schmoozed a little, only then would she start making dinner. After dinner she would take care of her chores, but only after she spent time with us.”

“Be home for supper. My mom was usually home for supper. If she had to take a late day, she told us in advance, apologized, and made up the time to us.”

“A woman can totally be a successful working mom,” says Tova as she describes her mother’s strategies for successfully balancing family and work. “It’s not the working that makes it good or bad. If a woman has a relationship with her children, they will not resent her working. They will not look back and say, ‘You weren’t there for me.’ It’s all about the relationship. If she is close with her children, it will work.”

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