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The Jewish Report Editorial

Jewish mothers and the work dilemma

  • Vanessa
In the United States, an analysis of government data by the Pew Research Centre, has shown that today, about 70 per cent of women who have children under the age of 18, work outside the home.
by VANESSA VALKIN | Jul 22, 2015

In South Africa, the poverty and unemployment make comparisons very difficult. However given the high proportion of single disadvantaged women, a majority, if they do find employment, are more than prepared to work far from home and leave childrearing to other family members back in the townships or in rural areas.

In the three years since I have been back in South Africa, I have witnessed a range of attitudes to working mothers. But it is interesting to consider our own community and whether South African Jewish mothers work and why they do. Let me qualify that I am talking about a small, relatively privileged subset.

This demographic, it seems, generally do not work long hours unless they feel they have to contribute to household income. When women don’t have to help pay the bills, they generally opt not to. And why not? There is literature that supports the idea that children benefit from having a mother at home as opposed to being outsourced to caregivers.

In the early, very demanding years of a child’s life, given that our Jewish day schools usually end around midday until grade one starts, with fewer aftercare options when compared to day care at Jewish schools in North America, young Jewish moms here tend to look for opportunities that give them flexibility to be at home or not to work at all. In fact when women do have big jobs, it is assumed that they cannot afford not to or they are single parents.

I lived for a number of years in New York City, a little island filled with some of the most ambitious women in the world, who, after three months of maternity leave, don their suits and head back to the office, leaving their children in the hands of highly-paid Filipino or Jamaican nannies. Some really need to support a dual income household and some just could not imagine not having the stimulation or the independence that one’s own earnings allow.

In her 2013 book, “Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead”, Facebook Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg bemoans the fact that many women avoid stepping into demanding leadership roles because of an internal, unconscious plan for the future of getting married and having children. She also outlines various strategies to help women improve their chances of climbing the corporate ladder.

While a Harvard-educated executive who has over half a billion dollars worth of Facebook stock is not a woman that every young Johannesburg, Jewish mother can relate to, Sandberg certainly is an inspiration. Yet her choices are not their general preference.

Why is that? Is it that our mothers offered very different role models? Were we told that in order to be good mothers, we needed to be home with our children all the time? Are they perhaps 100 per cent correct? Did our own mothers undervalue the rewards of work or imply that the only meaning in life was attained through motherhood?

I really do not have the answers especially for woman who do have the choice.

Studies about the benefits for offspring who had stay-at-home moms are not definitive. However, I do know that adult women need connection, acknowledgement and opportunities to use their brains outside of just family-focused activities.

These are not needs one fulfils by mornings spent at coffee shops and gym classes until the afternoon taxi driving begins. Nor are they fulfilled by chatting to the checkout woman at Woolworths or by our husbands who return home tired after a long day at the office.

Some women do seem to strike the balance. I have a friend who manages to remain a partner in a highly reputable law firm but has always worked mornings only and returns to her contracts at night when her children are asleep. Another is a psychologist who only consults during her children’s school hours. Yet another is very involved in her children’s school PTA and projects in the broader community.

One thing I am certain of is that when a woman gets the combination of work, personal values and parenting right, her children have a mother who is more fulfilled and often more engaged when she is with them, her man has an energised, happier partner and for the woman herself, the delicate mix, though at times stressful and demanding, is - oh so exquisite.

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