Being a SAHM vs. Working Mom*

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This week, I received letters from 2 moms at different ends of the SAHM vs. Working Mom Debate, which made me think that a lot of moms out there must be struggling with these same issues. So I’d like to share their letters and my response with all of you:

Dear Chana, I gave birth six months ago, and in a month I am supposed to go back for my second year of a Social Work degree. Everyone (including my husband) is really pushing me to go back to school. They all say that it is best for me to “get out a little.”

The thing is that I really want to be a stay-at-home mom. I love taking care of my baby and my home. I love cooking and cleaning. It seems like mothers nowadays are going out into the world so much, getting degrees, and abandoning the home. But maybe that’s wrong? Why should my baby whom I brought into this world be raised by someone else? If she’s sad, why should she be comforted by someone else and not by me?

Any advice you could give me would be highly appreciated…Thanks! S. from Gush Etsion

Dear Chana,

Having my son was the biggest blessing imaginable and I love dedicating my time to taking care of him and being there for him. But when he was 7 months old I returned to work part-time and this has confused me quite a lot.
I assumed that I would hate working and being away from my baby, and had planned to work for just a few weeks and then quit. But in the end, I loved being back at work, and I suddenly felt like a happier, more complete person. I still spend a lot of time with my baby as I am only working 3 days a week but now when I am at home I often feel aimless and keen to get back to work!
So I am torn and confused. I love being a mother but feel I was not built to stay at home cleaning and cooking – it’s just not me and I am not particularly good at it!
If all women are so different how can Judaism prescribe a certain lifestyle for all of them?
Many thanks,
T. from New Jersey

My response:

To be a SAHM or not to be a SAHM? That is the question that confounds so many moms.

The best advice I ever heard on this topic came from Rabbanit Esther Levanon who told a crowded lecture hall of young mothers: When deciding to work or stay home, choose what will make you a better mother.

Let me explain…

There are mothers for whom being a SAHM makes them better mothers. I, for example, think I fall into this category. I love staying at home because it means that after I give birth, there is no pressure to send my babies off to a babysitter as soon as maternity leave ends. It also means that I can dedicate my mornings to writing and working on my blog, which brings me a ton of satisfaction and energizes me for my kid-intensive afternoons and evenings.

But there are many mothers for whom working outside of the home makes them better moms. Rabbanit Levanon told us, for example, about a woman she knew who was an energetic, devoted teacher and mother of a large family. But her husband really wanted her to stay home to devote more time to cooking and cleaning etc. So, after years of pressure, this woman decided maybe her husband was right, and she decided to spend a year at home. But she was miserable at home. And her husband and children were miserable as a result of her misery. A few months into this experiment, her husband finally begged his wife to go back to work!

In conclusion, Judaism doesn’t mandate a uniform lifestyle for every mom.

When making this important decision, every mom needs to look deeply at her own emotional, family, and financial situation, and make the best choice for her own personal situation, without feelings of inferiority for being “Just a mom” or feelings of guilt for “abandoning” her children.

May every single one of us be blessed with the wisdom to make the decision that is best for us and for our families.

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*Yes, I do realize that SAHMs also work. I’m a hardworking SAHM myself! I’ve chosen to use the terms SAHM/Working Mom simply because those are the most common terms used to describe women who work outside of the home vs. women who work in their homes caring for their families and managing their homes.

Related posts:

Our Messed Up Family
The Dangers of People-Pleasing (9-Minute Mommy Peptalk)
Something Wonderful at the Gan Next Door

14 comments

  1. I have gone through this dilema many times in the past 20 years. I thought that after my first baby I would quit working. I thought that I would want to be at home. But here I am, still at work 20 year later.
    I took long maternity leaves (5 – 8 months) , including a year at home after my fourth.

    It’s important that each women make her own decision when the time comes. It’s sad to see a women who is doing what the rest of the community is doing without thinking what is best for her. It’s also important not to get bogged down by guilt – thinking what “I should” be doing.

  2. Hi and thanks for a wonderful blog!

    If I understand clearly, Rabbanit Levanon’s point, and the answer to both Mom questions you posted, is that being a Mom should be our Most Important Job.

    We may, or may not, also have a paying job outside (or inside) the home. We may, or may not, also have volunteer commitments, a degree we are working towards, or many other things going on. But when we are clear on the importance of being the Best Mom we can be – which I think is a message relevant for all Jewish women – then the steps we each take towards that lofty goal can vary for each of us and within each of our lives.

    Gmar Tov!

  3. Wow, can I relate to these women!
    Three months after the birth of my first child, I went back to work and was overwhelmed with guilt and the hardships of handling it all. I didn’t like the daycare my child was in, but at the time it was my only choice. When my baby would get sick I felt guilty about missing workdays.
    When I had my second child, I decided “That’s it, I’m staying home.” So I did, for 9 months. I am not a patient person, and spending all day with a baby and a toddler was very very trying for me. Thankfully, my old workplace called me and said they really wanted me to come back, and I jumped to take the job.
    With my third child I knew that I wanted to work. And I’m very happy to be the mother of three beautiful children and to be working half time. It works great for everyone.
    The secret for me was to find a reliable daycare and to realize that it’s ok to miss workdays for your children. I’m flexible with my hours and my husband is very supportive (and sometimes he stays home if a child is running a fever). For me, this is the best arrangement.

  4. shalom:
    (codem col slija she en li col caj hibrit, ve lo iodaat anglit)
    ani gara be arguentina, adain ein li ieladim (itjatanti lifne shesh shanim baaretz) ani obedet be sifria betoj bet hakneset, ani ohebet et aaboda azot, abal ani meragueshet she ze mamash jabal al azman, she ani iejola liiot babait be laasot arbe debarim, ve lo iodaat ma laasot, biglal she ein li ieladim ve culam omrim she ani tzrija laabod
    adain lo iodaat ma laazot, hashem iaazor,

    • Lea – ani shomaat she at gam hohebet laabod vegam rotza liiot babit. kashe laasot et shnei hadvarim. kol ajat tzrija lehajlit ma tov bishvila. im tov laj liiot babit velo laabod, al takshivi le-ajerim (rak lebaalej. ze jashuv meod.)
      hashem yaazor laj lirot et hadvarim b’behirut.
      Im ahava, Sharona

  5. Why is “what makes you a better mother” considered the basis for making the right decision? The decision should be made on what is best for the children (leaving a child in a daycare that we mothers don’t believe is best for them should lay on the guilt, we are guilty when we do that to our babies!) and then based on what is best for the children, it is UP TO US to make ourselves happy mothers. If being at home makes you miserable you may be doing something wrong. Maybe we should be looking into things that might make us better mothers at home so that we don’t have to leave our children and go to work in order to make us better mothers. That’s a little backwards, don’t you think?
    Of course, if financially there is a huge struggle and there is no choice, we must do what we must as heartbreaking as it is for everyone. But, to go to work, even part time, leaving our children with babysitters or daycares in order to be better mothers? Seems absurd to me.
    I enjoy the blogs and responses and am glad to have a place to respectfully place my opinion.
    Keep up the great work!

    • its not absurd at all – some women cannot simply be home all day. i left my kids in the nursery and went to work the second i possibly could- they get such great care there from professional, nurturing women- at home they had a stressed out mom who didn’t know what to do with 2 babies all day and needed to get out! i am so much happier just going out of the house in the morning- and when i get back, i have a new energy for them.
      you mentioned that if the woman is miserable at home then she is doing something wrong….you clearly are not one of those women that need to get out of the house. for me, if i dont get out, i literally have a panic attack. it also doesnt help living in a caravan in a small yishuv. but i was doing the best i could- some women just need to get out!

      • That is where the mistake is: do you really think I stay at home all day watching my kids hang around at my feet making messes? Talk about misery! What I say that maybe she is doing something wrong, I mean that maybe she needs ideas: mommy groups to meet other mommies and babies, fun things to do that are free with the kids, times and places where you can ENJOY being with the kids and not have it be total drudgery.
        Btw, if I don’t get out, I also get that panicky feeling. I get out, with kids in tow and we’re all better off for it. Even the best, most nurturing caregivers aren’t mommy.

  6. I agree with HL.
    At the moment I’m a miserable mother. I have 6 children B”H, the youngest just under 5 months. I love feeding her and looking after her and love the quiet mornings at home after the hectic summer holiday (she loves it too and is much calmer). I’ve stayed home for a year or so in the past but my husband and I felt we really couldn’t afford it this time. I even had to take extra hours to get a discount at the daycare centre. I’m exahsted all the time and am no plesure for my work or my kids. No one pays me to be a good happy mom at home- and my husband says it just isn’t Gods will…
    I hope this year will go by quickly, but no one can give me back the time I’ve missed with my baby…
    I hope this year goes by

  7. Rachael it seems that you are much happier when you get out but you did not tell us if your children are happier… You might be surprised but a stressed out mom may be better for the children than “professional nurtuting women.”

    Not that I advocate stressed out moms– I agree with HL– SAHM’s should not STAY AT HOME! It is a recipe for disaster as Rachael describes (panick attacks etc.)

    Take your children and GO. Go meet up with other moms doing the same thing as you- adult company makes a huge difference.

    If we are honest with ourselves and we take the time to evaluate what is best for our children we will find that being there for them consistently, day after day is what they need and thrive on. Not a more “fulfilled” career woman.

  8. Note that my reply below does not apply to mothers who have looked at the needs of their family honestly and truly need to work to put food on the table.

    Judaism places little emphasis on seeking happiness or fulfillment.
    It is through accepting our obligations (as defined by the Torah) that we ultimately find happiness and fulfillment.
    And perhaps, as HL pointed out, we should be working on being better mothers, not working mothers.
    While the Torah does not prescribe exactly how involved a mother should be, it provides powerful role models of women who devoted themselves- body and soul- to their children.
    I am reminded of Chana the prophetess and high mistress of prayer.
    She stayed home during her child’s first two years of life to nurse and nurture him rather than speak words of prophecy in the Beis Hamikdash, inspiring tens of thousands.
    Perhaps many circumstances have changed over the years.
    But a child’s deep emotional needs for its mother have not.

  9. SB, I Love what you wrote : Many circumstances have changed over the years, but a child’s deep emotional needs fr its mother have not. SO TRUE. I recommend Aaron Lederer’s book – Taming the Angry Child – check out his website RADConsultancy and order it if you are interested in this subject (children’s emotional need for their mother).

    It sometimes seems difficult to fill every child’s emotional needs during those difficult first few years… but it is much harder (later) when we don’t.

  10. oops I got the title wrong

    it is:

    Taming the WILD Child: From Living Hell to Living Well by Aaron Lederer

  11. I would like to add that taking a GOOD parenting class is an amazing help to any mother, and can give a great boost to a SAHM. It helps the mother understand what is acceptable behavior in children, and what is unacceptable, how to prioritize what you want to do with your kids. It can help a mother with sibling rivalry, which is felt much more by a SAHM.

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