And this was true about some women, but for others it was a mix of ups and downs with regard to how they felt.
Since time immemorial, women based their identity on their roles as mothers and wives. (Case in point: In the not-so-distant past, American wives registered themselves as Mrs. Wayne Johnson, and so on.)
Marriage and parenthood were important goals in both the Jewish and non-Jewish worlds for both men and women.
In the Jewish world, unmarried women and childless women were pitied (as were unmarried men and childless men, for that matter) and they themselves experienced deep anguish from their lack of spouse or lack of children. Anything that interfered with an upcoming wedding (such as a missing dowry, etc) caused a crisis. Jews invested copious prayers and blessings from tzaddikim to change an unmarried or childless state.
Yet things changed in the last couple of generations.
And no matter how hard they've tried, many frum Jewish women end up feeling frustrated at not being able to recapture and fulfill the romanticized image erected on the pedestal of pa'am (the olden golden days of yore).
When frum women turn for guidance, they're often told "things have changed" and "today's women just can't be satisfied being housewives."
And with that, women are encouraged toward careers and all sorts of pastimes (there's a chug for every inclination!), all the while being reminded to "put family first."
Yet this never made sense to me.
If a women's innate nature has always found joy and satisfaction in being elbow-deep in scrubbing soiled cloth diapers against a washboard or cooking over coals or dealing with all her family in a home of just one or two rooms and finding fulfillment in dealing with toddlers all day, then why can't we recapture that?
After all, it's innate NATURE.
Could it be that innate nature changed so much?
But after talking to people who actually lived in such times, reading memoirs and autobiographical anecdotes, and looking into Chazal, I realized that nature hasn't changed.
Focus has changed. Values have changed.
But maternal nature actually hasn't.
True, sometimes a woman performed a chore herself IF she felt the hired help wouldn't do it properly. But barring that, women delegated their responsibilities to others.
Wealthy women even delegated feeding to wet nurses.
So if the above are true (and they are), then what of the airbrushed picture of the frum Jewish housewife living in poverty, her heart brimming with joy in her duties?
What Changed, Exactly?
In fact, your initial years of marriage (with just you, hubby, and the first couple of babies) may even have felt like a break after having grown up crammed with so many other people in such a small space and all the work that entailed.
You may have sometimes dreamed of a nicer home with servants, but that wasn't so realistic, so you just made do with what you had -- which is exactly what you were used to anyway AND exactly how everyone around you lived.
So you did what you were raised to do and what everyone around you did, and you tried to do it with a good attitude.
Although not everyone managed to keep a smile on their face.
In her autobiography, Gutta: Memoirs of a Vanished World, Gutta recalls sympathetically the impoverished Jewish woman who lived in cramped airless conditions with little light and extracted little with which to nurture their children.
In fact, a major part of Gutta's work as a Beis Yaakov teacher was to provide her more impoverished students with the nurturing, affection, and attention they lacked at home.
Another autobiography hinted at how a constant state of hunger challenged the middot of an otherwise loving mother, noting that when the family's economic standing improved, the mother was much calmer and more pleasant.
But either way, this is radically different than today's world.
In Western society today, people don't necessarily grow up with children around them. Four children is already considered a big family by many people today. Some girls babysit, but a lot don't.
I didn't say that people don't grow up with babies or small children at all, but it's certainly not how it used to be.
Today, you don't spend your life with there always being a baby or toddler around. And even if your immediate family didn't have a baby or toddler around, your extended family members and your older married siblings did.
Particularly coming from the secular world, many new mothers need to be taught numerous tasks that you see preteen girls performing for their younger siblings in the frum world.
Another difference is attitude.
Many women feel that the chores, the cooking, and the demands of their children are demeaning somehow.
Yes, women of yore also felt exhausted and frustrated by it all. They may have wished they could afford a cook, a nanny, and a housekeeper. But they didn't feel like they should be doing something "better." Particularly for frum women, what was better or more important than your home and family?
If you've grown up with just one or two siblings (and each of you in your own room, naturally), and everyone occupied in various ways with toys and gadgets and videos, and without any cultural emphasis or appreciation of housework and child care, then entering into marriage and motherhood presents quite a challenge.
It's nothing you're used to.
Adding to that is that American society is not a child-oriented society.
For all its safety regulations for children and promotion of the health and happiness of children, it's really not child-oriented.
I only noticed this once I'd entered the frum community in America and then when I came to Israel, which is a very child-oriented society.
After seeing this difference, I realized that America really isn't into children and doesn't really know how to relate to them or to mothers. Of course, there are some exceptions, but in general, America is not child-oriented.
(Also in contrast to American society, I think Russians are child-oriented, culturally speaking. Maybe in a different way than Israelis are child-oriented, but Russians still have more of a child-orientation than most Americans.)
Anyway, I'm not even sure "child-oriented" is the exact term to describe what I mean, but I hope you understand what I'm trying to say.
Of particular concern are today's teens who spend so much time on their phones in their rooms. Studies show that today's teens are less likely to go out to even traditional fun events for teens, like shopping, getting a drivers license, partying, and more. Because of diminished physical interaction, homicide is down among teens — but suicide is up.
After spending a good chunk of your life on your phone in virtual relationships, how will it feel to get up at night for a child or to read books together or deal with potty-training and spoon-feeding or driving to pick up groceries, buy baby clothes, or take a child to the park?
How will it feel to have to coordinate life with a spouse?
Because of this drastic change in cultural norms, many women find housework and motherhood overwhelming.
They simply aren't used to it.
It doesn't feel right.
On the contrary, it may even feel all wrong.
Cracking the Myth of the Never-Working Woman
No, not in droves as they do today. And not with the variety of employment opportunities women enjoy today. (Men, for that matter, also enjoy a far wider variety of employment opportunities than ever before.)
But there have ALWAYS been women who earned money and engaged in work outside their family responsibilities.
In Caddie Woodlawn, Caddie's mother raised turkeys to sell every November, usually making a nice profit from that.
Almanzo Wilder's mother turned a nice profit by selling her butter.
As a married woman herself, Laura Ingalls Wilder attempted to supplement the family income by selling her own butter and eggs. Later, she wrote articles for a local farm publication and then her bestselling books.
Women worked as nurses, midwives, seamstresses, laundresses, helped their husband run the family store, taught school (as long as they weren't married), babysat, helped their husband with his business (sometimes as a full and very successful partner, including successfully taking over the business if the husband died or was incapacitated), and more.
In addition, working women are mentioned in Chazal.
The Working Woman of Valor
Metzudat David explains it to mean a woman who makes sheets for her own needs, then sells the surplus.
Ralbag describes a woman who made sheet, which she then passes on to a merchant to sell on her behalf in order for her to acquire capital buy "all that her soul desires."
Malbim explains that she wove both a sheet and a belt, which she then sold to a merchant. Then she distributed her earnings to the poor, creating for herself spiritual garments to don when she eventually leaves her physical garments, enabling her to indeed be "clothed in oz and hadar and laugh on her last day." (Nice peirush, eh?)
The Ben Ish Chai also recommends that women who earn their own money use it to ease the financial burden of her husband (by buying her own cosmetics and personal needs) and distribute money to the poor.
Prior to that verse, 31:16 describes a woman who examines a field and purchases it.
Metzudat David, Ibn Ezra, Ralbag, and Malbim all explain this to mean an intelligent business woman, and interpret the following verses as proof of her financial acumen and success (i.e., the yield of the field is good, and which enables her to acquire a vineyard, etc.), which allows her to ease things for her husband and provide for the poor of her community.
Both the Malbim in 31:18 explains that she works for her actual needs, without making a career out of it. Malbim says: "Gam lo tiyached mischara rak b'avor ha'arev v'hamo'eel l'tzorech atzmah" — She won't make the business something special and stand-out (tiyached is like meyuchad), just what is pleasant and useful for her specific needs.
Metzudat David 31:19 explains that even as she puts her mind to business, mikol makom lo zazah mimalechet nashim — nonetheless, she doesn't move on from women's work; she still tends to her domestic duties.
Interestingly, the Sages advise/assume that a married woman's earnings go toward her own needs (so that she can ease her husband's burden) and toward tzedakah & gemilut chasedim.
This apparently is their ideal for the working wife & mother of valor.
Real Stories of Domestic Struggles
Martha only started midwifery after her own childbearing years were long past and she could rely on her young adult daughters to run the home while she was at a delivery.
After those daughters married, Martha relied on hired help, which was not nearly as reliable as her daughters.
Based on what she describes in her diary, Martha prefers gardening and delivering babies to housework.
This is clearly not an influence from the feminist movement or modern mores, but an innate personal preference.
In fact, many modern women can relate to her description upon returning home in 1796 from her 612th delivery:
“I returned home and find my house up in arms. How long will G-d preserve my strength to perform as I have done of late, He only knows. May I trust in Him at all times and do good...May He give me strength...”
Two years later, she again wrote of coming home at 10 a.m.:
“...find my house alone and in arms. Did not find time to sit down until 2 p.m.”
She came back a day later to find the kitchen still a bloody mess with the calf head lying where she left it.
Neither her husband nor her 2 sons still living at home had tended to things in her working absence.
Due to the strenuous journeys Martha sometimes needed to make to arrive at a delivery on time, she noted that she arrived at work "almost fatigued to death."
The above are probably familiar sentiments for some working wives or mothers.
Yet while Martha found domestic duties a burden, she still felt they were important.
One of my relatives, born in the South at the beginning of America's Civil War, wrote a long poem in 1934 about her struggle to face the daily question of "What's for dinner?"
Here are 3 excerpts from that poem (the original contains a stanza for each day of the week):
The Dinner Question
"What shall we have for dinner?"
Is the eternal cry.
Every day it is the same
There is no getting by.
Monday - Hurry with the washing!
Have the water boiling hot.
But what shall we have for dinner?
I really don't care what.
So it is the year around,
The same old cry I hear:
"What shall we have for dinner?"
Until my mind is not quite clear.
Like a lot of us, she finds dinner a challenge, made even more challenging by the more labor-intensive preparation necessary before modern appliances became common.
However, she didn't find it demeaning or unfair. She just didn't feel up to all the time, especially as she aged — and especially on days packed with other labor-intensive demands, like laundry day.
So the modern working woman who doesn't feel like putting together dinner after a hard day's work isn't so different than this old-time Southern woman who also didn't feel like putting together dinner after a hard day's work.
Don't Give Up!
Well, I feel like women today can end up feeling second-rate.
Not because of the new and worse value system or emphasis or focus.
Focus and values CAN be changed. It takes some work, depending on your personality and background influences, but they can be changed.
But many frum women feel second-rate because of their actual feelings.
There's a fairy tale that women performed all their domestic duties with a song in their heart and a dance in their step, with Jewish women practically swooning from the uplifting holiness of working in their mikdash me'at.
Yes, women experienced fulfillment.
Yes, there were aspects they enjoyed.
And yes, their domestic responsibilities were important to them.
But again, that doesn't mean that they never felt overwhelmed, exhausted, fed up, or frustrated similar to how you feel sometimes.
And whenever possible, they usually hired someone else to fulfill these duties.
(Although it's important to note that even when a mother hired a nanny or a wet-nurse, the mother was around. She was able to oversee both her child and her child's caretaker. Passing one's very young child into another's care – especially into a group situation – AND being far from them is a modern construct.)
You're not second-rate or "not good enough" because you struggle to feel the holiness of mopping your floors or because you're desperate to hire someone else to clean the bathrooms or because you send your 2-year-old out to gan.
You're not second-rate or "not good enough" because you prefer reading a book to making dinner.
You're not second-rate or "not good enough" because you feel the need for a paying job in addition to your domestic responsibilities. ("Zamama sadeh v'tikachehu..." 31:18)
Like I said, FEELINGS haven't changed much over time.
I think that because women are taught that their feelings make them second-rate, it's part of why it is so hard for some women to invest in their families and homes.
They think that "things have changed" and are impossible to resolve.
So why even bother trying?
Therefore, this post is here to VALIDATE your feelings.
You're actually not so different than the women of yore.
Nor are you hopeless.
Then vs Now: The Conclusion
- A woman's main focus was on her home. THAT'S what's changed.
- But women's feelings toward domestic responsibilities haven't changed so much.
- Whenever possible, women generally tried to delegate ALL her domestic responsibilities to others.
- A frum women prized both her housework and a good attitude...
- ...but depending on her situation, she didn't always succeed in doing so.
- Many women weren't content with housework and childcare alone; they needed more.
- You're not second-rate or not good enough if you don't enjoy housework or childcare.
- Girls raised to value domestic responsibilities find them easier to bear as women.
- Societal mores create difficult struggles and despair for women today.
- It's okay and even natural if you don't find housework & childcare so enthralling.
- Don't despair of yourself. You're not nearly as bad/hopeless/meh as you may have been led to believe.
Finally, there is a world of difference between feeling like you want servants or nannies because you're tired, overwhelmed, and don't enjoy the work...and feeling like you want servants or nannies because the job just "isn't for you" or it's beneath you and you should be doing something "better" and "more important."
Do you see the difference?
Modern feminism inserted the "more important" bug into women's brains.
THAT'S the attitude that's changed.