Four men were tending the home when I left for work today: my father, a
mathematician, businessman and Holocaust survivor; the cleaner, a decorated IDF
paratrooper; my stay-at-home spouse; and our home-schooled son. I am told that
people talk behind my back. They envy me for orchestrating a perfect work-life
balance and for finding a New Age Man who agreed to stay at home when I took a
job, which required him to give up his. They consider us a model for the modern
What would I tell them if they addressed themselves to my face?
Work is a sacrament for my father. He grew up in a poor Hungarian town, where
the family prospered until their clothing business burned down. If he studied
hard, he could become a teacher and earn a living that wouldn’t be incinerated
in one night. If he studied harder, he might be admitted to the rabbinical
seminary and avoid the draft.
The shop fire was the first disaster; it
was followed by the Nazi deportation, a decade of Stalinist terror and the 1956
Hungarian Revolution from which the family escaped to the free world, leaving
behind everything they had earned. After each disaster, the family dug itself up
from the rubble in a swirl of hard labor. With work, they earned their physical
sustenance, a rhythm and purpose. “Arbeit macht frei!” my father instructed me.
“What a shame the Germans stole the expression.”
We grew up on the fruits
of my father’s labor; it was a jealous master. Ignorant of the lush prosperity
cushioning us in the lucky country, we worked, saved and spent as if some
calamity were imminent. There was no romance in labor, but it was made clear to
me that those who didn’t do it, didn’t live.
I landed my first job in New
York during a deep recession and developed a chronic fear of being
While incubating this neonate career, I was introduced to Aaron.
Ten years he toiled in kollel and was awarded with spiritual leadership of a
congregation that prided itself on never paying a penny. But even after becoming
engaged, I didn’t bother my pretty head over what earning prospects my fiancé
had. Hadn’t God promised man he would earn bread by the sweat of his brow? We
married, and bread-winning devolved upon me.
Confused (perhaps he had
skipped Bible class?), I suggested that Aaron find a position that rewarded its
employees with profane currency. In disbelief at my temerity, he resisted. In
disbelief at his resistance, I suggested again at a higher pitch. Seething at my
demands, he began a course in psychotherapy because he “liked helping people.”
But he returned from class in a depressed rage: He had been drilled since
infancy that pondering the Talmud was the sole appropriate occupation for a
Jewish man, and this was certainly not Talmud.
I found his attitude
unfathomable. Where I come from, if you don’t earn your bread, you’re a
He had been taught if you don’t study holy text every moment,
you’re a shtinker.
As we battled across the unbridgable divide, I
discovered I was pregnant and panicked into a new job adequate for the three of
us. The boss was erratic and demanding, alternately yelling and whining. As he
blew cigarette smoke into my face, I assured him of his greatness, cowered under
his abuses. Ashamed of my manifest fertility, I rode myself to
In a lull between client calls, the baby arrived. She
bewitched me; I sobbed at the idea of abandoning her for work. But finding no ad
for free room and board, I gagged my feelings, interviewed nannies, returned to
the desk and pumped breast milk. Aaron was at school every night and, after
working like a fiend, it was I who had to rush home to relieve the
Soon after I returned from maternity leave, the yelling-smoking
boss quit and my stock soared. A headhunter lured me into another job. When I
informed my supervisor, he promised me a 50 percent raise.
back every cent – with your blood,” my father warned.
had started his first job; his reaction to the news was red-hot anger. “If your
raise is bigger than my entire salary, what’s the point of my working?” I rolled
my eyes. “You have to start somewhere, you know. Then you climb the ladder until
one day you can support me!” For a kollel boy, the idea of working up from the
bottom was unfathomable: Either you’re on welfare or you’re a
All day I scribbled memos, answered calls, pumped breast
milk. All night I nursed.
I became pregnant again and was up for another
Aaron was still working endless hours for ridiculously low
pay; I was still rushing home to take the night shift.
Then, weeks before
the baby was due, our nanny abandoned us. I felt my heart had been ripped
Bereft, I booked my daughter into emergency daycare.
real corporate style, with no windows or walls, and a rotating staff that
consistently rendered the company’s trademarked brand of rudeness.
delivered the baby, was promoted again, and every day away I rifled through the
cascading mail, terrified that the business I had worked so hard to build would
be pilfered, or fritter away.
Aaron suggested I return to work part
“I don’t do anything by parts. It’s all or nothing; I’d prefer
nothing if anyone is offering that,” I said.
Aaron’s salary still
couldn’t cover much more than the gas bill, so I plunged back into work. Another
boss quit, and suddenly I was the point person in a huge company for a key
product. Clients flapped around in crisis, and I rose on the wings of eagles to
appease them. Sometimes I brought the family, and sometimes just the breast
pump. Building a staff, I felt most comfortable with females around me. While I
had been the sole pregnant woman in my department when I began, at the
department meetings I now ran, I was the sole woman not pregnant. The pressure
was enormous. I had grown from junior staff to firm leader, all the while
gestating, birthing and raising my children. At work, there were revenue goals,
budgets and obligations to the team. At home, I still nursed the children, dealt
with touchy nannies, cooked, cleaned and kept the peace.
In the middle of
the journey of my life, I came to myself in a dark wood where the straight way
was lost – Dante’s Inferno Canto I.
And it came to pass according to my
father’s prophesy: They took my blood in pints. No meals, no sunlight, no
exercise, no rest – nothing except desk work, home work, pump work. I had been
branded with the curse not just of Eve but of Adam, too. Clearly there had been
Arbeit macht frei was a bitter deception. Work was not
giving me freedom; it was enslaving me. Aaron was not going to redeem me,
either. He didn’t have the drive, the salesmanship you need to earn a living.
Raised in the kollel system, he had come too late to the career game, had never
been taught the rules. It was absurd, he thought, that I drove myself into the
ground to pay the rent. Why didn’t I just go part time? After much scheming, I
was offered a government appointment in Washington. The invitation was the
highest honor, but not one that I coveted: I wanted the job of stay-at-home mom.
Still, the job meant Aaron could stop working, and there would be no more
So here I am, a working woman with stay-at-home men. My husband
is a fastidious house spouse.
Between him and the
paratrooper-turned-cleaner, the children are secure, and most days the house
stands right-side up.
Women hold the majority in the American workforce
today. Haredim were harbingers of the trend; there, women are around 100 percent
of the workforce. And the men? Certainly not on the payrolls or roll calls;
other than that, who knows? House spouses, perhaps?
“Six days shalt thou labor
and do all thy work... For in six days God made heaven and earth, the sea, and
all that is in it” (Exodus 20:8-11).The writer is a Washington lawyer. email@example.com