On Shabbat, Mom Works So You Don't Have To by the Forward

On Shabbat, Mom Works So You Don't Have To

Image by Anya Ulinich

It’s No. 4 of the Ten commandments. “Remember the Sabbath Day, To Keep It Holy.” It sounds simple. We have to remember, to keep it holy. But as those who keep Sabbath know, sometimes the remembering and observing of it comes in direct conflict with keeping it holy. Whether preparing a household for 25 hours of no food cooking and toilet-paper ripping, or scrambling to pick up a challah on one’s way home from work or watching a couple of toddlers at synagogue, the production of Sabbath doesn’t always make one feel rested.

The latest survey for our “Who Sets the Table?” series set out to find to what degree the labor that makes the day of rest possible is shared in our households. This isn’t about gathering data that would serve as a definitive record, nor is it about condemning any particular arrangement. Still, with 71% of mothers with children under 18 in the workforce and the rise of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transsexual or queer partnerships, these are questions that demand to be asked, stories that need to heard.

LGBTQ Households Survey Results:

As for heterosexual partnerships, well it looks like the Sabbath bride probably has to let herself in. According to more than 500 of you, women do considerably more of the preparation, as you will see in the chart below. LGBTQ households appear to be more egalitarian, though it still seems like one partner probably goes to bed more exhausted than the other one on Friday nights. (For the LGBTQ survey we asked all respondents to call themselves “partner 1” and their partners “partner 2” and to keep those labels consistent while filling out the survey. This way we could get a sense of how equally distributed the work is.)

In addition to the charts, we have published select anonymous stories that our respondents shared with us in their surveys. We wanted to give everyone a chance to explain all that could never be contained in a multiple choice questionnaire. Read it. And then, come Friday night, go help your mother. She deserves some rest.

Straight Households Survey Results:

LGBTQ Stories

I am more Shabbat observant than my wife, and have been for a long time. However, the longer we are together, the more observant she becomes. In our home, she handles most of the food-related things because she genuinely loves cooking and I genuinely don’t. On the other hand, I do almost all the cleaning. I do the gardening, she does the lawn mowing. I do the laundry, she folds it, I put it away. I know this isn’t about Shabbat, but Shabbat happens mostly the way the rest of our life happens. I’m not sure that it’s 50/50. I think it’s more like 100/100. We’re both all-in.

You don’t have to be Jewish, monotheist or religious at all to enjoy it. For decades, I’ve been the Shabbat instigator in my queer circles. We do queer family pagan potlucks, and I’ll do my translation of Eshet Chayil. Friends know they can drop by and be welcome to what might be their only multi-course, home-cooked meal of the week, then stay for hours drinking home-made kosher wine, noshing, and talking or singing.

For LGBTQ folks, there’s enormous longing for inclusive family-based rituals. There has been a terrible history, even among Jews, of religion as a weapon by our birth families, against our LGBTQ families. Shabbat together can help turn those swords of rejection into spoons of nourishing, lovingly shared soup.

She does it …

I enjoy making Shabbat happen, but I wish my husband wanted to make it happen too. If I don’t make it happen, it doesn’t happen.

I do all the cooking for everything. My husband goes to shul on Saturday (his social outing, he says), and he says he loves to see Shabbat candles, but I now refuse to make Shabbat unless he contributes by buying a challah and saying brachas over wine and challah. After 60 years, enough is enough.

While my husband is the one with stellar Shabbat shul attendance, I’m the one who brings in the ruach/spirit of Shabbat: inviting guests, planning and cooking meals (though, given very specific and thorough lists, often my husband does the shopping), and making sure everyone in the home has a spiritual Shabbat experience. I also help to create an aura of interesting, engaging conversation around the Shabbat table. It does feel like all the Shabbat responsibility rests on my shoulders, but when we’re seated around our Shabbat table I feel extremely grateful and lucky.

I, the wife, tend to make Shabbat happen. It drives me somewhat crazy, because it’s not the model I grew up with. My parents’ Shabbat was more egalitarian. But my husband doesn’t cook, and while he does a lot of stuff around the house, it tends not to fall into the category of the things that make Shabbat happen. What upsets me is both the way it goes unrecognized. Shabbat is really important to him, but he thinks he is doing us a favor if he makes it by candle lighting, never says thank you, and invites people over but doesn’t realize the difference between cooking for four and 10. He thinks he gets Brownie points just for showing up.

He does it …

I’m so lucky that my partner is off from work on Fridays. He does so much of the heavy lifting including all the shopping and cooking delicious meals. If it weren’t for him, we wouldn’t be able to host nearly as often and the meal wouldn’t be as tasty. I contribute by planning the menu and inviting guests, but he does the hard work to make it happen.

I feel something is very wrong in our home. I, the husband, do all the cooking and serve the meals. My three daughters help a little, making salads and clearing up at the end. My wife does almost nothing, just sits at the table and waits for me to serve her like in a restaurant. At the start of the marriage I wanted to be a doting, caring husband. Now I see I have been taken advantage of.

They do it together…

Both spouses cook, shop, discuss menus and guests. Wife takes care of young children more than husband does because (1) she can nurse them and (2) he is obligated to daven but she is not. Having said that, husband takes daughter to shul often. Our observant lifestyle is dynamic, where both spouses learn and teach, and are both responsible for observance and Shabbat to occur.

Every week, unless my husband is leading the early morning prayers, we go to shul as a family. We sit as a family in the main sanctuary where our kids are the unofficial mascots for the “regulars.” It is not uncommon on any given Shabbat either at Friday night service or Shabbat morning for any one of our boys (4, 2, and 5 months) to be in the arms of the rabbi or the hazan.

We have a bracha rotation in our family. If you’re bracha leader for the week, you lead all the community ravening and brachot. Both parents sing Eshet Chayil to each other, both parents bless children each week. We have a preprinted Shabbat list to make sure that everything gets done — and we help each other out. Duh.

It’s stressful…

I’m glad we do Shabbat, but many Friday nights, I find I haven’t had the time to transition from work, and then I find Shabbat dinner more stressful. Occasionally we get to Friday night services, which helps us to get in the spirit. Sometimes, when the rest of the family has gone off to watch a movie together or read books, I’ll sit with the candles after everything else is done and just have a moment of quiet. I wouldn’t have that without Shabbat.

I love Shabbat, but it’s definitely not a day of rest for parents of three young kids. On Sunday they can watch TV or we can go on outings. On Shabbat it’s either a park (if it’s nice out and not winter), or we’re stuck inside. We try to have guests with kids over for lunch.

I find we are both happier when we keep things simple: fewer courses, simpler recipes, no guests on Friday night when we’re all too tired, and Shabbat lunch guests only sometimes. Our house is messy, and most Shabbats it stays that way. Trying to clean before Shabbat stresses me out tremendously and it never gets finished, between the cooking and the kids. I certainly marvel at other people’s clean homes, but I would rather go into Shabbat with less stress and guilt.


Elissa Strauss

Elissa Strauss

Elissa Strauss has written for the Forward over a number of years. She is a regular contributor to CNN, whose work has been published in a number of publications including The New York Times, Glamour, ELLE, and Longreads.

On Shabbat, Mom Works So You Don't Have To

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