One question I have been asked in response to this site is how I can find fulfillment in the Traditional role of homemaker.
"Maybe you can tell me what makes an Orthodox woman's life so wonderful compared to what I have," wrote one reader, "I don't spend all day cooking, cleaning and taking care of babies."
It was obvious to me that the author of these words had never had children herself. If she had, she would not have overlooked the most important feature in running a household: love. Because we love our husbands and children, doing things for them is pleasurable. Conventional wisdom tells us that when we put love into our cooking, the food tastes better. Love is the essential ingredient. Love makes even the dullest of tasks more tolerable.
I love my husband and children, and I know that it's good for us to live in a clean house, so I clean it. I don't enjoy it as much as snuggling with my kids - one of the perks of my job - but when I clean, I know that I am doing something that will benefit those I love, and that has emotional reward.
One model for this in Torah is our forefather Jacob. Jacob loved our foremother Rachel so much that he worked for her father for seven years to be able to marry her. The Torah states that those seven years of work "seemed to him a few days because of his love for her."(1)
This seems contrary to what we would expect. Seven years seems quite a long time to wait for someone you love. Most people find that time spent waiting for something passes so slowly it's unbearable.
This was not the case with Jacob. His love for Rachel motivated him to such a degree that his long period of service to her father became an abbreviated labor of love.
Contrast this with another example from Torah. One of the tortures the Jews underwent as slaves in Egypt was that they were forced to do back-breaking labor that was impossible to complete. The Egyptians conscripted the Jews to build storehouses on swampland which could not support the structures. Progress was impossible; everything the Jews built sank into the ground.(2) Nevertheless, the Egyptians would not release the Jews from this pointless and grueling task.
The psychological effect of this was more cruel than the toilsome labor itself. There is nothing more demoralizing than meaningless work. The Egyptians did not need or want the storehouses. Their sole purpose in giving the Jews back-breaking work was to afflict them. Denied the opportunity to feel any sense of accomplishment from their efforts, the Jews were effectively embittered.
Baruch Hashem, the work of a Jewish homemaker is far more like Yaakov's work than the Jewish slaves' in Egypt. Dishes from dinner may refill the sink shortly after the pots are done, an hour's work on an attractive meal may turn into nothing but scraps, but satisfied faces around the dinner table will remain. My toddler might throw toys all around the room I just cleaned, but I'd be wrong to feel that my cleaning was for nothing. My home is a place for my beloved family to live and grow, and seeing that they are happy in it makes it worthwhile.
There is one important love relationship I have not yet mentioned, and that is the love between Hashem and humanity. The love parents have for their children is the closest analogy we have to understanding Hashem's love for us. Motherhood certainly deepened my appreciation of it. (I discuss this in my article "On Equality.") But I am also someone's daughter, and there are lessons to learn from this relationship as well.
I love and appreciate my parents for all they have done for me. As a result, I feel a very natural compulsion to do things that will honor, please, and benefit them. When I recognize that Hashem is my Parent, I feel that same compulsion.
These feelings, both for our earthly parents and for our Creator, are instinctual. Babies begin to demonstrate loyalty and affection for their parents before their minds are mature enough to grasp the parent-child relationship. Similarly, our souls yearn to honor Hashem, even if we do not recognize our dependence on Him on a conscious level. It is not possible to fully understand Hashem's influence in our lives, but as we grow spiritually, we come to recognize and love Him more, and in consequence, we desire to express that love. Our means for doing this are the mitzvohs.
Many, if not all, of the chores homemakers do are themselves mitzvohs. Nourishing our families with the meals we cook is a mitzvah. Preparing food for Shabbos and the holidays takes on an additional spiritual dimension because it will be used in festive meals. Cleaning one's house creates an orderly environment which is conducive to inner clarity. This is true at all times, but the thorough housecleaning we do before Pesach (Passover) to make certain there is no chametz (leavened products) within our possession symbolically cleanses sinful tendencies from our souls. And of course,Hashem entrusted us with the care and development of the precious souls of our children, a vital mitzvah which ensures the continuation of the Jewish people and Tradition. "Cooking, cleaning, and taking care of babies" become much more than mundane activities with the recognition of Hashem.
We homemakers take pride in the fact that our work is a holy service to Hashem. We do not see it as degrading; quite the opposite, performing these mitzvohs allows us to elevate ourselves and our households. And if the actual work bores me sometimes, which happens to everybody occasionally, I stimulate myself with a taped discussion of Torah ideas as I work. It's even a mitzvah for me to give myself a break when I need one. After all, taking care of myself is intertwined with my love for Hashem, my husband, and my children. As Hillel the Elder said, "If I am not for myself, who will be for me?(3)" But let us not forget the second half of that statement which warns against selfishness, "But if I am [only] for myself, what am I?"(4) It is my right and responsibility to feel good about myself and my work, but if I were doing it only for me, if there were no love of another motivating me, ultimately, my life would be unfulfilling.
1. Genesis 29:20
2. Talmud Bavli, Sotah 11a
3. Pirkei Avos 1:14