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Home-Work: Mothers who Earn a Living at Home (Part One- Mishpacha Issue 78)
by Esther Heller

The demands made on Jewish mothers have always been challenging. Nowadays, mothers face their own special set of nisayonos. In addition to raising children, watching over their chinuch and guarding their environments, financial realities lead many mothers into parnassah-making decisions that result in spending very little time each day with their children.

In the United States, sixty-two percent of mothers with children under the age of six are working either full- or part-time (U.S. Department of Labor, 2004). Among Jews, only five percent of the population identified themselves as having the occupation of homemaker (National Jewish Population Survey, 2001). Statistics for Israel are similar, with sixty-one percent of mothers returning to work, on average, four and a half months after birth (Ministry of Health, Israel). These trends, of the society at large and of the frum Jewish community in particular, have an impact on raising children. Many mothers try to combine home with work by working at home. It sounds like an ideal solution for mothers. Less time away from the children, less babysitting costs, no long commutes or dress-for-success clothes expenses. No panic when Dovid has to go to the doctor or Surie is graduating from nursery school.

Is working at home really as great for children and moms as it seems? What types of work do women do from their homes?

Leaving my own family in the care of my husband and teenaged daughters for a few days, I set off to find out what it takes to work in the room off the kitchen, to be your own boss, and to set your own hours. To never be sure exactly how much money you'll make each month, to have to teach your children that Mommy is at home, but can't be disturbed right now.

I visited mothers who found a way to make a parnassah while remaining at home. The types of work were as varied as one's imagination. I met mothers who used some of their home space to establish a salon, shop, clinic, office, babysitting service and private class room, respectively. I met with a sheitelmacher, maternity clothes merchant, shiatsu practitioner, group babysitter and tutor . I listened to their stories; how they strive to juggle their responsibilities of family and finance, take care of their children, their kitchens ,and their customers. How they balance the time they spend working, keeping house, and being available to their loved ones. How they discover through trial and error how best to schedule their days and manage their responsibilities.

Ita Baum, Sheitelmacher

Ita Baum has been a sheitelmacher for nineteen years. Her salon is about nine by twelve meters long and is located in her home. When I call to set up an appointment to interview her, she consults her appointment book and squeezes me in between two customers coming for wig settings. I enter just as a client is leaving. Ita excuses herself for a few minutes and I look around. There is a large mirror, and desk with a foot rest underneath, a swivel chair on wheels, blow dryer, electric curlers, wig stand, wall mounted cordless speaker phone and a cabinet holding sheitels of various colors and lengths.

"I had to check on lunch," she explains, as she joins me. I ask her what the benefits and disadvantages are to working at home.

"I see more good than bad," Ita reflects. "The ruach of the mother remains in the home even while she is working. If something happens, I can run over. And yet even my young children know that when I'm working I can't turn my head and look, but I can listen. If someone cancels or comes late, I can get lunch ready. Like now, I went to check the oven. Another benefit is that I don't have to pay another rent somewhere else." "The children learn to behave better because people are coming to the house," Ita explains. "It's hard for kids to divide their mother, but they become more aware and sensitive because of it. Mother is not always there just for you. It can be trying, but it also helps them grow.

"I need to make a parnassah so that my husband can learn. I worked before as a teacher and a secretary. I found it very hard to work outside of the home. My grandmother a'h pushed me to start working with sheitels. First I started out by doing settings for someone else. I saw that I liked it so I went for training." The course took six months. But Ita continually takes new courses each year to update herself on the current styles.

"We lived in Bnei Brak at the time and I worked in a salon there," she continues. "Then we moved to Tzfas." Ita wondered how she would manage. There were no salons - she would have to work on her own. Would she find enough customers? The Sanzer Rebbe ztz"l told her, "You'll have success."

"I had to invest in buying sheitels and equipment for the office. I was afraid to do it."

At first she just bought enough sheitels to get started and a pair of scissors. The large mirror and desk came a few years later. It took Ita over a year to earn back her investment. "To work independently you must have bitachon in HaKadosh Baruch Hu. Always when I needed money, Hashem sent it to me. Even last year," (she is referring to the ban last summer on buying new sheitels until their origins could be determined to assure that the hair was not used for avodah zarah purposes.) "I'm not afraid to send women to other sheitelmachers. What's mine is mine and parnassah comes from Hashem. "Her business has become, baruch Hashem, a success.

"When I first started out on my own, women came and went at all hours. It was hard on my children when women would come to drop off or pick up their sheitels when I wasn't home. I found that I had to become strict and keep set hours. My children know not to let anyone in unless I specify that they are coming. "The customers had to learn to call first and not just come over. She thinks that her customers respect her more now that she has set limits. Ita found that in order to protect her children as well as her own health, she had to be firm and responsible with her schedule. Her hours are as follows: Mornings 9:30 am to12:30 pm. And at night, after her children go to sleep, 9 pm to 11 pm. Fridays she is closed except for "emergencies." She found it tempting to extend her hours, take more customers and make more money, "but having rules keeps me healthy and happy." Ita charts the various stages she went through in organizing her schedule. "At first it was a balagan, then I set strict rules, and now I can choose to be more flexible."

Her sixteen year old daughter agrees that it is good that her mother is always home. But she feels that too many people are coming into their house. An exception that Ita makes to her set hours are the oncology patients for whom she prepares sheitels. These appointments she considers urgent and she will schedule them whenever possible.

Ita feels that her children have learned how to appreciate their mother. "They see how I work and how I run from the pots to the sheitelach."

But for many years, Ita felt that she would have preferred the opportunity to work outside the home. "I wasn't strong enough to make the division between Mommy and sheitel macher."

Ita recalls working in the evening and missing socializing with her married children and the rest of the family in the living room. Now, if family is visiting from out of town, she cancels work for the evening.

Another pressure of working at home is customers entering her home. "Customers can't come into a dirty room," says Ita. "Every night at 11pm I have to wash the floor." When she first opened, women needed to walk through the living room in order to reach the salon. The Baums created a new entrance way which resulted in making the room smaller. "We used to have room for a bed in here, but it was more important to gain the family's privacy."

"The dynamic in a home is always changing. A mother always has to rethink, she has to ask herself: Are my children suffering? Has my house become too open?"

Ita sends her baby to a babysitter. Once she tried having a babysitter in her own home, but she could hear when the baby cried. For many years she sent the baby to a sitter for two and a half hours a morning. With her youngest child however, the sitter insisted that the child stay the full five hours. It was too disruptive to the other toddlers to see one Mommy come in and take her child home. Ita found that the increase in hours did not affect her daughter - she is very happy at the sitter. And the extra time to prepare lunch and get some housework done has been a help. "It makes me a better mother," she says.

Ita feels that a mother must be careful not to neglect herself and her health. Every morning after she sees her family off to their respective cheders, schools, and babysitter, she davens and then takes twenty minutes to eat breakfast and read. She turns the phone off during this time. She takes me into her living room to show me where she sits on the couch and looks at the view of the Meron mountains while drinking her coffee. Each week she attends a yoga class. "It took me years to realize that I'm also a person," she comments.

Toby Sternberg, Maternity Clothes Merchant

Toby Sternberg was "born with business in my blood" as she describes it. While she was growing up, her mother ran the maternity clothing business that Toby eventually took over.

Going into business, however, was a gradual process. Toby started out teaching in the morning, leading a choir and giving private English lessons. Her first two children were close in age and working outside the home was difficult. She started thinking about running a home based business. "I was one of the first to open this type of home business and there wasn't anyone then to answer my basic questions."

Eleven years ago she decided to open a shop with maternity clothes. She and her husband moved to the Geula neighborhood of Jerusalem, the optimal location for sales in this market. For the first year, in order to minimize the risk of her new venture, she kept her teaching job in the mornings and worked at the shop afternoons and evenings. After their third child was born, Toby realized it was too much for her. She left the teaching job, but continued tutoring in English for several more years.

Toby lives several blocks away from the commercial district of Malchei Yisrael Street. Her home is located near a small playground. Outside is a small sign that I almost miss which reads "Alternatives," the name of her shop. The first entrance is her home and the second leads directly into her store. The two are connected to each other inside the house.

Toby opens her shop two mornings a week, from 10:30 am to12:30 pm. On Sunday through Wednesday she reopens in the evenings from 8:30 pm to10:00 pm. The shop is filled to capacity with racks of maternity clothes, a dressing room and mirror. Two mornings and four nights a week may not sound like full time work, but running a store is a lot more than the selling that goes on when the shop is open. The hidden parts of the business are: inventory, ordering, book keeping, budgeting, advertising, and keeping the store in order. She aims for a line that is trendy but tsanuah. "I refuse to lower tznius standards," she says.

Toby has eight children under the age of twelve, bli ayin hara. In the morning, all are at school except for the baby. She has kept each baby at home until the age of eight months old, and then brought them to a babysitter. For the most part, she finds that her children respect her schedule. "My sons know never to come in when I have customers."

Usually she has lunch prepared by ten thirty or else she cooks during the time in between customers. At one fifteen her children start to return home from school and cheder. She spends the afternoons with them. In the evening, she's able to get her little ones to bed before the store reopens. Her husband helps out with the children while she is working. Sometimes while in the shop, she can hear the children making noise as her husband cares for them. "Evenings were easier when the children were smaller," Toby comments. "With older kids, you have to be a lot more flexible." In the early years of the store, she hired a high school girl to come in each evening to tidy up the kitchen after dinner.

There are phone calls all day long. Toby doesn't limit the times she answers the phone, because her parnassah requires that women are able to contact her. "Just because a business is in the home doesn't make it any less a business. But she does other things such as cook or fold laundry while on the phone. In the afternoon she tries to get a chance to rest. She feels gratified that her husband "learns with peace of mind."

She also volunteers for "Chasdei Shlomo," a chesed organization. She takes kallos shopping to buy supplies which they otherwise wouldn't be able to afford. Unlike a home business, a job out of the home would provide a steady income. Living with bitachon is a requirement when becoming self employed. "Hashem knows how much money I need," says Toby.

Toby feels working at home is "the optimal way, the best of both worlds. It means that mother is home."

I asked her why the sign outside her home is so small. Potential customers could miss it completely. But she explains to me that she doesn't want a larger sign that would give a more commercial impression. "This is our home," she answers. "We live here."

Liora Tsarfati, Shiatsu Therapist

In Jerusalem's Jewish Quarter, above the ancient historic Cardo street, Liora Tsarfati, a Shiatsu master, lives with her husband and two children, aged three and a half and ten months old. She sees her clients in her home. Unlike Ita and Toby, there is no separate entrance and space for salon or shop. Liora's clinic is in her children's bedroom while they are off at school or at the babysitter.

Meeting Liora at night, I don't get to see her clinic as her children are already asleep in there. Her living room is cozy and child friendly, with shelves of toys lining one wall. Before Liora's children were born she used to see clients at all times, until eleven o'clock at night. "It's not healthy," she now realizes, "People appreciate what you do more if you set limits. They take you more seriously."

The limits she sets are as follows: she doesn't answer the phone during treatments and there are no treatments after seven pm, when the clinic reverts back to the children's room for the night. "This is good for me too; I need to rest."

Liora believes that you can build up a business better when it's in the home. The risks are smaller and the start up costs much less expensive. "If a client cancels, it's not a waste of time for me, I can do the laundry," she comments.

When Liora sees clients, her children are with a babysitter, either at home or at the sitter's home. Do the children understand that Mommy is at home, but you can't talk to her now? "Sometimes they try to come in the door. It's easier for them to be at the sitter's house. But when they are at home, then they are happy to see me in between treatments." She feels that a mother can be very busy and still give her children a lot of attention. "You learn to listen to them on deeper levels - you can be with them 100%." Sometimes, Liora admits, she is exhausted, "but every mother is. When I'm with my children all day I'm also exhausted."

"It's important to like what you're doing, to understand its purpose, to use it to develop your avodas Hashem, otherwise you can end up feeling frustrated and overworked. When you can do your work with joy, the home stays happy, easy and natural. The children see a busy mother, fulfilling her purpose. The father is learning Torah and the mother is helping people."

"The key is your attitude. It's true you need to put limits on your time, but even if you sometimes go outside these limits, it's not the end of the world if your attitude is good." "I remember Rebbetzin Tzipporah Heller saying that to measure your success in work does not mean to measure how much money you have made. Success should bring you closer to Hashem and give you the strength you need. "Sometimes when I wake up in the morning I just want to go back to bed. Then I remember I have a higher purpose…"


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