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Mother’s Helper

Riva Pomerantz

In some families children have specific chores each day. In others, a housekeeper keeps things running smoothly. Within families, some siblings may be the predominant helpers while others barely pitch in at all. Many mothers employ charts with stars and rewards; others eschew prizes but favor consequences. But one thing’s certain: teaching children responsibility at home can be a wildly successful experience, or an absolute disaster. What are the factors that predict which way the pendulum swings?

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

“I was the second oldest of nine children, mostly boys,” begins Sheva*, a mother of seven who lives in Brooklyn. “My eighth sibling was born with a heart problem and needed many surgeries which meant my parents were suddenly overwhelmed. I had always helped out at home, but at this point I totally took over. My father wasn’t the Mr. Mom type, and I ran the house, did laundry, and cooked the meals. I was twelve years old at the time. Baruch Hashem, the baby got better and things settled down but I look back on that time and realize that it’s when my childhood sort of ended because after that my mother needed an incredible amount of help.”

For Sheva, a naturally capable young adult suddenly thrust into the role of surrogate mother, household responsibility definitely bordered on the unhealthy. While other girls her age occupied their leisure time by going out with friends, shopping, and schmoozing, Sheva had no leisure time. She was constantly babysitting at home, cleaning up, and folding laundry. There was little extra money for outside help and besides, “I was reliable and I didn’t really mind helping out. It’s just that it got a little much,” she admits. When a teenager needs to run into the shower after her mother has already lit candles, with no time to even dream of blow-drying her hair because she’s been pulling together Shabbos until the very last minute, is that really okay?

When Sheva eventually got married, she was somewhat ambivalent about the prospect of raising her own children, feeling a little worn out from raising her siblings. But most marked in Sheva’s case was her attitude about kids helping out. As a backlash from her own experiences, she vowed that her own children be carefree, unencumbered by housework.

“I totally went to the other extreme—my kids had no responsibilities at all. I wanted them to have wonderful childhoods! But one Friday, while my husband and I were working ourselves to the bone getting ready for Shabbos, all three of my older kids were lounging on the couch, reading and noshing, and I said, ‘Something’s wrong with this picture!’

“So I raised the issue and my kids were surprised. However one did admit that she realized that she should be helping, saying, ‘Yeah, my friends all help so much.’ They were getting old enough to realize that the way we ran our home was too extreme, that it wasn’t normal that you do nothing in the house while your mother works so hard. We started by giving them three erev Shabbos jobs each, now it’s slipped down to one steady job every week. It’s been a journey.”

Sheva’s main challenge in implementing household chores lies in trying to create something new and successful even as she runs from the dysfunctional old routine she grew up with.


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