S hortly after my parents’ divorce I happened to meet the woman who had made their shidduch.
“I’m so sorry Michal” she said. “I feel terrible about the divorce and I feel guilty for making the match to begin with.”
I was all of 19 not married yet myself. “You made a good shidduch” I told her. “They are the ones who messed it up!”
It was true that my parents had vastly different personalities — my father was quiet passive and deliberate while my mother was loud overemotional and disorganized — but those differences were not what destroyed their relationship. They each expected the other one to do everything and blamed the other one when it didn’t get done. Going into shidduchim I knew it was up to me to make my marriage work.
While my parents actually got divorced over two decades into their marriage the process leading up to it began long before. I remember that when I was in fourth grade my teacher sent a classmate of mine Zehava on an errand. While Zehava was out of the classroom the teacher said that she had something important to tell us.
“Zehava is in a difficult situation” she explained. “Her parents are getting divorced. We all have to be extra nice and sensitive to her.”
It’s not fair I thought. My parents fight nonstop yet I don’t get any special treatment because they’re not divorced!
If I asked my mother for money for a class trip she would roll her eyes and tell me “Go to your father. It’s his responsibility to make some money for a change.”
When I turned to my father he would say “We have no money because your mother wastes it all.” I was a pawn in the battle between the two of them.
My mother was completely disorganized, so I couldn’t rely on her for anything. I learned early on that if I wanted things, I would have to find my own ways of obtaining them, so I became a very independent young lady. By the time I was in seventh grade I was already babysitting and paying for my own clothing and expenses. If I needed to go somewhere, I would find my own ride or take a bus rather than ask my mother to drive me, knowing that if I waited for her I would get there for the last half hour of the event.
My seventh-grade year coincided with my sister Esther’s leaving to seminary. As the oldest girl, Esther had assumed most of the housekeeping duties, and her departure thrust our house into disarray. At that point, I began fighting with my mother constantly, because she felt I wasn’t doing enough around the house. She herself was helpless when it came to tackling a messy kitchen.
One night, as I was lying in bed cooling off from one of our fights, I came to the conclusion that nothing was going to change unless I made it happen. I got out of bed and marched over to my mother in the kitchen. “I just wanted to say I love you and goodnight,” I told her. Then I leaned over to give her a kiss. In her anger, she pushed me away.
I went back to bed, but the next night I did the same thing. This time, she kept her face in an angry scowl, but she didn’t push me away. Slowly, however, she warmed to this little ritual of ours, and after a few days, she began to return my hug, kiss, and goodnight wish.
She also started sharing her own feelings with me, mostly about how horrible my father was. Often, after venting all her complaints to me, she would end off by saying, “But I’m not complaining!”
When my younger brother began showing signs of rebellion — no surprise, considering his tumultuous home environment — my mother again turned to me for support, crying to me about my brother’s behavior and instructing me to convey certain messages to him, because he wouldn’t listen to her. Soon I became the unofficial family mediator, the one who tried to smooth things out between warring siblings and calm the tensions between my mother and the other children. One thing I couldn’t do, however, was put an end to the hostilities between my parents.
Standing under the chuppah, I promised myself that I was going to do everything right and make my marriage work, no matter what. My husband, Zevy, was more than happy to go along with this arrangement. An easygoing youngest child, he had grown up pampered by his parents and older siblings, and he had no problem letting me do everything.
With the exception of washing the floor on Fridays, Zevy did almost nothing in the house. I rarely asked him for help, and he rarely volunteered. We had three children in four years, and never did he get up for any of them at night. He didn’t take care of them much during the day, either. I was supporting him in kollel, and my job required me to work on the computer until late at night — usually until one or two a.m. — yet I always got up early in the morning to get the kids out. I also did practically all the shopping, housework, and errands.
When he sat at the table, he expected to be served like a king. Once, we were sitting out in the succah when he realized he was missing a knife. I was exhausted, having prepared the entire Yom Tov while juggling my work and the kids, and I had just sat down and was looking forward to enjoying a little bit of my hard work. “I don’t have a knife,” Zevy informed me, and then waited expectantly for me to stand up and get him one. Which I did.
I was the embodiment of the paradigm my seminary teachers had held up for us: the eishes chayil who took everything on her shoulders to enable her husband to learn, while maintaining perfect shalom bayis. Knowing that I, as the akeres habayis, held the keys to the success of my husband and of my marriage, I strove to fulfill all of Zevy’s wishes and expectations without argument or complaint. Sometimes, I’d be holding a baby in one hand and trying to dress a toddler with the other, and I’d look at Zevy and think to myself, Doesn’t he realize that I need some help? But he didn’t offer to pitch in, so I managed by myself rather than endanger our relationship by expressing frustration.
Zevy liked to wear freshly ironed shirts, and I always made sure he had an ironed shirt for the morning. One night, I finished working after two a.m., and by the time I ironed his shirt I was so drowsy that I dropped the iron on my hand. At that point, I didn’t have energy to pay attention to the burn. The next morning, I met a neighbor of mine, who took one look at my hand and exclaimed, “What happened to you?”
I looked down and saw that the wound was open and raw. “Oh, it’s nothing,” I said.
“You need to take care of that!” she insisted. “You should see a doctor.”
But I had other things on my agenda that day, and I didn’t have time to tend to a little burn. I ignored it, and it got better by itself, but left an ugly scar.
I never shopped for myself. I just wore whatever clothing and shoes I had, or whatever my mother gave me. The less I focused on myself, the better and holier I felt.
In the meantime, I was continuing to act as the family mediator. Several of my siblings were not on speaking terms with each other, and I obligingly conveyed messages between the non-communicating parties. Often, my mother would call me up and ask me to tell such-and-such to so-and-so, “but not in my name.” Trickier was when she was in a fight with one of my siblings, usually my younger brother, and she would turn to me to broker a truce, which often involved hours of talking to each of them on the phone.
In addition to these peacemaking duties, I also ran an open house, hosting numerous guests every Shabbos and often during the week as well. If someone needed a place to stay for a few weeks, I didn’t bat an eyelash — I simply moved all my kids into one room and gave them my third bedroom. One young woman from a troubled background stayed with us for months, eating all her meals in my house and raiding my refrigerator at will.
When people asked if they could come for a Shabbos meal, I said yes without even thinking. Sometimes, I regretted it afterward, such as when I said yes to ten guests and then couldn’t fit everyone at the table. Often, the coordinator of the local Bikur Cholim called to ask if I could cook supper for a family in need. The answer was always yes.
“Why did you agree to do that?” Zevy would occasionally ask, in annoyance. “You have so much on your head! Couldn’t someone else do it?”
“It’s fine,” I insisted. “I’ll get it done.” I wasn’t like my mother, who couldn’t do anything, or like my father, who sat by watching as nothing got done.
At work, too, I was the quintessential good sport. I worked from home, as part of a team of remote employees, and if someone needed to take off, I was always the one who covered for them. Many nights, I stayed up alone finishing a joint project for which we were all paid equally.
After my first two births, I bounced back to myself immediately. My third birth was extremely difficult, however, and after that I was physically and emotionally drained. My parents and in-laws came to visit, as they did each time I had a baby, but that resulted in more work for me, not less. I tried to push myself to take care of the kids and the house, until one day it suddenly hit me: If I don’t take care of myself, no one will!
“I had enough!” I shouted aloud at the walls, when I was home alone. “I take care of everyone — but now that I need help, no one is taking care of me!”
In an act of defiance, I went to the dentist, for the first time in years. I also decided to buy myself a new outfit for Shabbos, and I allowed myself to get a babysitter and go out with my sister a few times. When I went back to my job, I cut back on my work hours. I also informed Zevy that I wanted to go back to school to complete my master’s degree.
“But how will we pay for it?” he asked. “We don’t have the money.”
“I don’t care,” I retorted. “I need to do something for myself for a change. We’ll dig into savings.”
I didn’t want people stepping all over me anymore, so I stopped having guests. When the Bikur Cholim coordinator called to ask me to cook a meal, I said, “Please don’t call me anymore.” She was quite taken aback.
In the process of starting to take care of myself, I actually lost most of my friends. I had always been the one to call my friends to say hi, or suggest that we go somewhere together, and once I stopped picking up the phone, none of them did, either. Apparently, the friends I attracted were people who didn’t take much initiative, and when I stopped investing in the relationships, the friendships just petered out.
One friend, whom I used to speak to on a regular basis, called me after six months and said, “Michal, I haven’t spoken to you in so long! I’ve been a horrible friend!”
I could tell that she was waiting for me to say, “It’s okay, don’t worry about it,” but I wasn’t about to say anything of the sort. It wasn’t okay that my relationships were one-sided and I was always the one doing everything for everyone!
The one friend who stuck with me despite my newfound selfishness was my husband. “What’s bothering you?” Zevy kept asking me. “Is there something I can do?” In his desperation to make things better and placate me, he started doing the food shopping, pitching in with Erev Shabbos preparations, and helping with the laundry.
In the beginning, it was a real challenge for me to ask him for help. One day, I had to leave the house for a work meeting, and my regular babysitter canceled. I spent hours on the phone searching for a replacement, and when I realized that there were absolutely no babysitters to be had, I called Zevy in kollel, and, for the first time ever, asked him to come home and babysit.
Zevy was reluctant to leave in middle of seder. “Did you try calling the neighbors?” he asked. “What about your niece, maybe she’s available?”
Hearing this, I exploded, which was highly uncharacteristic of me. “If I called you in kollel, that means I’m desperate,” I snapped. “Don’t ask me now to try this and try that — I already made at least 20 phone calls to find a babysitter.”
“Oh, okay,” he said. “I’ll come home, no problem.”
When I came home from the meeting, Zevy had a question. “Tell me something,” he said. “How was I supposed to know that you made 20 phone calls before you called me in kollel?”
“When’s the last time I asked you to babysit during seder?” I challenged him. “Do you know how many times I twisted myself into a pretzel rather than disturb you?”
“Actually, I don’t,” he said. “You never told me that you needed me to come home. You didn’t have to be desperate before you called me — you could have just called and told me that you were having a hard time making arrangements for the kids, and then we could have figured something out together. Just because you never asked me to leave seder to babysit, does that mean that when you do ask me I’m supposed to drop everything without making a single suggestion? If you decided to twist yourself into a pretzel other times, why is that my fault? You never asked, so I assumed you didn’t want or need my help.”
Zevy’s logic was maddening. “How male of you,” I muttered.
“Yes,” he responded calmly. “And how female of you to expect me to read your mind. If this has been bothering you, why didn’t you speak up?”
“Because I didn’t want to get into a fight!” I cried.
“What fight?” he asked. “If you ask me for help, that’s a fight?”
“No, but if you don’t want to do it, then it becomes a whole argument.”
Why, indeed. “Because I don’t want to end up like my parents, that’s why!”
Zevy stood quietly for a few moments, digesting that statement. “So let me get this straight. Because you didn’t want to end up like your parents, you never asked me to babysit, and now it’s my fault that I didn’t know you needed me to babysit? If you don’t speak up, how do you expect me to know what you want?”
It was a fair question. True, Zevy wasn’t the most intuitive person, but he was eager to please. Would it have been so bad if I had asked him for help calmly — not in my mother’s hysterical tones — rather than push myself to the limit in order to avoid antagonizing him in the slightest?
With that in mind, I asked Zevy, a few days later, if he could please get the kids out in the mornings so that I could sleep. “I can’t burn the candle at both ends,” I explained. “It’s too much for me.”
“Sure,” he said. And he did, adding the morning shift to the many other responsibilities he had taken on himself.
The sad part was that because it took me so long to learn how to ask Zevy for help, when I finally did start speaking up, my requests came along with a heaping dose of resentment. I hadn’t even known that I was bottling up resentment all the years; had anyone asked me, I would have said I was totally fine doing everything by myself. But once I realized that I had pushed myself too far, I regretted all the times I had turned myself into a shmatteh.
“I feel like you have a mountain of tainehs against me,” Zevy complained to me one day. “No matter what I do, it’s never going to be enough.”
I realized, then, that my militant campaign to “put myself first” just fed my bitterness, and wasn’t doing anything for my relationships. But I already knew that my eishes chayil persona wasn’t entirely healthy, either. With Zevy’s encouragement, I went for professional help to work through the emotional baggage I was carrying, baggage whose existence I hadn’t previously been aware of.
My therapist helped me understand that as a child, I had adopted the role of peacemaker as a survival tactic. This remained my default setting into adulthood, causing me to avoid confrontation at all costs and do everything myself rather than impose on others. I never consciously decided to stretch myself past my limits — I did it reflexively, not realizing that there was another option. Because I was so programmed to put others’ needs ahead of my own, I hadn’t even possessed the self-awareness to realize that there was a volcano of resentment brewing beneath the surface.
There was a fine line, I discovered, between doing chesed and being taken advantage of, and that line was whether I was able to make an active choice. If I chose to extend myself so that my husband could learn or rest, that was fine; if I did so because I felt compelled to, that wasn’t fine.
Learning to acknowledge my needs and not extend myself to the point of resentment helped me in other areas as well. One day, I got an e-mail from my brother asking me to tell my father something. “You can tell him yourself,” I wrote back. “I’m not the family switchboard.”
When my mother called me frantically and told me that I must call my sister and find out why she was upset at her, I said, “Ma, I think it would be better if you spoke to her directly.”
She begged me to call, but I remained firm yet respectful in my refusal to be dragged into the dynamic.
At work, I was still the team member who most often picked up the slack — but the difference was that I learned to do it of my own volition, using seichel. If I filled in for a colleague, it was because I was choosing to go the extra mile, not because I was required to. And if doing that chesed came at too high a cost to me or my family, I could decline and not feel guilty.
It took a few years for Zevy and me to get it right. I learned to identify my needs, communicate what I wanted, and stop overcompensating for the people around me, while he learned to tune in to me, anticipate my needs, and become an equal partner in our home. Today, he’s much more involved in childcare and the running of the house, and he’s actually happier that way. So am I.
If there’s one thing I learned from this process, it’s that the opposite of the wrong thing isn’t necessarily the right thing. When I stood under the chuppah, I was determined to build a good marriage, but I didn’t know what a good marriage looked like. Going to the other extreme to avoid the mistakes my parents made just caused me to make different mistakes, which could have proven just as damaging in the long run.
My parents didn’t know how to communicate and work things out — and neither did I. Baruch Hashem, I learned how to do it before it was too late.
(Originally featured in Mishpacha Issue 644)To have your story retold by C. Saphir, e-mail a brief synopsis to firstname.lastname@example.org or call +1.718.686.9339 extension 87204 and leave a message. Details will be changed to assure confidentiality.