Helpmate vs. Enabler: Discerning the Difference

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“And the Lord said: it is not good for a man to be alone. I will create a helpmate for him.”

The actual Hebrew words for helpmate here are “ezer k’negdo”, meaning “a helper against him”, which creates a sort of cognitive dissonance: how can a helpmate be against one?!

There are many interesting tractates on this verse, but an explanation I find beautiful in its simplicity is as following:

Consider marriage as a seesaw. If two people sit on the same side with one always attached to and behind the other, the seesaw won’t move. It will only function if the other person steps over to the opposite side, creating a dynamic balance.

The image of the wife as a helpmate evokes a beautiful picture of a godly and hardworking man and a woman who stands behind him and supports all his endeavors. So far, it’s all sweet and simple. But the Torah doesn’t just exist to guide us in simple situations. It is universal and everlasting.

Consider the following scenario: a husband becomes addicted to video games. He is perpetually glued to the computer screen and refuses to turn away from it even at mealtimes. Instead, he demands that his wife should serve him sandwiches which he can eat while playing.

If a wife is supposed to always defer to her husband, she will serve him those sandwiches out of misguided respect and submission. Does this make her a good helpmate? Nope, it makes her an enabler of bad behavior.

A real helpmate will tell her husband, respectfully but in no uncertain terms, that he will get no assistance in his destructive habits from her. She will refuse to support his addiction and will insist on a normal functioning family.

The Jewish sages have written, “A good woman does her husband’s will”. Does this mean that a wife simply caters to her husband’s every whim? No, that would be doing them both a disservice. Certainly, there’s nothing wrong with complying with a reasonable request (“could you make pea soup for lunch, please?”), but what if the husband says, “I don’t want you to visit your parents anymore, ever again”? In that case “doing the husband’s will” would mean encouraging good tendencies, turning his will towards positive things (like making him understand that he cannot cut his wife away from her family).

We are all imperfect flawed human beings walking the bendy road of improving and growing, in the hopes that when we finally meet our Creator, we will be able to testify with a clear conscience that our time in this world had not been in vain. Living in a marriage is one of the ultimate hardcore tests of this personal growth (but that doesn’t mean one should put up with abusive patterns for the sake of “personal growth”). Even if you love your spouse and have a healthy, loving marriage, it’s easier to live alone than together, to make one-sided decisions rather than work as a team.

No one can be charged with the impossible task of changing one’s spouse because real change can only come from within. However, it is not healthy, loving, godly or spiritual to bend to character tendencies that are clearly flawed. Being a good helpmate does not always mean going the route of minimizing conflict. It does not mean complying with laziness, rudeness, disrespect, irresponsibility, or passive aggressive behavior.

In my case, the most obvious way such misguided rigidity of principles manifested was the area of our family finances. I believed that my calling was to close my eyes and cling to my husband on his end of the seesaw, even as our family was freefalling into a bottomless pit of financial crisis. I believed I was supposed to act and think like my husband’s decisions about money were the Voice from Mount Sinai, rather than what they were: human reasoning that could, and often WAS, flawed. He might not have liked to admit it, but what he, and my children, really needed was not for me to keep “trusting” his reasoning even as I reached deep into the corners of the freezer for some leftover flour to make a loaf of bread with. My job back then, though it took me way too long to recognize, was to jump on the other side of the seesaw and call out, “Hey, this isn’t working! We have to figure out something different!”

It sounds less nice than “I trust you implicitly and you are the supreme hero of the universe and I’m backing you no matter what you do because that is my spiritual calling”. But sometimes having another’s back means giving them what they NEED, rather than what they want. And what our entire family needed was for me to be more proactive about earning money and handling finances.

This didn’t happen overnight or without some sharp growth pains (which included some serious ego-deflating, because if you have never been held accountable in your life and suddenly you are, it might not fly very nicely). But it is definitely happening and our lives are so much better for it.

A decade in the West Bank: a recap

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When I was a bride on the point of my wedding, my future husband and I were looking for a quiet rural place where we could raise our children close to nature and away from busy roads and packed streets. There are such places in Israel, but they are either remote or hugely expensive. In an act of thinking outside the box, we explored the possibility of hopping over the ’67 border, or “the green line”, into the Judea and Samaria area, also known as “The West Bank”.

It was not a political statement (at least not initially). We did believe, and still do, that Jews have the right to live in every part of the Promised Land as it appears in the Bible. Otherwise, all Israelis are nothing more than greedy colonists and might as well pack up and leave. But it was not what led us to move to the settlement of Kedumim and later, when that, either, did not answer our rural dream, to the surrounding outposts.

We soon found out that our motives in living remotely were vastly different from almost every other person we came in contact with. While we essentially wanted a homestead and complete privacy, our neighbors emphasized community and “doing things together” (which did not sit well at all with me as an individualist, and which in my opinion led to lots of gossiping and people sticking their noses into each other’s tushy).

Israeli farmers and settlers have historically been forced to band together for safety reasons. Independent farms are few and far between. We have not been able to attain this dream; perhaps we never will, now. Living among the rolling hills and picturesque views was lovely while it lasted, but it came with a cost.

One was safety. I don’t have statistics, but tragedies happen all the time. People die in car accidents. Hospitals are always full. But this can’t compare to the palpable feeling of pure evil walking all around you, of knowing that there are monsters in human skin who are out there to kill you and your children just for who they are.

During our time in the Shomron, we came in contact with two incidents of such evil: the attack on the 11-year-old Ayala Shapiro, whose family were our neighbors, which left her with severe burns that had maimed her forever; and the murder of Rabbi Raziel Shevach, who was likewise our neighbor in the last place we had lived before leaving the area.

I don’t run a political blog, but no, civil casualties during armed conflict are NOT the same as a terrorist who deliberately sets out to kill innocents, and the more helpless and weak they are, the better. During the massacre of the Fogel family in Itamar, the scum of the earth monster who had already murdered the parents and two of the children was about to walk out of the house when the 4-month-old baby, whom he hadn’t noticed before, started crying in her crib. He went back and stabbed her to death.

During our last four years in the settlements we lived in what you’d call the “hardest core” outpost. People there were no fuzzy sunshiny “let’s all get along” types. We were publicly shamed for doing business in the neighboring Arab village. But you can bet your life none of those isolated “fanatics” would have walked into a random Arab home to kill babies.

One thing I have realized most strongly was that the Shomron is an integral, indispensable part of Israel. I used to be able to watch the sunset glimmer on the surface of the Mediterranean Sea from my living room window. That’s how tiny our country is. Look at the map and see what is left once Judea and Samaria area is subtracted – a narrow strip of land along the shore, vulnerable and impossible to defend.

Many people, in Israel as well as around the world, labor under the delusion that if we just retreat to the ’48 borders as defined by the UN, all will be peachy and the Hamas and Hezbollah will drop their guns and rockets and we’ll all sing Kumbaya together around a campfire. Sorry, folks, not gonna happen. Those who hate us and want to kill us in Maale Adumim hate us and want to kill us in Tel Aviv. By the way, don’t you find it funny how Jerusalem, where Jews have lived thousands of years ago and which had never been without a Jewish presence, is so strongly disputed, while Tel Aviv, which is a historically recent creation, is not?

Quoting the Bible as the document that gives us the right to this land might not be accepted by all, but without it, what are we actually doing here?

But I digress.

Many settlements are like small towns with no clear political affiliation. People there mostly just go about their business and live like in any other part of the country. Where we lived it was different. The place had all sorts of legal obstacles to its development. There were often problems with electricity and running water. There were no shops, post office, bank, doctors, etc, within walking distance.

This lack of accessibility, even more than the clannish segregated social structure, was what I found most frustrating about my life on that area. Without a car or reliable transportation means, I was utterly dependent on DH for every little thing. If we had run out of milk and he didn’t feel like driving to the grocery store, too bad, we’d just have to do without milk. Every trivial errand turned into a huge logistic challenge.

The decision to leave did not come about in one day. Besides being attached to the area, we couldn’t afford to move anywhere else (forget that we could barely afford to maintain our own house, as it was).

I suppose the overwhelming feeling I had experienced in those days was simply exhaustion. I was tired of never feeling quite safe, of not being able to count on having simple necessities like running water, of everything being such a logistical nightmare, from checking emails to running to the grocery store, of being utterly dependent on my husband for every trivial little thing.

I feel extremely lucky that my mom had a home to offer us. Things are so much easier for me today that I sometimes feel like I cheated. I was certainly a lot more fortunate than others in my situation. Not everyone has generous family ready to help them out of lousy circumstances.

My heart is still with the courageous souls braving a thousand risks and inconveniences each day of living where I used to. I will always feel a strong emotional bond to that part of the country. However, there’s no denying I’m a lot happier and mentally healthier here.

The sea glass journey

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Following my latest post, I would like to elaborate a little on the sea glass analogy – how the process of roughing it we all go through in life will, ideally, smooth our prickly edges, sand down any uncomfortable bumps, and turn a tossed-off shard of glass into something new and beautiful.

This doesn’t happen, however, without the waves hurling and swirling the piece of glass, throwing it against the sand and rocks at the bottom of the sea.

Again and again. You can bet it isn’t always comfortable. You can bet it hurts.

When we just start out in life, we tend to be very optimistic, very driven, a bit naive, and extremely opinionated (a typical example is teens looking down on their parents and thinking they are so much cleverer and understand things so much better). This also, naturally, makes us a little unforgiving.

That’s why I love old people. They’ve seen it all. They have a much more balanced view on life. They have the wisdom that only comes with experience.

In my case, the opinionated thing manifested most strongly in the family model I yearned for: wife at home, homeschooling the dozen children and baking bread. Husband working diligently to provide for the family. Everyone enjoying the mutual fruit of these labors in harmony, peace, love, and respect.

You know what, I still happen to think it’s a really, really good model and it’s absolutely wonderful when it works. I envy people for whom it did. But though I did always nominally acknowledge it might NOT work, I was a little in denial of how often it actually doesn’t.

That’s why, when we were hit with a period of unemployment, then another, and another, then lost our house and a humongous sum of money – all due to decisions in which I had little to no say – I got myself sick with worry and stress.

My thought process at that time went like this: “It shouldn’t be this way! My husband should be more diligent about providing for the family! He should be more careful with money! The people who owe him money should step up and repay the debt! It isn’t fair!”

Let me tell you something, it can drive you crazy, thinking and talking about things others should and MUST be doing differently, while you can do little to nothing to influence them. It makes you feel small, helpless, and anxious, not to mention resentful and bitter.

To make matters worse, for a long, long time I was held back from even attempting to improve the situation by my own misguided beliefs: that by offering constructive advice, let alone actively attempting to earn money for the family, I would be humiliating my husband and expressing my distrust in his leadership. I refused to acknowledge that my husband was just a man, with fallible thinking just like mine, and that ALL of us sometimes need a tug in the opposite direction to balance us out.

That’s the true meaning of the “ezer k’negdo”, by the way: it’s usually translated into English as “helpmate”, but it’s so much more than that. It’s “k’negdo”, meaning, on the opposite side. The wife who is a perfect submissive helpmate that enables her husband’s failings is not much of a helpmate at all. The REAL helpmate gets on the other side of the seesaw to throw her weight there and get things moving. She offers balance!

So as I wore myself down with anxiety, I wasn’t really a piece of sea glass yet. I was just a prickly shard stranded on a rock somewhere, crying about how life wasn’t going the way it was supposed to. At some point, however, I realized I have two choices: I could either retain my nature as the sharp glass shard by being stuck on that rock and getting nowhere, or…

… I could roll with the waves and let the water and sand smooth me out.

I could rant and rave about how my husband should try harder to find a job, or I could look at employment options myself.

I could grumble about the way my husband managed the family finances (pouring money into risky ventures, lending to untrustworthy people who never repaid the debt, etc), or I could become more proactive about managing my own bank account (I always had my own, but for many years it just sat inactively).

I could keep being inflexible, stubborn and unforgiving, or I could learn some kindness, maturity and humility and realize that sometimes, things just don’t work quite the way we want them to.

I made the choice. I jumped into the waves and let them start shaping me into a lovely, smooth piece of sea glass.

Today, I live in a safe, comfortable place where my children and I have all necessary facilities within walking distance. I still garden, bake and raise chickens, but I also work and pay the bills. I have accepted the fact that I can’t expect anyone, not even my husband, to take care of me, because I choose to be a mature adult woman rather than a woman-child held hostage by her own beliefs.

I have also realized I actually like the piece of sea glass, smoothed and rounded at the edges by the waves and coarse sand it had had to endure, much better than the original glass shard, which was pretty and flashy but would cut anyone who came too close. Oh, and it was much more brittle than it realized, too.

Is my journey done? I sincerely hope not! Life is a dynamic thing. I can only try my best to move upward.

“Should be” vs. “Is”, or the Kitchen Sink Saga

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Last week, I discovered a massive leak under one of our kitchen sinks (yes, we’re lucky enough to have two). After mopping up the mess and emptying the cabinet under the sink, I did what any reasonable woman would do: asked my husband to fix it.

Unfortunately, my husband declared that he’s too busy in the next few days, and that I can just use the other sink in the meantime.

Now, the second sink was OK as an emergency backup, but I have always used the first for my meat dishes and didn’t want to mix them up.

So basically, I had two choices here:

I could stomp my foot and get angry, and rave about how inconsiderate my husband was and what’s the point of having a man in the house if not for such emergencies?!

… Or I could roll up my sleeves and get the job done myself.

(There’s also the option of paying someone else to do it, of course, but it’s kind of out of our budget right now).

I swung by the hardware store, bought a piece of piping after consulting the nice man behind the counter, watched a couple of YouTube tutorials, and dug in.

Did I do the job perfectly? No.

Did I accidentally poke myself in the face with the loose piping, split my bottom lip, dribble blood all over my front and, for the next few days, look like a poster girl for a battered women’s shelter? (I wish I were joking).

Um, never mind.

But is the sink usable again now?? Yes!!

And every time I wash the dishes, I experience this warm glow of satisfaction: I did something that I thought I was incapable of. And you bet it feels a whole lot better than sitting around and grumbling about how unfair it is and how I’m not supposed to also work as a plumber while taking care of four children, running a household, and doing my best to pay the bills.

This little kitchen sink episode illustrates a truth that had taken years and years to penetrate through my thick skull: it’s so much better and healthier to take a deep breath and deal with how things are, rather than keep getting hung up on how they “should be”.

And this, my friends, is – in a nutshell – the difference between the younger me and the me of today. I spend less time thinking about the discrepancies between ideal and real, and more time rolling up my sleeves and getting things done to the best of my ability.

In case any of you Freejinger ladies are reading this (you know who you are!), that’s the process that has brought me to the point where I am today.

I have heard a lovely metaphor, that life treats us like sea glass: the waves, sand and rocks create constant abrasions that smoothe out our sharp edges, tone us down, and shape us into something new and beautiful, and much more pleasant to handle than prickly glass shards.

For me, this process has included internalizing that dreams, ideals and self-appointed rules sometimes don’t match reality, and you have two choices: roll with the waves and become a piece of sea glass, or…

Shatter on the rocks.

I’ll bet you can guess which choice I’m making every day.

Building a financial safety net

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When I was younger, I argued that maintaining a full-time career while what you would really like is to stay home with your children – not out of immediate necessity, but out of concern for possible future happenings such as illness, death, or divorce – is akin to living your life out in a bunker instead of being out in the fresh air and smelling the flowers.

In the meantime, I was doing something that was more like walking the tightrope without a safety net underneath. I had moved to a remote, inaccessible area without reliable transportation means, counting on my husband to always provide for our family and effectively making sure that, in the foreseeable future, I would not be able to contribute to the family income. Having no car and no driver’s license, I depended on my husband entirely for every errand and every little grocery store purchase (there being no facilities within walking distance at all).

I didn’t realize it back then, but I was setting myself up for some pretty unpleasant consequences should something go wrong.

Those who have been following my blog know what happened next: over the course of a few years, unemployment, underemployment and unwise financial choices had brought us to a full-blown crisis, while I couldn’t do much more than wring my hands and try to cope with anxiety and panic attacks. I did do some remote work, but even that was extremely difficult with patchy network access.

While I’m still a big proponent of making decisions out of love, not fear, and while I don’t regret for a second being a stay at home mom to my children (which in fact I still am), I would give my younger self one piece of sound advice:

Make sure you have a safety net. Don’t travel down a road that gives you no possibility to do a U-turn in case the you-know-what hits the fan. This doesn’t mean you are a wimp or lack faith. It’s simply common sense.

If I were to break it down into practical points, I would tell her:

1. Keep on building up your credentials even if you think you won’t be needing those. You never know.

2. Think twice (maybe more like ten times) before you move to an area where you would have extremely limited mobility and no services. Even if it’s your quintessential rural dream with rolling hills, olive groves, and herds of goats. If you purchase a house, take into consideration how easy or difficult it might be to sell it later on.

3. While role division in marriage makes perfect sense for many occasions, two heads are better than one. For a long time I used to think I’m displaying loyalty and trust towards my husband by leaving everything concerning the family finances entirely in his hands. In fact, I was doing none of us any favors. My husband was fallible, as was I. Neither of us was perfect in any regard, but it’s always so much worse when you feel pressure to do what is “right” rather than what works practically.

4. Build up your savings. That’s a tricky one with zero income, I know! But in case you come into some money, like after selling a house, stash some away right away and don’t allow it all to be frittered on stuff like food and rent (ask me how I know).

I guess it all boils down to this: don’t put yourself in a situation where you are disproportionately, entirely dependent on another person for all your basic needs. Even if that person is your spouse. Do not place yourself in a situation where you would be unable to help yourself if need be.

I have a friend whose husband, a really nice, hardworking man suffered an accident on the job and has lost his livelihood. Insurance doesn’t come up to scratch. He is undergoing a long and grueling process of physical rehabilitation. However, my friend is keeping afloat because she lives near supportive family and there’s every necessity readily available in the vicinity. The you-know-what has certainly hit the fan for them, but they had not placed themselves in a situation where they wouldn’t have the tools to cope.

I shudder to think what would have happened to me in a similar situation a couple of years ago. I would be left stranded in the boonies with a bunch of tots, unable to help my husband or my children or myself. I count myself lucky to have been able to move to a better, safer place.

Being safe doesn’t mean being a wimp. On the contrary, the wimpy choice is sticking one’s head in the sand and refusing to consider tomorrow.

Finding the balance: working from home with your kids around

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Stay-at-home moms are on call all the time. There’s always something to do at home – it’s more than a full time job! Between settling sibling fights and washing another never-ending stacks of dishes, it’s no wonder most moms of little ones are ready to collapse at the end of the day.

If you throw in home education and extracurricular activities, you get an even busier life.

And if you are also trying to set up a home business or establish yourself as a freelancer? While it may seem (and is often true) that working from home is a family friendly option, enabling parents to still be there to take care of their kids and save time and money on commute, it does come with challenges of its own.

Many work-at-home parents still have hired childcare, which basically makes it no different from any other job – they do have set office hours, it’s just that their office happens to be right where they live. But if you, like me, choose to work from home so that you don’t need to hand your children over to anyone else, your hours become very fluid. You may find yourself locked up in the upstairs bathroom having a video call with a client because that’s the only place where you can be sure of privacy and you really, desperately need those three minutes right NOW.

It may seem extremely difficult, next to impossible, to find time when you seemingly don’t have any, and I’ve had to become very disciplined. I don’t remember the last time I have watched a movie. I only read for pleasure on Shabbat (as a copyeditor, I basically read for a living during the week). My friends (the ones I have left) often complain that I don’t return calls. I often get up early and go to bed late, and I still have to struggle with guilt for having to do some things during the day when my children are awake and need me.

I have implemented early bedtime, even for Shira who will soon be 11, and have also gotten my kids used to the idea that I’m not always available for whatever it is. We have a home office, but I don’t use it because I can’t leave little ones unsupervised during the day. So if I do have work to complete during daytime hours, I settle with my laptop in the living room and my children know that I’m there for any emergency, but not for fixing sandwiches, reading stories or helping them make beaded bracelets – not for the next hour or two, anyway.

The older kids are encouraged to have quiet time while the baby is napping so that I can work. This includes both my own books and my paid job, though my books often find myself having to wait as I focus on a deadline for a paid project.

I still think I have got a pretty good deal. I am there when a child is sick and needs extra care. I choose my own hours and decide how much work I can take up (the more I do, the more I get paid, but one can only do so much). I run errands whenever it is convenient, I have no commute, and I can always take time off for family occasions.

A few insights:

1. Simplify. Opt for less stuff, less commitments, and simpler meals. Clutter is your enemy, especially when the whole family is home every day and all day long.

2. Avail yourself of any help with kids and/or housework you can get. If you live near family that is willing to help, so much the better for you. Don’t worry, no matter what you do, there will still be more than enough work left over for you.

3. Avoid the guilt loop. While my husband walks into our home office to take care of his stuff and make phone calls without interruption, I have often felt guilty for saying no to sitting on the carpet and coloring because I’m working to a deadline. At other times, I’ve felt guilty for neglecting the deadline and sitting down to color.

You can only do your best. If I find myself struggling with feeling I have not done enough, I look back at the end of the day on all the things I’ve done for my family – from cooking meals to giving baths, from wiping noses to paying bills, and earning the money to pay those bills, too – versus the “me time” (usually a stolen 20 minutes to work on a book, some crochet at the playground, and texting a friend for a bit) and I realize I have absolutely no reason to feel guilty. In fact, I even can and should become my own cheerleading team, applauding all my efforts and appreciating what has been achieved.

Meanwhile, around here

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We’ve had a pretty ‘blah’ week with a nasty cold making its rounds around the family, so I’ve been trying to cut myself some slack and take things as easy as possible. Of course, some things still need to be done – little people and critters need to eat on time, and we all need clean clothes, for instance. In the photo above, Hadassah is helping feed our little pullets (they’re really spoiled and will leave half their grain behind unless it’s cooked!)

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We did still make time for some really, really short walks recently, but today, truly, it has all been about keeping my head above water. Just washing the dishes, folding the laundry, cooking a simple pasta dinner, and taking care of the plants has been a huge accomplishment in my book. And of course, we’re still doing some crafts in between to unwind and relax.

Now that I’ve put the littlest one to sleep, I’m off to reading with the older kids, and hopefully, we’ll all have an early bedtime tonight.