Until I began learning about Judaism at the age of twenty, every single person I’d ever met, every single book’d ever read and every single class I’d ever attended presented one single, simple message about the role of women. Our grandmothers and women of all previous generations were oppressed losers who were confined to their traditional role as mothers and wives. Liberated and educated modern women (like you and me!) attain self-fulfillment and true happiness through achievements in the workplace.

Tell this to a person for twenty years, and then give her a newborn baby, a package of diapers and three months of maternity leave. How do you think she feels?

How do you think I felt?

My aim is an awful lot better than it used to be

When I first became a mother eight years ago, keeping those old anti-mother voices in check as I cared for my growing family and our home sometimes felt as daunting as hitting those gophers on the head in the amusement park arcade.

In more recent years, though, the gophers have taken to popping up on rarer and rarer occasions. They know that over the past eight years I have attended a lot of Torah classes, and read a lot of Jewish books, and attended a lot of parenting classes, all of which have converted me into a rabidly proud Jewish mother.

They know that over the past eight years I have figured out that with all of these thousands of days of kissing skinned knees and scratching my head over math homework and microwaving grilled cheese sandwiches, I am raising the next generation of the Jewish people.

They know that I know that I am a woman on a holy mission.

Rodents, beware! I have my hammer in hand, and my aim is an awful lot better than it used to be.

But there are those days when one daring gopher sneaks a peek up at me from his hole, and sees that I’ve misplaced my hammer somewhere. It’s been one of those uninspired writing days, when I checked my inbox every five minutes, or one of my kids has been home with chickenpox for the sixth day in the row, or it’s an hour past my bedtime and the clean laundry basket still looks like Mount St. Helens after the eruption.

And then that gopher jumps out of his hole and has a party.

“Loser! You are wasting your higher education on changing diapers and wiping runny noses! You are squandering your potential on scrubbing dirty dishes and baking macaroni and cheese casseroles!”

It’s at moments like this that I know that no tape or book or inspiring thought can provide the heavy-duty help I need. It’s at desperate moments like this that I know I am in need of a serious talk with my cleaning lady.

Luningning, my Filipina cleaning lady, is a person who makes the gophers flee for their lives.

She is like the paging option on my cordless phone. She enables me to hear the beeping hammer I lost underneath that erupting pile of laundry. She does this by enabling me to see my life as a mother for the tremendous blessing it really is.

She just smiled with a look of hard-won acceptance

The first time Luningning cleaned for me about a year ago, she told me about her children, four boys ranging between the ages of three and twelve. When she first mentioned this, I blurted out, “I have four girls! Our children are almost the same ages!” I felt terribly that she is separated from her own children, but she just smiled with a look of hard-won acceptance.

She told me that during her last pregnancy her husband left her for another woman, and she, from one moment to the next, was transformed into the sole breadwinner of her whole extended family. This, too, she told me without a trace of bitterness.

Almost every penny that Luningning earns from cleaning, she wires to her mother, who is caring for her children. This money pays for her children’s basic needs, such as clothing and food, which she had struggled to afford as a single mother in the Philippines.

Her love for her children is what drives her, what inspires her day in and day out as she vacuums other people’s carpets, scrubs their pots with steel wool and disinfects their toilets. She told me that she dreams that her sons will grow up to become doctors and computer engineers.

Luningning is a person who, despite her objectively miserable life situation, radiates great joy and dignity. As she cleans the disaster zone that my home is on a regular Saturday night, she hums to herself.

Every week, when I leave Luningning humming over my greasy pots, and tread upstairs to fold a week’s worth of laundry, I do not feel even a pinch of my usual ambivalence for the task that awaits me.

Instead, I am overwhelmed with gratitude.

I stop by my girls’ room, and a tidal wave of love, even wonder, washes over me as I look at them. I take a few minutes to give my oldest daughter a big kiss and ask her about the book she is reading. I go to my other sleeping daughters, and cover up little feet and knees that poke out from underneath their blankets. I am swooning.

I take a few minutes to give my oldest daughter a big kiss

As I approach my Mount St. Helens, for one moment, I imagine the world turned upside down. Luningning is home with her four boys, and I am washing her dishes at her home in Manila. My girls are being raised eight time zones away by my mother, and I speak with them once a week by phone. Even my older daughters barely remember me, and my youngest daughter knows me only as a person in a photograph on the wall.

I pick up some pieces of erupted laundry, and I feel what a privilege it is to be able to live with my children, to raise them day in and day out, to see them grow up. It is even a privilege, I suddenly feel, to be able to fold the laundry of my own family, instead of separating another family’s coloreds and whites for $10 an hour.

I feel like the luckiest woman in the world.

How could I see how much Luningning pines for her children, and not feel that?

For days after Luningning cleans my home, the gophers cower in fear in their holes. I see my four children and I feel a sweet geyser of gratitude in my gut. I read them bedtime stories, take them shopping for gloves, and fry them scrambled eggs, and I savor every moment.

I feel a debt of eternal gratitude.

Actually, make that a debt of maternal gratitude.