I was at a party a couple of weeks ago, and started chatting with a lovely young woman, a cousin of the hostess. She was in graduate school, getting an MFA in painting, and worked as a ballroom dance instructor to keep food on the table. Her boyfriend was a musician with a small but loyal local following. I was enjoying talking to her so much, and then she mentioned in passing that her mother had died when she was 3.
It was all I could do to stop myself from yanking her to my breast right then and there. “My daughter’s 3,” I blurted out. “It’s, like, my worst nightmare that something would happen to me and I wouldn’t be there for her.”
She took it in stride; she’d clearly heard it all before. “I’m okay,” she reassured me, cutting straight to the heart of what had just happened: I’d reduced her to someone she was 20 years ago and leapt into a breach that no longer existed. I stopped myself in my tracks and redirected our conversation to where it had been, but inwardly, I was anguished. My head (now) knew she had been raised by a loving father and grandparents, that she had worked through what she needed to work through, and that she was now a capable and accomplished adult. But my heart wanted to tickle her, bite her toes, and brush her hair as she sat in my lap and talked about Elmo.
I have another friend who lost her mother at a young age, and she says this happens to her all the time. All the time. Like when someone sees you’re pregnant and asks, “Oh my God, are you having twins?” Or when I say, “My husband’s Randy,” and someone waggles her eyebrows and leers, “Oh, is heeee?” Unoriginal. Annoying. Invasive. Inappropriate. Yep, that’s me all right.
But it’s not so unusual, is it, to feel the need to mother someone when you’re so intensely engaged in the process of mothering already? At the playground, if you see a kid fall, it doesn’t matter if he’s not yours–you’re going to pick him up and then look around for the mom. Call it parental instinct, call it being a yenta, but it’s part of being a responsible part of society. If we didn’t act this way, we’d be newts, as my own mom likes to say.
I built up calluses around my heart for, oh, forty years before having kids, and the act of loving has the effect of a huge pumice stone, rubbing me completely raw and even more exposed than I was in the first place. Someone said that having kids is like having your heart walk around outside your body, and that rings so true to me. When my husband, whom I trust implicitly, takes the kids on a day trip, I don’t relax and feel free; I fret and feel off-kilter until they return. Like I said, call it whatever you want, but I can’t change it. And it goes beyond my kids to other kids, and to the kids that the annoying people around me must once have been, so that I find myself writing excuses for all kinds of ridiculous behavior because I see everything through the prism of, “she’s just hungry or tired, don’t take it so seriously.”
See what I did there? Now it doesn’t seem like such a bad habit, does it?
There was a book my friend dug out of her parents’ shelf when we were in seventh grade or so: How To Be A Jewish Mother, a classic tome from 1964 that outlined guilt, thrift, matchmaking, and meddling. The intro said right out that, “you don’t have to be Jewish or a mother to be a Jewish mother,” but my mom very nearly popped a brain vein when I brought it home to show her. She said it was anti-Semitic; I said it was funny. The author was married to Nora Ephron for seven years, so I don’t know, probably it was a little bit of both. The point is–and I did have a point–that the Jewish Mother is a stalwart pop-culture stereotype, one that rubs me the wrong way no matter what disclaimers you stick on it.
So let’s talk about the real thing about Jewish mothers, which is that we’re just like all the other mothers. Some of us are a little more haunted by tales of the Holocaust, but let me tell you, the same could be said of Armenian mothers. And come on, any other ethnic group. You know we don’t hold the patent on extra-string collections and marriage suggestions. But I don’t think there’s anything particularly Jewish about the desire to care for a lonely child–even one that’s deep inside an adult you’re chatting with over Riesling and rugelach.
This is something we can’t fix. It’s as ridiculous and boundary-busting as saying, “Shove over and let me drive your Prius, I have one just like it at home.” So, we button our lips and offer murmurs of consolation and leave it at that.
But that doesn’t mean we have to like it.