My mother has always operated from a place of abject fear, and believed that instilling terror in her children was the best way to safeguard them from inevitable tragedy. When swimming, she would tell us to “avoid the drain, because your hair will get stuck and you won’t be able to come up for air!” Fun!
We weren’t permitted to cross the street alone until we were in high school, and I was never allowed to own or ride a bicycle. I didn’t eat peanuts (or any form of nut for that matter), until I was in my mid-twenties because I was drilled on their choking hazards since birth. We didn’t leave the house on holiday weekends, because “the roads were filled with drunks.” Sadly, I did not get to experience the feeling of invincibility that most kids enjoy. I was always keenly aware that I could die a fiery death at a moment’s notice.
Throughout college, my mother would detail the local crime blotter each time I’d call excitedly on my way home for the holidays: “A teenage couple was shot execution-style at the drive-in theatre the other night. Have a safe flight!” And she would always ask for my flight number–expressly so she could confirm if mine was the one that went down in case she learned of an air disaster during the six hours between my calling her before take off and after landing. This is a woman who still, to this day, answers the phone with her fingers crossed. How was I to have a fighting chance?
I always knew it was wrong, and I swore I would never be anything like her, but sadly much, if not all, of her neuroses and fear rubbed off on me. I’ve never been an adventurer. There was no skydiving, mountain climbing, or running of the bulls for me. And now, I suppose it’s not surprising that as the mother of a 2-year-old, I find myself behaving in those same fearful and overprotective ways.
Still, I recoil each time I hear myself reflexively say, “Be careful.” When visions of worst-case scenarios unfold in my mind, I know I have to reign it in. I speak to my therapist. I read books. I meditate. I even pray. I am desperate to spare my little girl from my own fate, but I’m fighting an uphill battle against years of conditioning and relentless maternal fear mongering.
So, when my 2-year-old looked at me with terror in her eyes while standing on a six-inch high climbing structure during a recent Tot Shabbat class, my heart sank. She reached out and said, “Mommy help,” with tears streaming down her face, as her classmates climbed and dismounted effortlessly and without a shred of trepidation. The guilt was overwhelming. Despite my self-awareness and all that talk about breaking the cycle, my daughter was continuing the legacy after all.
I thought about my mother, who I’d only known as a nervous wreck and wondered if she’d ever been different. I moved to New York the moment I could leave home, and modeled myself to be her diametric opposite, but always remained close to her in spirit. She lived vicariously through me as I lived the life she’d always wanted. She’d had a terribly difficult first-generation immigrant New York City childhood, which included a terminally sick mother, a father she’d never known, and a brief mysterious stint in a Staten Island orphanage. Perhaps it was because she had so little security as a child that she (over) protected us so vehemently as an adult. I don’t doubt that she meant well. She just loved us to a fault.
I continued self-flagellating for several days–mostly haranguing myself for doing the very thing I had so desperately wanted to avoid, when it occurred to me that the solution was actually quite simple. The first step was to stop fearing who I might become, and to finally accept the person I actually am. I’d spent a lifetime petrified of becoming my mother, and it was precisely that fear that had perpetuated the cycle. Now, knowing who I am–I need to reprogram and do the very antithesis of what my instincts tell me. When I want to reach out and grab my daughter or say, “Be careful” just for the hell of it, I will stop myself. I don’t need to describe the excruciating details of what could happen if she stands up on the couch and crashes headfirst to the ground. She’ll still never ride a motorcycle as long as I live, but I need to let her fall and scrape her knees and give her the room to build confidence and develop autonomy.
Letting go is incredibly difficult. Relinquishing control, or perceived control, renders me helpless and that’s terrifying, but it is precisely that feeling of helplessness that I need to embrace in order to overcome my own greatest fears, and to set an example for my daughter. It’s not going to be easy, but I’m going to try. That’s my version of scaling Kilimanjaro.