My Mother, the Parenting Expert
I discovered Mindy Greenstein in The New York Times, where she wrote about her relationship with her doorman. Because her piece perfectly captured the essence of my latest book, Consequential Strangers, I clipped it and fashioned a post around it. I then found “The Whole Other Me’gillah,” an essay about her mother, a Holocaust survivor, and their relationship after the birth of her first child, Max. An excerpt of that piece, slightly adapted for Mother U, is below.
“It’s easy, Ma, 666-6666. You just need to remember one number.” I quietly but methodically gave my mother the phone number for a car service, to take her from her home in Brooklyn to our Manhattan apartment for our first son Max’s bris.
“Wait, start from the beginning. What’s the number?”
“I told you, ma, it’s all sixes–6 6 6…”
“But, what’s the first number?””
“Six, Ma, they’re all sixes.”
“Yeah. Just seven sixes in a row.”
“Six seven six?”
“NOOOOOOOOOOOO. THEY’RE ALL SIXES. JUST SIXES! ONLY SIXES!!!”
“Farshteinischt.” She didn’t understand.
Though my mother spoke a half dozen languages, I still found it hard to communicate with her. Six years old when the Holocaust came to her native Romania, she survived with most of her family by hiding in forests and getting smuggled into and out of different countries before settling in Israel after the war. She had no schooling since the first grade. English was her final language, learned after she married my father, a Holocaust refugee from Poland whom she met in Israel. They settled in Brooklyn, New York. I was born the following year.
Early on, I’d learned to accept that my parents couldn’t do the things other parents seemed to do, like helping with homework. Instead, I fended for myself, taking particular pride in school work. By the time I gave birth to Max, I’d finished a year of post-doctoral work as a forensic psychologist in a federal prison. I’d had no problem working with murderers, drug dealers and kidnappers, but a newborn baby was another story.
The books had said Max would sleep for fifteen to twenty hours a day. Five to eight hours was more like it. He required constant movement during his waking hours or he would scream, sometimes until he turned blue. I didn’t consider my mother a resource. After all, we didn’t speak the same language, and I was the trained professional. (I’d even started planning my next paper, on the childhood development of object permanence – the sense that objects continue to exist even when you no longer see them.) She offered to help, but what could she possibly do for me when it took twenty minutes just to give her a phone number that consisted of one repeated digit? At the recommendation of our pediatrician, I hired a babysitter so that I could get some relief.
Then one day, the sitter called in sick.
“You want I should help you, maybe?” my mother again asked over the phone. Oh God, I thought, but I felt too desperate to refuse help from anyone.
When she came, I’d been walking Max for more than two hours straight. We were both in tears.
“Look, it’s easy. See? Just do like this.” She took him out of my arms. His body jerked immediately and he started to scream.
“He’s screaming, Ma. Give him back,” I said, irritated.
Ignoring me, she put him in the carriage and started to jerk it forward by the handle.
“Stop it, Ma, you’ll break his…”
But he was already quiet. When I took over, the crying immediately started up again. I learned to push it her way–sharper, faster–and he quieted again. Then she took him out for a walk so that I could get some sleep. Only, once they were outside, she called repeatedly, with questions like, “Where I can get some falafel?” Finally, when she called for the third time to ask if there was anything she could do for me while she was out, I yelled, “Yeah. STOP CALLING ME!” and yanked the cord out of the base of the phone.
She’d traveled an hour and a half to help me, quieted down my screaming infant, and I yelled at her for doing something she couldn’t help. Then, an image popped into my head that never left, of a foreign and damaged young woman who didn’t speak the language, with a husband who thought babies were woman’s work, a crying infant and a mother thousands of miles away. No friends, no babysitters. Nothing to help her but the sheer force of her instinct to survive.
I was ashamed by how stingy I’d been. The empathy I’d had for former patients, the pity I showered on myself, I could never muster up for her, a woman who had suffered so much.
A woman who could be a lot more competent than I after all.
“Look, I’m making peekaboo!” she called to me from the living room during another visit a few months later. “When I make peekaboo before, Mex’aleh liked it because he was surprised when I pull the hands away. But look now.”
She kneeled in front of Max and started to cover her face in her hands, in the classic pre-peekaboo pose. His whole body seemed to giggle.
“See? Now, he starts to laugh before I make with the hands. He used to like it only after I make peekaboo, but now he laughs because he expects it. It shows he understands what I do next. Look how excited!”
And right on cue, Max displayed the next stage of object permanence for his grandmother. She giggled more than he did.
“Maybe I’m not explaining it so good.”
“No, Ma. I think you explained it just fine.”