Over-de­fen­sive on the home front

I dis­liked the stereo­type of the typ­i­cal mother — till I be­came one

The Jewish Chronicle - - Comment & Analysis - ANNA MAXTED

AS A teenager, I used to de­spise the Jewish mother — or at least, the stereo­type: her in­abil­ity to see a fault in her child, her strange ob­ses­sion with force-feed­ing any per­son in her line of sight, her em­bar­rass­ing dis­re­gard for so­cial con­ven­tion, and the pres­sure she put on her off­spring to suc­ceed at ev­ery­thing (ex­cept, pos­si­bly, sport). I had my rea­sons: as a child, I was forced to wear a thick blue duf­fel coat to school, woollen mit­tens, and a knit­ted, or­ange pom-pom hat. I was 10 and it was prob­a­bly May. By age 15, I was at least a stone over­weight — hardly sur­pris­ing, con­sid­er­ing my nat­u­ral greed and the con­stant pres­sure to “eat, eat!”.

And by 21, when I was sin­gle, friends and I agreed that there was a sus­pi­ciously high per­cent­age of Jewish guys who couldn’t be­lieve that a girl might not want to date them. Their ar­ro­gance was some­one’s fault, and it could — we de­cided — only be the mother’s.

Well, now, of course, I am pun­ished for my dis­re­spect. I have three boys — the el­dest is only six — and al­ready I am guilty of all of the above crimes, and a bunch more.

“Did he dress him­self?” asked a friend, on see­ing the two-year-old at the park one April, barely vis­i­ble in­side a big padded coat, padded trousers, and fake-fur-lined hat com­plete with ear flaps. “Yes,” I lied.

I saw the er­ror of my ways (saw, not changed, you un­der­stand) when col­lect­ing him from nurs­ery one day — all the chil­dren were play­ing out­side. My child was the only one wear­ing a silly hat.

I snatched it off his head, feel­ing my face red­den. Par­ent­ing is a les­son in giv­ing up con­trol, and yet your in­stinct is to fight that to the last — you know that your ba­bies must suf­fer pain, but the idea is enough to bring you (well, me, any­way) to tears. I can’t pro­tect my boys from the world ab­so­lutely but, by heaven, I’ll pro­tect them from the rav­ages of the English spring!

In my crazed determination to keep my son from catch­ing a chill, I’d made him vul­ner­a­ble to some­thing worse: so­cial ridicule. And quite right; he looked a com­plete berk in his id­i­otic hat.

It has been a slow re­al­i­sa­tion for me, over the past six years, of why the Jewish mother — or our tra­di­tional idea of her — ex­ists.

She is a comic cliché be­cause she doesn’t check her im­pulses — ev­ery action is an emo­tion lav­ishly played out, and we laugh at the jokes be­cause no one could, in real life, be this ex­ces­sive.

Af­ter hav­ing my own chil­dren, I re­alised, if any­thing, that the stereo­type had been played down.

Her be­hav­iour is sim­ply a man­i­fes­ta­tion of crazy love — the love that a baby brings. It knocks you side­ways. Be­fore hav­ing chil­dren, I couldn’t imag­ine it. But moth­er­hood turns you into an an­i­mal. Be­fore, I was a daugh­ter, a child: num­ber one was al­ways, self­ishly, me.

Now, it’s the lit­tle dar­lings, which is why so many par­ents are just ghastly — an ac­cu­sa­tion the Jewish mother has of­ten faced — show­ing a readi­ness to tram­ple other peo­ple’s lit­tle dar­lings un­der­foot, so long as hers are happy. But th­ese fak­ers make a mock­ery of the real thing. The true Jewish mother is a mother to the world. The moral of All My Sons is in­stinct to her.

Mother love is a love so pri­mal that you yearn to hold your ba­bies in your arms to the point of sali­va­tion; you breathe in the scent of their skin like it’s Chanel No5 — and you won­der (at least I won­dered, sniff­ing the 20month old’s stinky breath and lik­ing it), are all moth­ers this nuts?

They should be. This ex­trem­ism is a sur­vival in­stinct. I lived in a flat for three years without once turn­ing on the oven. Yet I have evolved into a crea­ture whose great­est plea­sure is to have tricked her chil­dren into eat­ing cau­li­flower by purée­ing it into their (home-made, ob­vi­ously) cheese-and-tomato pasta sauce.

If one of the chil­dren re­jects their food, it ru­ins my day. Oc­ca­sion­ally, I push it too far: cous­cous drove my three-year-old to claim: “I don’t want to be a fire­man.” But yet, I keep push­ing the veg­eta­bles — I’m hid­ing car- rots in juices; I’m hold­ing broc­coli-eat­ing con­tests; feel­ing mus­cles bulge on arms as the hated green spears are choked down. I just so want them to be OK.

It’s a lit­tle ran­dom, but so is the pos­si­bil­ity of dis­as­ter — we can­not guar­an­tee our ba­bies per­fect lives, which is per­haps why the Jewish mother is so manic, so neu­rotic. The fear of ev­ery­thing just eats away at you. I worry about keep­ing them out of prison; I worry about them hav­ing wives who are mean; I worry about al­co­holism, de­pres­sion, poverty, bald­ing; I worry that if one of them is gay, will it be ex­tra pain on top of nor­mal life pain? And then I re­mem­ber fret­ting to the con­sul­tant when I was first preg­nant about the baby suf­fer­ing stress in­side the womb.

He said that, as a par­ent, you fear ev­ery­thing, but “you fight it”. That makes us Jewish moth­ers heavy­weight cham­pi­ons.

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