On the surface, my mother and father appear to have a traditional distribution of labor. My father, Warren, is a dentist and runs a practice that includes an assistant, a hygienist, and a secretary. My mother, Robin, left her job as a computer programmer to raise my sister and me.
When my father was a dental student almost forty years ago, my mother got a job at the university-affiliated hospital so that his tuition would be discounted. His first real job was working for a man who deceived him to believe he would be made an equal partner at the office. My mother was the one who called his bluff and spurred my father to start his own practice. She couldn’t have been older than 26.
“You’re a naïve little girl,” the older dentists told her. She was unfazed. She took my father out driving and found an office space. My father is temperamentally more similar to me—slower to make a change, more inclined to give other people the benefit of the doubt and wait things out. My mother has no qualms about deeming something bad, done, no good, time to do something different; her confidence that it was time, and her confidence in my father’s abilities, catalyzed what transpired: When my father started his own practice, the secretary followed him, and so did many of the patients.
My mother continued to play a crucial role in the growth and health of my father’s practice, especially using her graduate work in computer science to computerize the office as the nineties and aughts floated by; when my father’s long-time assistant went on maternity leave, my mother got licensed as a dental assistant so that she could fill in. She went in with my father every week to clean the office; she decorated it anew every few years and for every holiday.
My father was a loving, proud, and playful dad who delighted in every one of my achievements and participated in any father-daughter or family activity he could. I have always known that both of my parents get a real kick out of me. But it was not my father’s responsibility to make sure that I did my homework or cleaned my room or got ready for school on time.
“What do I know? I’m just a human ATM,” he’d say. “Go ask the boss.”
Every night when I was growing up, my mother made beautiful dinners. Cashiers in the local supermarket knew her well, as she went nearly daily, selecting the best produce available. Every evening, while I sat in my room pretending to do my homework, but really watching reruns of Friends with my open math textbook in my lap, the scent of sautéing garlic shrimp or fragrant rosemary roasted potatoes would waft up the stairs and surround me. At some point, around 6 or 7, I would hear my name called from downstairs, drop my very important homework, and descend to grace my family with my presence at a beautifully set table.
I never helped my mother prepare these dinners because she never asked. It did not occur to me to go ahead and help anyway. Every once in a while, when I would transfer a plate from the sink to the dishwasher, my parents would make a spectacle of performing surprise.
“Oh my god! Is Jamie helping? I don’t believe it! Wow!” Ensuring, in fact, that I would not repeat such a mistake for a long while.
My mom’s own mother was trapped in an unhappy marriage and overwhelmed by the responsibilities of caring for three children. As a result, my mother learned that if she wanted to get something done, she would have to do it herself. She became, by necessity, an independent, autonomous person who could also anticipate the needs of other people before they even knew they had them. It never occurred to her that other people needed to be taught to be helpful.
I tried to explain this to her once when she was complaining that nobody helped her around the house. “Whenever I try to do the dishes or the laundry, you just tell me I’m doing it wrong and start doing it yourself,” I said, appealing to reason.
“It’s not that hard,” she said. “Figure it out.”
My lack of innate bed-making, dishwasher-loading, decluttering impulses offended her almost morally. She did not realize the unintended consequences of her aggressively competent parenting: my own sloth-like sense that, whether or not I was on top of things, everything would ultimately be fine. I have spent much of my adult life trying to do penance for this royal treatment.
My grandmother married a man eleven years older than she who retreated into monthslong stony silences when they fought, so my mother married a man her own age who never stopped talking. My grandfather was heavy and couch-bound and considered walking from the parking lot to his desk his daily exercise, so my mother chose for a husband a sprightly man of boundless energy who gets up at 6 to walk uphill on the treadmill. My grandmother waffled in department stores, hemming and hawing over whether or not to buy a sweater; my mother made instinctive, quick decisions and didn’t look back on them. My grandmother expected to be included in her grown children’s vacations and plans; my mother made a point of giving my sister and me space.
As my father says, “The first thing your mother did when she moved out of her parents’ house was to buy a can of Grandma-Be-Gone and spray it everywhere.”
When my sister and I were both old enough to go to school, my mother wanted to get a part-time job. To make this possible, she asked my grandmother if she would be willing to come to our house twice or three times a week in the afternoon when we got home from school. My grandmother said no, and my mother stayed home.
When my aunt was getting married, my grandmother offered to go dress shopping with my mother for the wedding. My grandmother chose a matronly mother-of-the-bride dress; my mother tried on something more glamorous and youthful; the women in the store fawned over her. My grandmother generously paid for both dresses. That evening, she called my mother and told her, “I’m going to wear the dress you got, and you can wear the dress I got.”
My mother tells me these stories about my grandmother as though they crystallize and contain the stinginess of my grandmother’s soul, and she may be right. She tells me about this to explain to me where she comes from, and how she would never do these things to me. That is certainly true: my mother’s inclination towards me is to give everything she can, nearly to a fault. If I had children, I don’t think I would be able to keep my mother away, even if I wanted to. I have never heard a story or witnessed an instance of my grandmother taking care of my mother.
My mother is one of the sharpest and most capable people I know. She can fix anything that’s broken, find anything that’s lost, get done what needs to get done. This is something I took for granted as a child and it is a notion I have not been disabused of as an adult. Her younger sister is a lawyer, and her younger brother is a cardiologist, and both of them readily say that my mother is the smartest of the three of them. Friends, family, acquaintances, and neighbors call her when they are lost knowing that she will instantly, confidently tell them what to do. She thinks in crystal clear black and white; she does not doubt, she does not waver, she does not ponder. She plows ahead, trusting her gut, and she is usually, infuriatingly right.
As a deeply grey-area thinker for whom every decision is full of agonizingly valid possibilities, my inclination as the daughter of such a mother was to outsource much of my thinking to her. It was quite convenient to have someone so thoroughly invested in my best interests, so able and willing to make the right calls. My first instinct in anything resembling a crisis was to call her.
The last time I assigned responsibility for a decision to my mom, I was twenty-three and deciding between two jobs. One was at a school, let’s call it School A, that appeared to be an excellent fit; I liked everyone I met there, I liked the town, and I felt I could thrive there. I went to sign my contract and realized that the pay was significantly less than at the other school, which we’ll call School B. I wanted to move out of my parents’ house to somewhere decent. But I couldn’t bring myself to sign. I went home. I told my mom.
“Let’s go to School B, then, and you can sign the contract and be done with it,” she said, without batting an eye.
I didn’t know what to do. Choosing between two jobs felt like being on a game show and deciding to look behind doors 1 or 2. Still, I went with my gut and allowed my mom’s opinion (I was putting this on her, be certain) to steer the ship.
I was miserable for the next two years. Deeply unhappy in the school I chose, I was unwilling to take responsibility for having chosen it—and conveniently had my mom’s participation in that day as a way to avoid doing so. I remember standing in my room—the enormous master bedroom of a two-bedroom, two-bathroom apartment that I had all to myself in New Jersey for $1,000 less than my studio in Manhattan—and sobbing.
“I made a mistake,” I blubbered over and over again through my tears, the star of my own tragedy. “I made such a mistake.”
I lay like a starfish on my beige carpet staring at the ceiling, my head next to the entrance of my walk-in closet.
I called my mom.
“I’m so unhappy,” I cried into the phone. “Why did I ever decide to work here? I think I’m being punished for letting you push me into it.”
“Oh no, Jamie,” she said. “I’m not being blamed for this. You made a decision, and you have to go forward from here. You don’t know what it would have been like at that other school. You have no idea.”
“It would have been amazing!” I whined. “Anything would have been better than this! How am I going to survive to the end of the year? How am I going to live like this?”
The thing that smacked me the most in that moment was not that I was unhappy at a job that I chose, but that I felt I never really chose it. I’d ignored my own need for cognitive closure—the need to end ambiguity. I read about this recently. Some people, like my mom, have a high need for cognitive closure. Others, like me, have almost none. Not having a need for cognitive closure is a quality that is extremely useful as an English graduate student and then stops being functional pretty much right about there. It’s paralyzing.
An affinity for ambiguous states makes it impossible to make decisions, to end things, to say with any finality, “No” or “Yes.” I never wanted to be responsible for making these calls, but unless I wanted my mom to do it for me for the rest of my life, and I suspect she would, for as long as I’d let her, I’d have to figure out a way to keep my own counsel.
My mother’s great asset—her active certainty, her readiness and willingness to solve all problems five minutes ago—was a bright light that also cast a dark shadow. I spent more than a few years crawling out from under it, learning how to trust my own instincts while appreciating her glow.
My mom’s mother died last year after a decade of dementia. Throughout those years, my mother organized her daily life around her care. I worried about her.
My mom would call me during that time and I would tell her a little about what was doing with me, and I’d listen to her talk about all that she had to deal with—the latest assisted living crisis, the trips to the hospital, the never-ending errands. Although there was a lot of aggravation in her world at that time, she still laughed. She’s one of the funniest people I know. She has a particular way of making me laugh—it’s irrepressible, and it happens to both of us at the same time. She’s not a comedian; she doesn’t make jokes—that’s more my dad’s bag. My mom and I both get the laughs when we’re not supposed to. Like funeral laughs. A few months before my grandmother died, the doctors told my mother that although her mind was deteriorating, her body was in great shape. “They told me she could live another two years or more,” she said. As we both started to laugh involuntarily at the horror of it all, she added, “Oh, goody.”
I have different versions of the same memory of my mother disciplining me when I was young. Whatever my transgression was, she would have been in the middle of saying something along the lines of, “And it’s not acceptable for you to—” and then we would both start laughing at the same time.
She’d push through her laughter: “It’s not acceptable for you to talk to your sister like that, and I’m going to take away your computer.”
And I’d be hysterical laughing and say, “Okay! Go ahead!” And I’d walk her up to my room and unplug the computer for her to take it, still laughing.
And still laughing, she’d lift the monitor and lug it out of the room. But she’d be falling over and crying from laughing so hard. And I’d stand there, laughing too, and we’d both end up on the floor in the hallway, not sure why we were fighting or why we couldn’t stop laughing, waiting to catch our breath.