Gleaning Meaning from the Madness

Though I share academic interests with my father, I inherited almost every other facet of my personality and physical being from my mother. I have her pre-rhinoplasty nose, her penchant for chatting in the supermarket checkout line, her insatiable addiction to nuts. She taught me to love James Taylor, to hate wasting time in front of the television, and to always advocate for myself.

My mother, though always generous with her time, cannot be called touchy-feely. This cuddly trait, shared by my siblings and I, obviously tumbled down as a genetic vestige from higher up in the family tree. Growing up, we were discouraged from approaching Mom with a boo-boo, so barring hemorrhaging or dismemberment we just stuck on a band-aid ourselves. When my sister, brother, and I whined about double standards among us, she and my father often retorted with “life’s not fair,” or justified their decisions using an Israeli expression: “so you have a question to ask.”

Truly, the most spot-on illustration of my mother’s laissez-faire parenting arises from a study of contrasts, from the juxtaposition of the differing philosophies that governed the rearing of myself and of my best friend. One afternoon, after my friend graciously allowed me to vent ad nauseam about my resume-related insecurities, I asked her how she remained so confident about her job prospects.

“Well,” she replied, “when I was very young, my mother read somewhere that young women lose roughly 50% of their confidence when they go through puberty. She decided to inflate my self-confidence by 100%, so I would never come out at a deficit.”

Hearing this, I burst into laughter, leaving her bewildered. When I finally managed to catch my breath, I reassured her that I was not mocking her mother’s strategy, but rather, that it so perfectly explained the difference between us.

“My mother,” I told her, “was listening to the radio in the car one morning, when she heard a pop psychologist going on and on about how a parent should not call their children ‘sweetie’ or ‘honey’ or ‘angel.’ Why not? Because some days, children just cannot live up to those monikers and it crushes their self-esteem. So, growing up, my mother never gave her three children endearing nicknames, but instead called us by one of two names: uglipuss or fatso-face.”

While my mother never coddled me, she was never emotionally unavailable. My freshman year of college, stunned by the workload and the difficulty of making friends, I racked up a substantial phone bill by calling home every night. My parents jokingly created a “support hotline” for me, to differentiate their divergent roles. My father would pick up my calls, and in a robotic voice say, “Thank you for calling. For academic emergencies, please press 1. For emotional turmoil, please press 2. To ask for money, please hang up.”  Even in my worst moods, this elicited a laugh. If I replied 1, my father, the professor, would talk me through the art of skimming long readings, or help me craft a compelling thesis statement. More often, 2 was the requested extension, and my mother promptly picked up the phone.

“Mom,” I would moan into the phone, “Mom, I have no friends and I’ve gained fifteen pounds. I want to drop out of school and write a short story collection.”

“So go ahead and drop out of school. It will stop you from eating all the cake in the dining hall.”

Knowing that she supported my decisions made them easier to make.

“Mom, I don’t want to drop out of school. I love you.”

“I love you too, uglipuss.”

My mother rarely offered advice based on her own experience, mostly because my college experience differed so greatly from her own. A shy and codependent teenager, my mother chose to major in physical therapy, which she studied with singular focus. She graduated summa cum laude, and with her degree came a career. Outgoing and independent, I chose a liberal arts college, graduated with a degree in Spanish and Latin American Cultures, and walked out with an existential crisis instead of a career. My mother’s advice: “Chill out. It’ll happen when it happens.”

She is right, as mothers always are. That does not stop me from calling her biweekly, as I leave work, to wonder out loud in a most cathartic fashion why exactly I put myself through this day in and day out. A few Mondays ago, I could not wait till finishing work. Festering in boredom, I picked up my phone and speed dialed Mom.

“I feel so purposeless. I feel like, after 17 years of tracking towards something–the best high school, the best college–I lack a destination. I question the professional field I chose, in fact, I question choosing at all. Should I drop everything, leave my boyfriend and New York, and become a vegan yogi in India? Is that too cliche? Maybe just stay here, quit my job, and pedal one of those pedicabs around Central Park making conversation with tourists.”

As I put the breaks on my verbal diarrhea to take a quick breath, my mother piped up with a phrase I rarely hear drop from her lips: “I remember that well.”

This, from the woman who, when asked where she was when Kennedy was shot, answered, “I stayed home sick. My mom told me and then I went back to sleep.” I, meanwhile, can tell you in intricate detail about how Ms. Prince, my 3rd period World History teacher, uncharachteristically had the television turned  on the morning of September 11th, 2001, so we watched the towers collapse in real time. By 4th period, they knew that Islamic terrorists perpetrated the attack, and I cried with fellow classmates because I feared that the repercussions would endanger my Israeli relatives. I digress, but the fact remains: my mother is not nostalgic.

So, her admission surprised me.

“Yes, I remember that feeling of panicked inertia.”

However hackneyed it may be to take comfort in our shared moment of compassion, it’s not every day that two women can commiserate over transitions occurring 35 years apart. As much as I lament the inability of my generation of empowered women to relax and enjoy a certain measure of aimlessness, myself included, through Mom’s confession I recognized that the post-college year has never instilled confidence in budding adults. Thrown from the cocoon of the quad, whether in 1973 or 2009, we wander about with new freedom, reaching out in every direction, touching, smelling, seeing what fits into our new conceptions of ourselves.

My mother moved to Israel a few years after graduating college. After six years she decided to stay in Jerusalem permanently, and during what was supposed to be a brief stint in a master’s program at NYU, she met my father and never moved back. So who am I to stress the future? Even if I come up with what I believe to be the most productive, most advantageous, most profitable gameplan for the near future, something will change and render it useless. Worse, it could blind me to seeing a sparkling opportunity lurking under my nose.

So, the moral of this story is anything but trite. From a short, perhaps corny, moment of bonding between a mother and her anxious daughter, came a framework through which to reassess this awkward lunge of mine into adulthood. My mother’s admission, uncharacteristically sentimental if still quite frank, condoned my existential neuroses while simultaneously dissolving them (if not totally, at least partially). So I am chilling out, and to egocentrically corrupt on of my Mom’s favorite sayings, I am waiting to gain on the straightaway what I currently burn soul-searching on this post-college roundabout.


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