Mom and Me

“If it’s not one thing, it’s your mother.”

 I don’t know who first said this (Google suggested Robin Williams, but it is unclear; what I loved about the Google response was the 5 or more pages of options claiming to EXPLAIN this phrase.).  But, as a daughter, a mother, and someone who has been in more therapy than the average bird, I know it to be true.

As a child, I worried a lot.  Although I am the younger of two daughters, I apparently exhibit traits of an oldest child:  overly responsible, rule follower, care-taking.  My family joked a lot; I sometimes — okay, often — took what was playful teasing as hurtful criticism.  My psyche was more serious than my sister’s, more delicate in places.  My parents doted, worried, and did not quite know how to respond .  Only children, both of them, they were puzzled that two children born and raised in virtually the same environment, my sister and I, could be so different.  What worked once was not working quite as well the second time around.

And so came the perfect storm:  when I was about 10, my father’s law practice took him away for several months, allowing only visits home every fortnight.   My mother’s distress and anger became depression; she lost weight, took to bed.  The fear I felt was overwhelming, wordless, existential (not that I could have articulated that at age 10).  It was a hard time.

The seeds of depression, of mental illness, planted in me as a child — biologically, emotionally, psycho-socially – remain with me.  

When I became a mother, I wanted so desperately for my depression to never hurt my child.  To never have my issues interfere with her growth, her well-being.  

I think that idea lasted . . . maybe a week?  She was born early, small, fussy.  Nursing did not work for either of us:  I didn’t produce much milk, even with supplemental pumping, and she did not suck well.  She cried; I cried.  She was cranky; I had postpartum depression.  I loved her so much, and yet, in those first weeks (and months . . .) I felt like I was already failing her.

As she grew, I joked that I was going to keep a list of all the ways that I was a bad mother.  Then, when she went into therapy, she could hand the list to her therapist and have a head start on her issues.  The first issue would be how controlling her mother is.

And now, it’s my mother. . .  My daughter, home briefly after graduating from college, packed up her car with all her stuff, and left for graduate school.  Days later, my mom failed a driving evaluation, and lost her license.  Suddenly, I am down two drivers!   Because of my own medical issues, I rarely drive (or function!) in the evening.  With my husband unusually busy and rarely home for the next 6 weeks, shopping and other chores that my daughter and mom were doing are suddenly mine to do.

My mom moved to be near us 17 years ago to help us raise my daughter after I had a major stroke at age 34.  She lives a few blocks away from us, and is an integral part of my family.  Now that she is getting older, and beginning to have issues associated with aging, it is my turn, I have told her (and myself!!) to help her.  

And I don’t mind doing so.  I love her.  I am the one who made her get her driving evaluated, because I was concerned she might have an accident.  I did not want her to hurt herself, or someone else.  But I did not expect her to lose her license.  What now?

She is very competent.  That competence now includes buses, Uber, Lyft, walking, friends, and, sometimes, me.  It also falls to me, to talk to her about other concerns I have about her these days.  And, just as I wanted to be present for my daughter, so, too, I want to do this right.  I want to be responsible. I want to protect her, just as I did years ago.  I want to save her — from problems, from hurt, from accidents, from her fears about aging and loss.

But I am no longer that frightened 10 year old — and she is no longer that woman who was depressed without moorings.  I can listen to her fears and reassure her; I can empathize with her loss. I, too, have physical losses and know what it is like when your body and mind betray you.  But I cannot fix her — and she does not need me to.  

It is, indeed, my mother.  But, this time around, we know more. And we can do it better.  Or so we hope.

Published by Rabbi Sandra Cohen

I am a rabbi working in mental health outreach in the Jewish community both locally (in Denver, CO) and nationally. I use traditional Jewish values(middot/מידות) as a model for reaching out to those with mental health issues and their families. Those values, including compassion and respect, guide and inspire me. I am a determined advocate for those with mental illness and their families. My goal is to support and educate spiritual communities, encouraging them to be more welcoming to the mentally ill. I also teach in a variety of settings in both the Jewish and larger Denver communities. I love rabbinic text, especially Talmud, and that love is reflected in both my teaching and my personal learning (I learn Daf Yomi/a page of Talmud a day, as well as learning Talmud with three separate hevruta/partners each week.) I also offer pastoral care. I am available as a scholar-in-residence nation-wide, with a variety of programs and a flexible pay scale.

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