A new approach to Jewish mothering

August 23, 2017

My teenage son would not be excited about my writing this at his desk, or my being in his room at all. But he started high school last week and I can’t believe it.

Ours is not an empty nest, but I know how soon it will become one, and I just wanted to sit with his stuff around me. I’m lying about that last part. There is no way I could long for my son’s “stuff” because it’s everywhere: the sneakers, the headphones, the endless stream of water glasses he fills to the top with ice, sips and abandons.

No, I am sitting in his room because I am hoping to be inspired. I am sitting in the exact spot where my desk used to be before we ripped out my office to put in his private lair — I mean bedroom. I did a lot of writing in this small corner of our house over the past decade, including a book about the need for laughter in marriage.

Dumb, dumb, shortsighted, dumb.

It’s not that we don’t need to laugh in marriage; we most definitely do, but a mere few years later I see now I was focused on the wrong family dynamic. The relationship you really need to pull out the clown car for is the one with your teenager.

I first heard the phrase “family dynamic” in a therapist’s office in Connecticut, circa 1975. I remember all four members of my family squeezing onto a couch across from an ancient-looking woman, probably 40, dressed in soft separates and nodding a lot. We had just moved from New York City, a decision only my father was happy about. I was still young enough to roll with it, but my mother, a native New Yorker like the one Donna Summer was singing about in her top-40 hit, was eating scrambled rage and toast for breakfast, and my sister was in the middle of her 13th year, already hit by the hormonal wrecking ball of being a teenager.

That was, I have no doubt now, the straw that broke the Klein camel’s back.

To date, our family dynamic is healthy enough without an outside ringleader, mostly because we find laughing together as therapeutic as my mother found spending her Saturdays at Loehmann’s. The unit is fine, but as the school year kicks off, I’m the one who’s feeling meshugge. Not just because I can’t stop the march of time, but also because I can’t seem to find the line between concerned parent and overbearing Jewish mother, a cliché I am deathly afraid of becoming. If you’ve seen any Woody Allen movie made before he married his girlfriend’s daughter, you would be too. He always features at least one loud, nagging, unattractive Jewish mother who is eating something greasy while telling her children to “stand up straight,” “do something about the pimples” and “marry rich.” In fact, I go out of my way to behave quite the opposite as a mother: I proudly aspire to be  “underbearing,”

The boys are back in school this week, which means I am privy to a lot more parenting conversations that I often feel I have to slowly back away from for fear of exposing my laissez-faire style.

“What do you mean you don’t read your son’s texts after he goes to bed?” one of the moms I know from temple asked me recently.

“I mean I don’t read my son’s texts when he goes to bed.”

“But … but … ” she looked at me like there was a burning bush in my house that I was ignoring.

“I’m not going to walk in his room and grab his phone after he’s asleep,” I added.

“Walk in his room? You let him keep his phone in his room at night?” another one chimed in.  “Haven’t you seen ‘Screenagers’ ”?

“Um … no. And yes. He keeps it in a charger by his window.”

“I’ll bet he does,” the first one said.

“What kind of a Jewish mother are you?” No. 2 added, tossing her highlighted hair back and laughing.

“A lame one, I guess,” I said, half-jokingly while heading to my car, breaking a non-peri-menopausal sweat.

Will my fear of becoming a Jewish cliché be my son’s undoing? Leaving him vulnerable to cyberpredators? To a debilitating lack of sleep as he scrolls endlessly in the wee hours of the night? To a stream of naked selfies from girls that he forwards to his friends — and then gets caught and arrested for trafficking in child porn?

I suddenly found myself looking back fondly to a simpler time when being a Jewish mother meant worrying that your precious child was going to get sick from snot-nosed kids on the bus, or that he didn’t get enough lox on his bagel. Or praying to God silently — sometimes not so silently — for him to find a nice Jewish girl to marry.

That’s how I ended up at his desk, you know, to write, of course. And, perhaps, to take a more “CSI: Teenager” approach to my Jewish mothering.

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