On Mothers

hero image
05 Aug 2009

My husband doesn’t like my mother so much. This was not evidenced by an outright declaration or even a private conversation, but by the fact that he will very obviously avoid their street while walking to and from synagogue on Shabbat. My parents live a few blocks away, and he will walk an extra ten minutes to avoid their house, in fear of her lurking by the front window. And he always returns her lavish and thoughtful birthday gifts, inventing the most awkward and inadequate of excuses. “You’re supposed to dislike your mother-in-law,” he will say in self-defense. But I believe one must have a reason.

This is a painful juxtaposition, a conflict of loyalties, a question of dedication. My husband maintains that I must express complete homage to him above anyone else, but sometimes I can’t bear to take sides, to backstab my mother mercilessly for one of his stubborn tantrums. And I can’t worship the ground on which she walks and then expect to fade into his arms at night. They are on a battleground, a quiet, often unobtrusive one, but I sometimes feel trampled.

“She represents all of your bad qualities, everything about you I dislike,” he finally confesses one night, after a long, prying conversation. Our eyes don’t meet. They never do when he is opening his heart to me, when he is most vulnerable, afraid perhaps that I will steal an extra glance into his depths and extract even more. I don’t need to ask further. I know he means my stubbornness, determination, my desire to always be right. My mother is all of that, and I inherited it.

I make a mental list of all of the repulsive characteristics of his parents. It is so long, that my imaginary pen runs out of ink. But I still manage to love him and them. I can also see the good qualities they have passed on to him. And when they do things that irk me, I plaster on a smile in their presence, and in the privacy of my bedroom at night, I grumble into my husband’s ear the lengthy accusations against them.

“They spoke Yiddish at my table, as guests in my house, when they know full well I don’t understand. I felt so excluded.”

“You’re 100% right!” he will say, no matter which crime I list. “That’s the way they are, and I’m sorry. I’ll let them have it tomorrow.” I am always his priority. He manages to put me on the pedestal above all else, regardless of any previous history. And I can’t seem to do it for him. Sometimes I still think my mom is always right.

There is a phrase in the book of Genesis that says, “Therefore shall a man leave his father and his mother, and shall cleave unto his wife: and they shall be one flesh.” I believe my husband follows this with the utmost sincerity, and I suppose I’m lucky he does, that he’s not a “Mamma’s Boy” because that would probably be more of a challenge to conquer. But maybe I’m a “Mamma’s Girl,” and I’m unready or unwilling to just leave my mother behind. Major decisions in my life are made with the thought, would Mom be proud? at the forefront of my mind.

Recently my mom asked me to please clean out my room back home, brimming with old photo albums, birthday cards, outdated clothing, and boxes stacked in the back of the closet, neatly labeled for various eras of my life. “But where will I put all of my stuff? I like it as it is. It’s like a museum of me.” There are pictures, concert relics, and my once beloved and exotic postcard-collection wallpapering the chipping paint. I wouldn’t know where to put these things.

“You can make an extra bedroom in your house into an archive,” she offers, sarcastically. “I’m tired of all of the junk lying around, gathering dust.” But it’s not junk. It’s me, my childhood, my teenage years… every A+ on a paper, every late night phone conversation, every heartfelt breakup. Each fiber of the dusty beige carpet once knew my feet intimately. And the old, pink furry and bejeweled telephone on the night-table, a vintage-esque cord-phone, still has the numbers of friends on speed-dial, friends who I have not heard from or about in 15 years.

I begrudgingly agree to pack my things next time I am there. I will make a box and label it “pre-marriage”, the all-encompassing term to include everything I once was, and throw it in the back of my attic space in my own house. I will erase my history as somebody’s daughter, wipe out my memory and the things I fancied in my youth. For I too must leave my father and mother, to better cling to my husband. I am no longer a daughter, but foremost, a wife, and a mother. And this, of course, would make my mom proud.

Shara Jacobs is a freelance writer.

The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.