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Help! I Have Become My Mother!

Here are the good parts and the not-so-good parts.

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illustration of woman seeing her mother in the mirror
Doris Liou
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I grew up with a mother who drove me nuts. For starters, she was a hypochondriac. Every pimple was melanoma, every headache was a brain tumor. She once complained that she had a pain in her foot so sharp it felt as though a needle was sticking into her flesh. 

I took a look. She had been walking barefoot and actually did have a needle sticking into her foot. But overall, she was an alarmist. 

If I was 10 minutes late coming home from school, she was ready to call the cops. She was a drama queen who could have won an Olympic Gold in worrying — especially about me. “You’re going out? You just washed your hair! You’ll catch pneumonia! It’s raining cats and dogs. Don’t forget your galoshes. You’re going to Manhattan? Be careful! It’s not a safe neighborhood.

And I swore that when I grew up and had a child of my own, I would never ever be an interfering, overprotective mother. 

I think you know what happens next. I had a son. One day my then-15-year-old jumps up to throw a basketball and when he lands, his knee snaps. I’m thinking, He couldn’t play chess?

So as a doctor who looks the age of my child examines him, I ask the most important question, which is, "Excuse me, Doctor, but where exactly did you go to medical school? Let’s bring down the chief of surgery, shall we? (By the way, my son survived this and other sports injuries — he is now a middle-aged man.)

My son turns red with embarrassment when I intervene, but I don’t care — better red than dead. I am just doing my job as a parent, but my son thinks I’m an interfering, overprotective mother.

Whenever I get a stomachache, I look up the symptoms of various terminal diseases. I’m just trying to stay healthy. My son thinks I’m a hypochondriac. All I’ve ever wanted is for everyone I love to stay in the house because it’s a dangerous world out there! I’m just trying to keep my loved ones safe. My son thinks I’m a drama queen who could win Olympic Gold in worrying.

When my husband is out and doesn’t answer my calls, I am convinced that he has been in a fatal accident. I’m just being a loving wife. My son thinks I’m an alarmist.

But there’s a big difference between my mother’s fears and mine. She allowed her terrors to rule her life. Her agoraphobia, her hypochondria, her constant anxiety, caused her to end up being a housebound recluse. I, on the other hand, do not allow my fears to prevent me from living a full life. I travel, I socialize, I pursue challenging adventures (within sensible limits; no bungee jumping or skydiving). 

Ironically, I owe my cosmopolitan lifestyle to my mother’s restricted one. When I saw how much she missed, I took that as a warning to follow a different path.

But not everything about my mother was an admonition. Mama had no formal education, but she loved books and all the performing arts. On a religious holiday, while everyone else in our Bronx neighborhood was attending services, we would sneak downtown and see a Broadway musical. (Yom Kippur is the easiest day of the year to get theater tickets.)

Also, she was an avid reader. After mama died, we found a pile of books on her bed, plus a pad of naive little poems she had written. She loved to sing, and those old Yiddish melodies that she crooned still bring tears to my eyes. It’s no accident that I became a performer and a writer. She always spoke her mind — even if her opinions were unpopular.  

Mama shocked the neighbors in our building by daring to insist that Ethel and Julius Rosenberg did not deserve to be executed in 1953 for conspiracy to commit espionage. They all ganged up on her and accused her of being a “Dirty Communist” and dropped her from the mah-jongg group. Just like mama, I have gotten into trouble many times by being outspoken when it might have been wiser to keep my big mouth shut. She was full of compassion for anyone who suffered, and never left the house without spare change in her pocket “for the poor people” — totally innocent of the fact that she was “the poor people.” 

Poor as she was, my mother would share whatever she had. Mama rented a room to a recent immigrant from Poland. The man had been a professor in the old country, but now he was scraping by as a janitor. Mama felt very sorry for him, but she knew he’d be too proud to take charity. So when he came home at night, she would make up a story.

“Oy, Mr. Rabinowitz, I made all this food and now my daughter’s not coming over. Do me a favor, have some, or I’ll have to throw it out.”  
Mr. Rabinowitz would “do her a favor” and have some. So, if I have turned into my mother, maybe that’s not such a terrible thing. I hope I have her compassion. I hope I have her courage in facing bullies. And if she were here today, I hope that she’d be proud of my accomplishments and happy about my close relationship with my son and grandson. They treat me with love and respect, even though I drive them nuts with my constant fears. I am, after all, my mother’s daughter.

Who else feels as though they've turned into their mother? Let us know in the comments below.

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