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Mothers and Daughters

May 9, 2009 | by Rebbetzin Feige Twerski

The delicate and sometimes painful balancing act.

A reader writes:

Dear Rebbetzin Twerski,

A year and a half ago, while my husband and I were enduring multiple courses of infertility treatment and multiple miscarriages, I lost my only sibling, an older brother. My mother has suffered terribly through this difficult time, and we have tried very hard to be there for her, but lately that has become more difficult.

You see, after a complicated pregnancy, I am finally about to give birth to what appears to be a healthy son. My parents are over the moon and my husband and I are also thrilled that we can help the whole family affirm life again after a period of so much loss. The problem is, as the months have ticked by, my mother seems to have become more and more...confused about whose baby this is. I know it's not deliberate. I even understand that boundary issues are inevitable with the first child/grandchild. But I'm so emotional lately, and we've all been through so much, that even though I try to set limits in the kindest and most loving manner, I come away from each discussion wracked with guilt.

Most of my mother's suggestions have some merit, but sometimes she takes them to an extreme level. For example, during my first trimester, she said she wanted to keep a crib in her house so that the baby would have someplace to nap when we visit. This seemed reasonable, so of course we said thank you and offered to pay for a portable crib that would stay in her house. We didn't feel comfortable with the part of her plan that involved buying one used at a garage sale. We gently explained that we had read that used equipment didn't always meet current safety standards, and though we knew she wouldn't pick anything obviously dangerous, it would be difficult to assess wear and tear, etc. She seemed to understand.

As time went on, the simple crib has evolved into a fully equipped nursery with all the trimmings that she refers to as "Aaron's room." (That will be his name, after my husband's grandfather.) We find the phrasing a little unnerving, and though we certainly plan to visit my parents with the baby, there's no need set him up to live in her house. We haven't confronted her about this, because we simply can't think of a compassionate way of saying that we're sorry she lost her son, but she can't replace him with ours.

Meanwhile, every time we see her or speak to her, Mom talks about more and more equipment she can get for "her nursery" at a good price at flea markets and garage sales. Every time we answer that buying books, toys, or clothes at these places is fine, but when it comes to cribs, highchairs, and car seats, we would rather bring our own on visits. Then she says yes, yes, sure, only to bring up the idea again the next time we spoke.

Finally, a few days ago, she cheerfully told me that she had just bought a stroller at a garage sale. I told her I didn't feel comfortable with that, and instead of acknowledging that she had just stepped over a line I had long since established, she pretended we had never had a discussion about this. So after repeating my concerns, I explained that I was beginning to wonder whether we could trust her to respect our wishes when we left the baby alone with her if she couldn't even respect them in our presence.

I didn't yell; I tried to phrase things as gently as possible, but I felt I had to say something. Mom has made it clear that she not only expects frequent visits with the three of us, she also expects us to leave the baby with her overnight on a fairly regular basis. And as much as I want to grant her wish, especially after all of her hardships, I can't believe that Jewish law would require me to ignore my own maternal instincts, and allow my feelings to be trampled just to please my mother, no matter how much grief she has endured.

She hasn't heard what I've been saying for months; she didn't hear me a few days ago, and now she's not speaking to me. I feel terrible for having hurt her, but also angry that she's hurt me, and unsure of what to do now. My whole life I've tried to be a good daughter, balancing caring for my parents with tending to my own needs. But I've never been a mother before. Suddenly I'm about to have a whole new awesome priority, the care of a helpless child. And I feel that his well being has to outweigh everything, even my mother's feelings.

I try to live my life guided by Jewish values, and I wasn't sure who else I could share this with who would take the mitzvah to honor parents seriously. Is there some way I can help my mother hear me? Is there some way I can help myself let go of the guilt I feel for causing her pain?

Rebbetzin Faige responds:

Thank heaven for the blessing of your forthcoming child (with God's help). As you intimated, the intensity of your responses to your mother are colored by the enormous tensions produced not only by the loss of an only sibling but also by the emotional drain of your efforts to get pregnant. It is a tribute to your sensitivity that you recognize this and a measure of your person that you seek the clarity of a balanced perspective.

We owe our parents a great deal, if nothing else but for the gift of life itself.

Interacting appropriately, effectively, and responsibly with parents is a challenge even in the best of times. There is a delicate and precarious juggling mode that has to be invoked and constantly perfected. We owe our parents a great deal, if nothing else but for the gift of life itself. It is also undeniable, that in most cases, as seems to be the case with your own mother, that they have the benefit of the wisdom born of experience. They can potentially be an invaluable resource and it would be foolish not to take advantage of it. Concurrently, parents don't always negotiate as effectively as they might the tension between enhancing their children's lives with the legitimate expertise and at the same time giving them wings to chart their own course even if it involves making mistakes.

Children similarly struggle with, on the one hand honoring their parents, while at the same time attempting to define themselves as a distinct identity of their own. In either case, it is a very delicate and often painful balancing act. One of the essential points to remember is to choose your battles very carefully, to be certain, as someone put it, that this is "the hill we want to die on." There are times when we attribute too much importance and even malevolent intent in a given interaction where none such exists. Conceding, in our mind, is tantamount to capitulation that in our estimation will result in total loss of control. There are times, when this might be well founded, but more often than not, we are best advised to deal with the immediate situation at hand and not to "awfulize" -- to take it to the worst possible conclusion of what might be, could be, or will be. Our sages advise "suffice or limit a troubling situation to its hour of conflict." Obviously, limits and boundaries must be respected and violations of such addressed. Often times, as it appears to be in this case, when the waters are too murky with misunderstanding and miscommunication, and vision is clouded by so many factors, the input of a third party, a mediator, might be advisable.

You do not indicate whether the family has sought counseling in the aftermath of their terrible loss. Therapeutic intervention would be advisable in dealing with the complicated issues that both surface and arise in situations such as these. It must be remembered that if they are not confronted, they will invariably spill over and contaminate other areas of life.

You are anticipating a blessed event, the realization of a long awaited personal dream. A child thrives in an environment of extended family. "It takes a village to raise a child" is not an exaggerated statement. While parents are the primary source of influence, grandparents for those who are fortunate to have them, can be a very close second. Husband and wife need to nurture their own relationship, apart from that which includes their children and that can be done so much more easily and guilt-free when there are grandparents who can fill in for an evening or a weekend. They do not serve as mere babysitters. They can be a uniquely loving and beneficial influence in a child's life. They are also a critical link in the generational history of a people and help a child understand the concept of being part of a whole-with a past, present, and future configuration.

An apocryphal anecdote is related of a three generational family living together: grandpa who was getting on in years, mom and dad who went out to work daily, and five-year-old Davey. Grandpa's health began to deteriorate, his gait become unsteady and his hands began to shake. On occasion, he would drop a glass or plate at meal times. Mom decided that to avoid the aggravation, the cost and the hassle, she would henceforth provide grandpa's meals in a wooden dish and a wooden cup. And so it was, the family ate on bone china and grandpa had his wooden plate.

Mom came home from work one day and found Davey making an awful racket, with play hammer in hand, chopping away with great intensity. Exasperated by the noise, she asked Davey what in the world he was building. Davey responded, "I am getting your wooden plate ready for you for when you get older and your hands begin to tremble."

If you can be charitable, especially in difficult situations, your children will learn charity.

We all need to be aware that even as we move towards motherhood, the status of the grandparent awaits us around the corner. By the grace of God, you will, inevitably, be in that role and in a sense, as life takes it's toll, you will be at the mercy of your children's charitable understanding. There is no teacher more powerful than behavior modeled. If you can be charitable, especially in difficult situations, your children will learn charity. They will understand that circumstances are not always ideal and there are times when painful choices have to be made. Though they might appear to be concessions to our own detriment, ultimately they define us as better human beings.

I would recommend that you do the following:

  1. Focus on taking care of yourself physically and emotionally.

  2. Don't obsess about worrisome eventualities, i.e. your mothers taking over and claiming the baby as her own. The baby is yours and you alone will determine the parameters and extent of your mother's involvement when the time comes.

  3. Relax and appreciate the value of an interested, experienced, and caring grandparent in the awesome responsibility of raising a child. There are few things in life that I envy. I do remember, however, many years ago on my many trips to the park with my young children, observing a kindly grandfather lovingly overseeing the well being of my neighbor's crew. I lived at a great distance from my parents and for me this privilege was never an option.

  4. The way you interact with your mother, your sensitivity and deference will ultimately, down the line, serve as a guide as to how you will be treated by your offspring.

  5. I would suggest that you call your mother and apologize for any hurt you might have caused her. Tell her that you appreciate her caring and her desire to be involved -- and that certainly you will draw on her wisdom and experience. In an effort not to over react to controversial issues, try to steer clear of elaborations and discussions of "Aaren's room." You might tell her that you are more comfortable minimizing extensive discussion of such before the actual fact of his birth at which time it will be more relevant and appropriate. (This, parenthetically, is the traditional approach. Practical and concrete preparations are made only after the birth of a child).

Furthermore, you might advise her gently that since you both are currently stressed to the limit, further plans about visitation, etc., should be postponed and dealt with when it becomes relevant. At that time, you will be in a position to evaluate it on a situation-by-situation basis and decide what you feel comfortable committing to.

Remember that nothing is written in stone -- no lifetime contracts have been signed. Relax. Cherish every moment. And may God bless you with a healthy baby and him with a healthy mom.

Good Luck!

Dedicated in honor of

Yaakov Weiss

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