Joyce Antler, author of You Never Call! You Never Write: A History of the Jewish Mother, is the Samuel Lane Professor of American Jewish History and Culture at Brandeis University. Yesterday we posted a Q and A with her daughter, comedian, Lauren Antler. Last week Joyce wrote about Passover. Today she weighs in on the marathon of motherhood.
This week, runners are preparing to complete their training for the 111th Boston Marathon, to take place on Patriot’s Day next Monday. The world’s oldest annual marathon, this grueling 26-mile race requires the utmost determination, discipline, and commitment. Every year, I watch the runners as they cross Coolidge Corner, not far from my house, when they’ve already passed through about 23 miles of the course. It is a thrill to see them all, particularly the first 10 or 20 men and women, many of whom seem as fresh as if they’ve just started.
Most mothers don’t prepare as rigorously for the challenging marathons that each of them run–the marathon of parenting. Rather than strenuous training, mothers usually model themselves on their own mothers, behaving as their mothers did, or in some cases, rejecting maternal models to create their own. Each mother’s parenting becomes a mix of personal style, family tradition, and the clues she adopts from contemporary culture. The commonality is that they must commit to the arduous course of parenting not for the training period of weeks, months, or years, but for a lifetime.
Given the tremendous demands of contemporary parenting, we might expect that mothers would receive accolades for their Herculean labors. But with the exception of special moments of cultural remembrance, the opposite is true. Mother-blaming, not appreciation, is a regular feature of our national culture. Criticized whether they do too much or too little for their children, mothers frequently serve as scapegoats for social problems that are difficult to resolve.
The Jewish mother, in particular, has become a universal metaphor for motherhood in extremis: she is portrayed as a colossal figure–manipulative, demanding, over-involved and overprotective. It’s easy to imagine her hovering over her children–holding the spoon and urging them to take one more bite.
But there’s an alternative stereotype: the Jewish mother as the emblem of unstinting love, support, and nurturance. The dominant, negative stereotype doesn’t fit the way Jewish women see their own mothers– or how they see themselves as mothers. Immigrant Jewish mothers and their successors in the next generations struggled to ensure their children’s success–and they did so by imparting moral and ethical values as well as practical lessons, drives, and skills. They didn’t want to keep their children dependent: they stressed initiative and independence even while valuing attachment.
The positive elements of nurturance, the difficulties faced by parents struggling to make better lives for their offspring, the ways that cultural myths tend to obliterate the complexity of real lives–all these are part of the chronicle of Jewish mothers’–and all mothers’– lives, and deserve a prominent place on the historical record.
Not 26 miles, two hours–or even two days–the mother’s marathon is a life-time enterprise whose consequences transcend a single generation. No cheers, medals or wreaths, her true reward is the legacy she passes on.