Over-defensive on the home front

By Anna Maxted, October 10, 2008

I disliked the stereotype of the typical mother - till I became one

As a teenager, I used to despise the Jewish mother - or at least, the stereotype: her inability to see a fault in her child, her strange obsession with force-feeding any person in her line of sight, her embarrassing disregard for social convention, and the pressure she put on her offspring to succeed at everything (except, possibly, sport).

I had my reasons: as a child, I was forced to wear a thick blue duffel coat to school, woollen mittens, and a knitted, orange pom-pom hat. I was 10 and it was probably May. By age 15, I was at least a stone overweight - hardly surprising, considering my natural greed and the constant pressure to "eat, eat!".

And by 21, when I was single, friends and I agreed that there was a suspiciously high percentage of Jewish guys who couldn't believe that a girl might not want to date them. Their arrogance was someone's fault, and it could - we decided - only be the mother's.

Well, now, of course, I am punished for my disrespect. I have three boys - the eldest is only six - and already I am guilty of all of the above crimes, and a bunch more.

"Did he dress himself?" asked a friend, on seeing the two-year-old at the park one April, barely visible inside a big padded coat, padded trousers, and fake-fur-lined hat complete with ear flaps. "Yes," I lied.
I saw the error of my ways (saw, not changed, you understand) when collecting him from nursery one day - all the children were playing outside. My child was the only one wearing a silly hat.

I snatched it off his head, feeling my face redden. Parenting is a lesson in giving up control, and yet your instinct is to fight that to the last - you know that your babies must suffer pain, but the idea is enough to bring you (well, me, anyway) to tears. I can't protect my boys from the world absolutely but, by heaven, I'll protect them from the ravages of the English spring!

In my crazed determination to keep my son from catching a chill, I'd made him vulnerable to something worse: social ridicule. And quite right; he looked a complete berk in his idiotic hat.

It has been a slow realisation for me, over the past six years, of why the Jewish mother - or our traditional idea of her - exists.

She is a comic cliché because she doesn't check her impulses - every action is an emotion lavishly played out, and we laugh at the jokes because no one could, in real life, be this excessive.

After having my own children, I realised, if anything, that the stereotype had been played down.

Her behaviour is simply a manifestation of crazy love - the love that a baby brings. It knocks you sideways.
Before having children, I couldn't imagine it. But motherhood turns you into an animal. Before, I was a daughter, a child: number one was always, selfishly, me.

Now, it's the little darlings, which is why so many parents are just ghastly - an accusation the Jewish mother has often faced - showing a readiness to trample other people's little darlings underfoot, so long as hers are happy. But these fakers make a mockery of the real thing. The true Jewish mother is a mother to the world. The moral of All My Sons is instinct to her.

Mother love is a love so primal that you yearn to hold your babies in your arms to the point of salivation; you breathe in the scent of their skin like it's Chanel No5 - and you wonder (at least I wondered, sniffing the 20-month old's stinky breath and liking it), are all mothers this nuts?

They should be. This extremism is a survival instinct. I lived in a flat for three years without once turning on the oven. Yet I have evolved into a creature whose greatest pleasure is to have tricked her children into eating cauliflower by puréeing it into their (home-made, obviously) cheese-and-tomato pasta sauce.

If one of the children rejects their food, it ruins my day. Occasionally, I push it too far: couscous drove my three-year-old to claim: "I don't want to be a fireman." But yet, I keep pushing the vegetables - I'm hiding carrots in juices; I'm holding broccoli-eating contests; feeling muscles bulge on arms as the hated green spears are choked down. I just so want them to be OK.

It's a little random, but so is the possibility of disaster - we cannot guarantee our babies perfect lives, which is perhaps why the Jewish mother is so manic, so neurotic. The fear of everything just eats away at you. I worry about keeping them out of prison; I worry about them having wives who are mean; I worry about alcoholism, depression, poverty, balding; I worry that if one of them is gay, will it be extra pain on top of normal life pain? And then I remember fretting to the consultant when I was first pregnant about the baby suffering stress inside the womb.

He said that, as a parent, you fear everything, but "you fight it". That makes us Jewish mothers heavyweight champions.

Anna Maxted is a novelist, writer and columnist.

Last updated: 12:47pm, October 10 2008