Desperate to work through my complicated mom issues before becoming a mother myself, I heaved my way into the new therapist’s office for an initial consult, hands on my pregnant belly. But as she said hello, my eyes ran right past her to shag rugs, an antique secretary desk, wooden shelves filled with books. Plants. Mugs. Notebooks with frayed Post-It notes sticking out from their edges, mashing their boundaries. The tiled side table held Kleenex and stone coasters. So many coasters.
My overworked heart palpitated more than usual. I stared at the settee, drenched in fabrics. All the problems I needed to deal with stemmed from my mother being a hoarder. How would I possibly cope with this messy space?
My mother—born on my grandparents’ flight from the Nazis, a refugee before knowing what home was—suffered from anxiety and depression, and was a compulsive collector. When I was growing up in Montreal, her mounds of grocery flyers and video cassettes combined with blaring TV shows (even the airwaves were crowded) made me feel physically and emotionally blocked from her. She lost report cards. She was too disorganized to take me to school on time, and fast asleep when I returned. Our living room sofa was invisible under laundry bins, the den’s divan exploded with bank statements under its pillows. Devoured by her disorder, I used the junk to shelter from Mom’s erratic mood swings.
As I aged, I projected the mess onto my body, feeling shame and fearing intimacy. I ran to England, worked in white-walled art galleries, and dedicated my life to creating openness and order, to finding love. At 33, I moved into a minimalist New York apartment with my husband, whose mother had also hoarded. We created a sparse haven to overcompensate for our messy pasts.
But months later, I found out I was going to be a mother. I’d gotten pregnant unexpectedly, before I was ready. I was terrified—of losing my hard-won independence, my clean life. My mother, who no longer left her house, phoned me, excited about the baby-to-be. I was resentful that she wasn’t around to help. With no role model, I needed a maternal guide.
So here I was, entering this cluttered psychic haven, sneering at a hodgepodge of pillows, crocheted tchotchkes, an ancient answering machine. Then I moved my gaze to this new therapist’s face, but instead of my mother’s slit eyes, dark with turmoil, I was greeted by a warm, inviting grin. She was in her 60s, like my mom. Maybe this was beshert, I suddenly thought. I was supposed to be here in this chaos, to “return” to my childhood, to learn to deal with disorder.
As my pregnancy advanced, I felt cluttered internally, sensing a physical suffocation and fearing an emotional one, the baby taking over my identity and the life I’d so preciously carved out. I was tired of being the mother to my own mother, feeling I hadn’t had the childhood I wanted, missing out on the chance to be carefree. So I continued to see this therapist, who listened and guided as I unraveled my chaotic relationship with Mom. I tried not to let it bother me when she ran late. Or when she forgot rescheduled appointments, leaving me standing on the curb, ringing her obsolete machine. Or even when she lost my checks. I stared at her tea cozies (not cozy for me), the growing collection of New Yorkers lining her waiting room, the linty throw blankets, wondering if she was mimicking my mother’s chaos on purpose. In fact, maybe this was just what I needed. I was having a child. I would have to learn to deal with the disorderly and unreliable. This therapist was helping to fix me.
“Mom was late for my bat mitzvah,” I explained. “Late with my tuition checks. I was evicted from class in front of everyone.” I knew Mom cared about me, but she was unreliable, her responses depending on her capricious moods.
“Her love confuses you,” the therapist murmured, nodding in sympathy. “It’s so hard for her to make room for you.”
I was grateful to be able to speak my mind to a mother-figure who was consistently calm, soft-spoken. I confessed my shame, my hiding. I told her how a still-unanswered email from a colleague left me distraught.
“As an adult, you’ve found it difficult to trust anyone’s attempt to connect to you,” she said, “expecting people to change minds and moods at any second.”
“Yes, I always feel ready to be criticized, dumped, fired.”
“You’re permanently on-guard.” She sighed empathically. “Scouting for safety.
Watching the space.” With her on my side, I saw my behaviors more clearly. When baby came, I’d need to learn to commit, to accept imperfections, to stay cool.
At our last prenatal appointment, she insisted I call her after the birth. She knew my mother wasn’t coming. She knew I’d be alone. She was looking out for me. She cared.
A month later, I returned to therapy euphoric, proud to be a full-fledged mother, amazed at how well I’d managed, nursing, singing Yiddish lullabies, these good memories of connection with Mom flooding through me.
“My pediatrician said to sleep-train at eight weeks,” I started our session. “I feel uncomfortable.” I expected a conversation about registering needs or the lack of discipline in my childhood.
“I’m appalled,” she replied instead. “Promise me you won’t.”
The next time, she tsk-ed me when I mentioned I’d checked a website (“you can’t find parenting answers online”) but insisted I read her favorite books—from the 1970s. She feels responsible for my child, I rationalized, sensing her care had taken a new form.
When I brought up that my husband coddled the baby, anticipating an analysis of my fears of physical intimacy, she interjected: “You probably have trouble playing.”
But playing was my strength. Was she intentionally provoking me?
“My baby nurse said I shouldn’t—”
“Baby nurses are awful,” she snapped. “They ruin a mother’s confidence.”
I was beginning to think that this helicopter shrink was ruining my confidence. The extra pillows on the chair—where I sunk too low, the bohemian fabric too worn, slippery—jabbed at my edges. Mom’s hoarding had made me feel blocked from her, but this stuff was a bombardment. I thought of my friends who had critical, overbearing parents. I’d always envied the homework help, the emotional resilience pep talks. But now it felt like I was being mistrusted. Judged. Watched. Too watched.
Outside, I called my real mom.
“How’s my beautiful granddaughter?” she asked, her voice paper-thin. “How are you feeling?”
Feeling? Exhausted, in love, totally confused. … Then I noticed it: silence.
No criticism. No judgment. No advice.
The phone line had always been our umbilical cord. I’d felt maternally cheated by its length. But distance could be so dear. “We’re OK,” I said, swelling with gratitude. My therapy was complete. My replacement-mom’s bedlam had shown me Mom’s blessing. My mother wasn’t, after all, the “overbearing Jewish mother” I’d imagined.
Mom might have crowded my childhood with tuna cans and stale danish, but she did give me space—to make my own decisions, my own mistakes. In her cluttered mayhem, she’d left me a different kind of room.
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