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-
Judy Batalion is the author of White Walls: A Memoir About Motherhood, Daughterhood, and the Mess in Between. Her forthcoming book is about Jewish women who fought in the resistance against the Nazis.