"Doesn't your mom ever just annoy you?" I was at a bar with a few friends last year, and the discussion had moved to our families, specifically our mothers. The friend who posed this question had a relationship with her parents that would be enviable to many, but she allowed that sometimes her mom could really get on her nerves. Why didn't she call more? When would she meet someone? She wondered if my experience was similar, and I wondered how it sounded when I said, "Not really."
The next day I did what I should have been doing for years: I called my mother, relayed the conversation and told her I just thought she should know.
It is a strange thing to compliment your parents' parenting. On a basic level, it requires a bit of self-praise. "Good job with the whole raising-your-kid thing! Oh, why, yes, I am that kid. Excellent work!" But beyond that, it can take time to gain enough perspective to truly understand how their choices have affected you. Even if you say things like "that mom was mean," you don't necessarily take it a step further to "... and my mom is not." And so it is only as I've become an adult -- an adult who is constantly observing and analyzing relationships -- that I've been able to look at my situation and recognize how much my parents got right.
It's been about 10 years, but I still remember hearing about a friend's mother who directly questioned her daughter's love. The daughter, as far as I could tell, had done nothing to suggest feelings to the contrary, but however she was expressing her devotion was not enough. The mother needed reassurance. I remember being struck by this conversation, unable to imagine my own mother making me feel so guilty. What I don't remember is sharing this thought with my mom.
In the first episode of the HBO show "Girls," Lena Dunham's character, Hannah, faced with the knowledge that her parents will no longer be supporting her financially, spits back: "I could be a drug addict. Do you realize how lucky you are?" In other words: You should be grateful for how I turned out. The audience -- even those of us who have gotten help from our own parents in order to live in New York -- is meant to see the flaw in this logic. Her parents, who supported her for two years while she worked as an unpaid intern, could be asking her the same question.
I'm sure it is gratifying for parents to have a strong connection with their children, and maybe that is thank you enough for some. Still, I've come to believe that, if you do have a good relationship, it's nice to tell them you appreciate it too, that you realize not everyone can claim the same. This is not to say you should end every conversation with a tribute: "Hey, Mom? Before you hang up and continue your mah-jongg game, I just want you to know that I really appreciate you. Seriously, you've really made some top-notch decisions along the way." (Frankly, she might start to find you annoying.) Instead, I've found it best to look for specific instances in which I am especially thankful to have the mom I do.
Did I know, in my teens and early 20s, that there are moms who comment on their daughters' waistlines, moms who focus so intently on their own size that it sends a clear message to their daughters? I must have. (Even before I saw "Spanglish.") Did I know that there are moms who prod their daughters about marriage? Yes, I was aware. But because my mom did neither of these things, I didn't spend much time thinking about them. I now understand that the absence of these pressures is precisely what makes them relevant, much in the way the white space is important in art. I have had plenty of opportunities to absorb society's standards and stand sideways in front of a mirror inspecting my reflection, but these moments would have been so much harder if I'd had to worry about my mother's assessment too. Likewise, my many returns to JDate would have been far more frustrating if I'd had my mom (figuratively) looking over my shoulder.
My mom was just a few weeks shy of 25 when she had me. This has always just been a fact of my life, and a perk because I've enjoyed having young parents. But now that I am several years older than that, I find this idea more astonishing than ever. How did she know what she was doing? How was she not terrified that she would screw me up completely? These are things you don't think about until you're older, until your friends start having children and you start to weigh the possibility of your own.
During my parents' last trip to New York, we went to see Jon Robin Baitz's play "Other Desert Cities," in which a family reacts to the adult daughter's plans to publish a memoir that would expose their darkest secrets. At intermission, as I waited in line for the restroom with my mom, I teasingly threatened to do the same one day. Then I quickly took it back: "Actually, I probably can't do that -- you haven't really given me much to work with."