I cannot change her—but I can change myself
his isn’t the story of my difficult childhood. Yes, those years were confusing and painful. But I’m not here to rehash the pain, to dwell on the neglect I suffered, to point fingers at my mother.
Instead, I’d like to focus on the story of what came next: How I faced the hardships, tried to move past the pain, and — from my new vantage point — learned that this was the life Hashem custom-designed for me, with the exact tools and challenges I needed.
Even though I don’t have warm memories of my childhood, I always loved my mother deeply and understood that there was nothing malicious behind her words or behavior. She simply didn’t have the emotional capacity to nurture us. I truly believe she did everything in her power to be the best mother that she could be.
This is the story of how I made peace with my mother — with who she is and who she’ll never be.
IFonly she were normal.
I’ve uttered those words hundreds if not thousands of times throughout my life. If only my mother were normal.
I remember going to a psychology workshop as a young teacher. The workshop leader asked the room to define “normal.” Turns out, there’s no real definition — it’s what society defines as normal.
My mother has no learning disability, no physical disability, no diagnosed mental illness. But even at a young age, I knew my mother wasn’t like everyone else’s.
I viewed my childhood friends as lucky, spoiled, privileged girls — even the ones from simple families, who didn’t have fancy minivans and whose mothers didn’t wear the latest high heels. They had supper on the table every night. They got new clothing when they needed it. They didn’t have to bathe their siblings and put them to bed. They didn’t have to clean up after dinner and wash the dishes. They didn’t have to wash and fold the laundry.
I ran the house because there was no other choice. If I didn’t do the laundry, it sat untouched in a pile next to the washing machine, and we’d have to pull out our dirty, rumpled clothing when we ran out of clean clothes. If I didn’t do the dishes, they’d sit in the sink for three days straight. If I didn’t bathe and put my younger sisters to bed — all three of them born in quick succession — they’d run around wild at ten p.m., waking up cranky and exhausted.
By the time I was in ninth grade, I became so efficient in supper cleanup, bath, and bedtime that I could escape each night to study at my friend Miri’s house. And that’s where my sanctuary lay.
Miri’s living room wasn’t just a study hall for me. It was my safe haven. A place where I didn’t need to step in and be the mother. A place where, in the middle of studying, Miri’s mother would walk in with a plate of fruit or some leftover supper. (Years later, she told me she saved a portion for me, knowing I probably hadn’t eaten enough at home.)
Every day after high school, as I’d walk up the steps to my house, I’d hold my breath. What will be today? Will Mommy be happy? Angry? Sad? I’d pause at the top step, hesitant to leave the cocoon of school behind and open the door.
If my mother was napping, I knew things weren’t good. It meant my mother was in a bad place: When she couldn’t deal with life, she’d drop everything and lock herself in her room.
On those days, I’d come up with games to keep my little sisters quiet or walk around the block with them. “Ma,” I’d whisper through her door, “I’ll take the little ones to the park so you can rest.”
When my mother was around, I’d try to fix things to make her happy. “Ma, can I prepare supper?” “Ma, let me do the dishes.” Seeing the slight relief on her face when I offered to help convinced me that maybe I could save her. Maybe I could make my mother normal.
I didn’t know at the time the damage this was causing me. That it was making me believe I could fix other people’s problems. That I was internalizing that you should make other people happy, even at your own expense. That it was breaking me.
MYsister recently asked me if I have any happy childhood memories. My mind drew a blank.
My mother never took us to the park. She never sat down to play games with us or read us books on the couch. There were no Sunday afternoon adventures, and she never joined family trips on Chol Hamoed with my father.
Even the sweetness was laced with bitterness. If my mother made a delicious dinner, then I’d need to clean the mess she’d left behind. My mother never said, “Rosh Hashanah and Succos are coming! Let’s buy you a new dress l’kavod yuntiff, Zahava.” I’d have to beg. And even when I’d finally coerced my mother into buying me something, I was left with guilt. Did I force Ma to get me something I don’t need? Should I have gotten gemach shoes instead?
The guilt was followed by resentment — hadn’t I just spent the last few weeks cleaning and cooking for Yom Tov? Frying the schnitzel, filling the freezer with potato kugel, baking all the desserts, setting the table, arranging the flowers? None of my friends helped their mothers as much as I had to.
“You were such an independent child,” my mother always says with pride. “From the youngest age, you got ready for school all by yourself.” To this day, she doesn’t recognize that the only reason I got ready by myself was because she was still sleeping.
I remember one Sunday we had a special event at school at eight thirty a.m. The clocks had changed that morning, but no one told me. So I got up as usual, by myself, and walked to my neighbor’s house so we could walk to school together. I stood there, knocking and knocking, not understanding why no one was answering. They were, of course, still sleeping. But I had no clue.
I don’t want to ignore all the positives in my parents. They are both devoted to Yiddishkeit. My father would never miss a minyan; he’s always learning and going to shiurim; he has tremendous respect for daas Torah. My mother constantly volunteers for bikur cholim; she knows Tehillim by heart; she davens three times a day. Looking back, I’m sure that much of my success today comes from her heartfelt tefillos.
I don’t know what caused my mother’s emotional issues.
Maybe she never really attached to her parents, both of whom were Holocaust survivors. My grandparents endured years of abuse in the camps. They lost their entire families. When they came to America, they were extremely broken, and I don’t think they ever really recovered. They lived with tremendous survivor’s guilt. I vividly remember my grandmother; she was the holiest woman I’ve ever met. But she never smiled. Her brain was always in Auschwitz.
When I tell people my mother is a second-generation Holocaust survivor, they nod their heads and say, “Ohhhhh, that make sense.” I smile because people love to have answers for everything, but I don’t think that’s the whole answer. I’ve met hundreds of second-generation survivors over the years, and they’re nothing like my mother.
To this day, my mother stresses that my baby sister was “a very difficult baby.” Looking back, I think my mother probably suffered from postpartum depression after she was born. I found out years after the fact that our shul rabbi tried to get involved and encouraged my mother to get therapy, even offering to cover the costs. But my mother shut down the conversation.
Maybe my mother is the way she is because she never dealt with her issues. Maybe it’s because, as an only child, she was ill-equipped to raise a large family. Maybe it’s because she never had any real friends, so she had no natural social outlet or anyone to confide in when she was struggling. It could be any or all these things.
I can’t say I understand my father, either. Also a child of Holocaust survivors, my father is like Switzerland, operating in his own orbit. Like other men in his generation, he wasn’t involved with running the house or managing us kids. That was strictly my mother’s domain. And being all girls, we were always on the other side of the mechitzah, at shul and in his life.
If we wanted to go to the park, he’d happily take us — as long as he had time, it was a park he liked, and he had reading material with him. If we wanted to go somewhere that didn’t interest him, like the pizza shop or ice cream store, he wouldn’t go. Everything had to be on his terms.
My father is the most nonmaterialistic person I know. He never understood (or tried to understand) my desire for new things. He’d tell me, “Why do you need shiny new pencils when there are perfectly functional half-used pencils in the junk drawer?”
He wasn’t the type that you confided in. I couldn’t tell him, “Ta, it’s not fair that my friends are going to the mall, and I’m stuck putting the kids to bed.” That’s not how it worked. My father wasn’t involved in my emotional world. Since I was a “good girl,” there was no reason for him to step in between me and my mother.
My parents’ relationship was extremely private. I never heard my father compliment her on an outfit, even a simple, “That dress looks nice on you.” He didn’t remark on her hard work, her cooking, her decorating, her acts of chesed. He didn’t feel it was tzniyusdig to publicly recognize her.
When I learned about attachment theory as an adult, I thought of my mother. Here is a woman who never attached to her parents, never attached to her peers, and chose a husband who (by nature or nurture) isn’t capable of real attachment.
I’ve spent decades trying to figure out my mother, but in the end, it doesn’t really matter. I’ve stopped trying to diagnose her. She is who she is. This is how Hashem made her, and more importantly, this is the mother He chose for me.
The first time I spent Yom Tov with my in-laws as a newlywed, it became startlingly and painfully clear just how different my family was.
I was mesmerized by my mother-in-law. On Erev Yom Tov, I stood and stared as she bustled around the kitchen, blasting music, joking with anyone who came into the kitchen, happily swatting away any hands that attempted to sneak a piece of whatever dish she was making. At night, she showed up to the seudah smiling — she didn’t seem at all overwhelmed or on edge.
A few minutes after Kiddush, one of the kids spilled their grape juice. I was expecting the same sort of scene we’d have at my house: a blowup, a speech about how careless the child was, or how he didn’t respect the Shabbos table, or didn’t appreciate how hard his mother works. But my father-in-law didn’t even break his sentence. He grabbed some napkins, wiped up the mess, and continued talking, as if nothing had happened.
He was leading an animated hashkafic discussion, and while some people agreed with his perspective, others… did not. I was flinching, waiting for my father-in-law to get upset. But he didn’t. In this house, I realized, you’re allowed to disagree. It’s okay to have your own opinion. No one is going to perceive it as a personal attack or lash out at you.
At the end of the meal, my father-in-law turned to my mother-in-law and smiled. “Thanks for preparing such a beautiful seudah,” he told her. “You outdid yourself.” I winced. That open demonstration of appreciation was so unfamiliar that it made me feel uncomfortable.
I felt just as uncomfortable when my husband complimented me, which he did sincerely and frequently. When he told me, “You’re so pretty,” or, “I loved that supper,” I’d brush off the compliment, and my husband was left feeling confused.
Since I had no idea what a healthy marriage looked like, I was surprised when my husband peppered me with questions about my day at work. I couldn’t believe he wanted to hear all the minute details of my life. I was astonished by how open he was with his feelings, and even his insecurities. He saved funny stories about his day to share with me. He wanted to hear my thoughts and opinions, even if they weren’t aligned with his own. When he gave me flowers for Shabbos or a gift before Yom Tov, I thought, Wait, is this normal?
At the time, I couldn’t even accept that this might be normal, because that would open the door to grief — to mourning the childhood I never had — and I wasn’t emotionally prepared to tackle that yet.
For my mother, my marriage — and specifically my departure to a new city far from home — left a gaping wound in her life. She felt that I’d abandoned her.
She insisted that I call her every day to check in, and I did so for the first few months. But over time, I began to feel resentful and uncomfortable. I couldn’t share my feelings with her, because then I’d never hear the end of it: “What? It’s so hard for you to call your own mother? Wait till you’re a mother, Zahava, and you see what happens when your kids get married. You have no idea what I’m feeling.” Eventually, I discussed it with my kallah teacher, who knew my mother well. She immediately replied, “This is not okay,” and told me she’d speak to my mother directly.
When I went back to my childhood home for Yom Tov, I immediately regressed back into my old role as my mother’s savior. The moment I arrived, I would disappear into the kitchen with my mother and cook for hours on end to make her happy.
My husband, meanwhile, wasn’t sure what to do with himself. He was in an unfamiliar city, where he didn’t know anyone, and he was hoping to explore the town with his new wife. That didn’t happen, not even once. I was too busy trying to make my mom happy the whole time. By the end of Yom Tov, my husband was miserable.
This pattern repeated itself several times until my husband finally consulted with our rav. After speaking with me and hearing more about my background, he explained that my husband is my priority. Yes, it’s important to help my mother, but within reason. If my husband wants to eat out or visit a park, that takes precedence over making endless amounts of potato kugel to make my mother happy. This was easy to hear, but much harder to put into practice. My identity as my mother’s savior had been so deeply entrenched.
A year and a half after our marriage, I had a baby boy.
I was elated, but also terrified: What if I become like my mother?
MY younger sisters got married one by one. Only Abby, the baby of the family, chose to stay in my hometown. She married a local boy named Tzvi, and they found an apartment right near my parents’ house.
From the start, I got calls from my mother: “I don’t think Tzvi likes me.” I didn’t take it too seriously because my mother is highly sensitive, and she was already struggling with empty-nest syndrome.
But she was right.
“Our parents are seriously dysfunctional, like way worse than I ever realized,” Abby called to tell me one day. “Tzvi can’t believe I survived in this house for so long.” Every little thing that went wrong in Abby’s life, she started blaming on my mother. Tzvi reinforced this belief, pointing out every inappropriate or socially off thing my parents did.
The more Abby pulled away, the harder my mother tried to hold on. The rejection was unraveling her. She would call me incessantly, begging me to help. I sincerely felt for my mother, so I tried to intervene and talk to Abby. But whatever I said only made things worse.
By the time Abby was expecting her second, she was barely on speaking terms with my mother. My mother was distraught and pleaded with me to intercede. When Abby finally answered my call, she informed me that she had started seeing a therapist, who had guided her to cut contact with our mother. Because Abby lumped my father together with my mother, she refused to speak to him either. “Talking to Mom is dangerous for my well-being,” she stated.
Eventually, Abby stopped speaking to me, too. “Everything you say triggers me,” she explained during our last call. She moved to a new city not long after. That was 11 years ago. I haven’t heard from her since.
During the first year, when the pain was most acute, my mother was so devastated that she’d call me daily, obsessively trying to psychoanalyze Abby’s behavior. “I don’t understand what I did wrong!” she’d sob. “I was the perfect mother-in-law! I never said a bad word to Tzvi!”
In the beginning, I listened intently, showing real sympathy. I sincerely felt for my mother, and I knew she was experiencing intense pain. But after weeks of emotionally draining calls, I couldn’t take it anymore. I didn’t have the energy or time to answer her calls, especially because I was busy with my own large family. I also didn’t have the answers she needed.
Eventually, I mustered up the courage to speak my heart. I told her that instead of focusing every conversation on Abby, I wanted to share my own life with her — to talk about what was going on in my personal life or with my kids. I also gently suggested she speak about this topic with her rav or a therapist instead of with her daughter.
My mother started bawling. “What kind of daughter are you?! You have no idea what I’m going through! How could you be so inconsiderate?! Of course I can’t talk to anyone else about this!”
Today, I would know how to set a proper boundary. But back then, I didn’t have those tools. So I berated myself for my lack of sensitivity and resolved to keep picking up the phone. Besides, maybe I really could help my mother? For a solid year, I listened to my mother multiple times a week as she vented and psychoanalyzed and wept about Abby. For a solid year, I was semi-absent from my own life, in my roles as wife and mother, because I was so preoccupied with my mother’s pain.
I was furious at Abby for leaving me to deal with all the damage she’d caused, but there were days when I was jealous of her. She no longer had to deal with any of this.
The nonstop calls were taking such a toll on me that I finally consulted with my mother’s rav. He validated my concerns and encouraged me to set a firm boundary. I wrote my mother a long email, gently explaining all the reasons I couldn’t talk about Abby anymore.
It worked, for a little bit. But then came the guilt. She’d begin every conversation with stinging comments: “I know you hate talking about Abby, but just wait until your daughter gets married and disappears from your life. Wait until you see how you feel then.”
My mother was consuming so much of my mental space and emotional energy that I realized I needed professional help.
During my first therapy session, I unloaded everything I had been through and was currently dealing with.
“Your mother may be the source of your problems,” my therapist said in response. “But since she’s not the one sitting on this couch, my job isn’t to help her, but to help you. What we’re going to do over the next few months and years is to help you heal and mourn the mother-daughter relationship you never had. We’re going to help you come to love and respect your mother for who she is without trying to change her… or save her.”
I swallowed her words and started working hard, but, spoiler alert: This isn’t a story about a woman who completely healed. Yes, my therapist started me on an incredible journey. But I don’t think I’ll ever fully “heal.” Rather, I learned tools to help me cope with the day-to-day challenges, of which there are many.
The first thing I worked on was setting — and maintaining — boundaries.
My mother has this romantic definition of what a mother-daughter relationship should look like, and she’s always lamenting that our relationship isn’t more intimate, that I don’t share enough with her, that I don’t ask her for advice.
So when I decided to restrict my calls to my mother to twice a week, she naturally didn’t respond well: “Wow, I guess you’re just too busy now to make time for your own mother,” or, “I wish we were close like Shaindy and her mom — they talk for hours every day. Shaindy’s such a good daughter.”
I was long used to my mother’s guilt trips, so I tried to create a steel barrier between me and the comment. This is not my mother speaking, I’d tell myself, this is her pain speaking.
I learned to prepare talking points when I call my mother so I can easily slow down the conversation if things veer off to an unhealthy place. When my mother emotionally unloads on me about her personal problems, I close my eyes and tell myself, “Zahava, you are not Zahava right now. You are a nice lady who is doing a chesed for a sad lady. You need to remove all emotion from yourself.”
I started whispering a quick tefillah before I’d call. I ask Hashem to help me be a good daughter. I ask him to gift me with a wonderful phone conversation or a nice moment between us. My prayers become more fervent when I know I’m going to see her in person.
For the first decade of my marriage, we always vacationed at my parents’ or in-laws’ house. But as the kids grew older, they wanted to do different things. My husband and I also wanted to create our own intimate family memories. So, one year, we decided to fly to Florida with just our immediate family. I knew this wouldn’t go over well with my mother, so I consulted both my rav and therapist first. They both felt it was a healthy boundary.
My mother was irate. She launched an entire campaign that lasted for months. “Well, now I see the real truth: A vacation with your family is more important than visiting your own mother. You’re depriving me of having a relationship with my grandchildren.”
The reaction from my in-laws was staggeringly different. “Woo-hoo!” they responded. “Make sure to post pictures on the family chat!”
I knew my kids would eventually pick up on how different my in-laws and parents are, so early on, I created a culture in the house where we never compare grandparents — we accept people for who they are.
For example, I taught my kids to be gracious about the small gifts they receive from my parents (typically socks or markers), and be as grateful as if they’d received an American Doll or electric scooter (the type of gifts my in-laws give). I told them stories about my in-laws’ and parents’ childhoods so they could get a sense of how differently they all grew up.
As my kids matured into teens, I was open with them. I told them that Savta hadn’t had an easy life, so she might say things sometimes that sound funny or insulting, but she means well. And above all, she loves them.
In my heart, I am torn. I want my kids to have a good relationship with my mother. But I also want to protect them from her.
For my eldest daughter’s bas mitzvah, my mother gifted her with a family heirloom — a beautiful antique pin. My eloquent and mature 12-year-old received the gift with a gracious smile, said thank you sincerely, and gave my mother a hug and a kiss. But her response didn’t satisfy my mother. “You’re not happy with the gift — I can tell. I can see it in your eyes,” she told her. My daughter looked at me nervously, unsure of what she should’ve done differently.
Later, she was still feeling guilty. I sat her down and tried to explain the situation in a way that I wish someone had done for me in my childhood. “You did everything right,” I reassured her. “Sometimes Savta has an unrealistic expectation of how a scenario should play itself out, and when it doesn’t happen, she’s disappointed. In her mind, she imagined you jumping up and down and squealing for joy like a little girl. Your job was to receive the gift graciously in your own way, and it’s okay that it didn’t match what Savta was imagining. You did the right thing.”
Last year, we reached an incredible milestone: My bechor got engaged. It would be the first wedding in the family. The moment I broke the news of the engagement to my mother, she began to obsess about whether Abby would show up. “Send an invitation, just in case,” my mother insisted. I went along with her and contacted old friends to locate Abby’s new address, even though I was certain she’d never come (and, of course, she didn’t).
Never once did my mother express joy that her oldest grandson was getting married. Never once did she focus on the fact that three of her daughters and all their children were coming together for a joyous simchah. Her only focus was on Abby’s potential presence. “Set aside a table for her and the kids. We need to think about where she’ll stay if she flies in at the last minute.” She was so fixated on Abby that she was incapable of enjoying the nachas she did have.
I tried to get inside my mother’s head, to fathom the excruciating pain she was feeling, to feel compassion for her. That was the only way I could deal with the fact that my mother wasn’t emotionally available for me throughout the entire simchah. Once again, I was playing mother to her… instead of her playing mother to me.
My mom recently visited, and on Erev Shabbos, she asked to go to the bakery. “Sure, let’s go!” I replied. I told Russy, my five-year-old, to grab her shoes and hop in the car with us.
“No!” my mother shot back. “She can’t come with us. If she does, she’ll want all your attention, and then you won’t be focused on me.”
I was floored. “Mom, please,” I insisted. “I’ll let her choose whatever cookies she wants so we can schmooze. I’ll be focused on you.”
My mother was adamant. “I hardly visit anymore. If we’re going out, I want alone time with you.”
My daughter, meanwhile, was listening intently to this whole exchange. She turned to me with big eyes, tears welling up. “Why doesn’t Savta want me?”
Russy was so hurt that when my mother took the kids out on Sunday, she refused to go along. She kept repeating, “Savta doesn’t like me. Savta doesn’t want me.” When I told my mother about it, she curtly replied, “Oh, just tell her to get over it.”
That’s when it hit me: With age, my mother is only getting worse.
I think of my mother as having an emotional disease. I do what I can to help her, but at the same time, I understand that my well-being, and that of my family, takes precedence. When I start to feel guilty that I’m not doing enough for her, I mentally compare her emotional illness to a physical one: If my mother was sick in the hospital, I’d visit her often and bring her whatever she needs. But I wouldn’t move into the hospital with her. I wouldn’t inject myself with her disease so I could understand her pain. I don’t have to get sick because of her; I don’t have to become her.
I still flinch when I see my mother’s name on caller ID. My relationship with my mother is the hardest relationship of my life, and it’s only getting harder.
The only way I can remain friendly and warm toward her is by reminding myself that beneath my mother’s caustic exterior is actually a wonderful, sweet person. On a recent visit, I was even able to glimpse it. We had gone out to eat together, just the two of us, and she was unbelievably relaxed, chatting cheerfully. I couldn’t even touch my food because I was so choked up. For a moment, I tasted what a sweet mother-daughter relationship might look like.
I still wish that I could save my mother, that I could make her happy. But I’ve been through enough to know that I can’t. I can’t heal my mother. I can’t make her normal.
Hashem chose my mother to be my mother. In His infinite kindness, He gifted me with kochos to survive my childhood. I was a fiercely independent little girl with a natural exuberance, and from a young age, people in my community — my principals, my teachers, my friends’ mothers — took an interest in me. They saw I needed extra love and help, and they were there for me.
Hashem gave me the tools to survive adulthood, too. My husband and in-laws saved me, modeling for me what a healthy family looks like. My loving, infinitely patient husband has stood by my side throughout my journey. For decades, he’s been listening to me rant and rave and cry and weep, and not once did he roll his eyes or tell me, “I’m sick and tired of hearing about your mother.” He recognizes what a struggle this has been for me… and still is for me.
To this day, every time I do dishes, fold laundry, or put hot supper on the table, I do an internal victory dance — See! I’m a good mother! I’m terrified of napping, no matter how exhausted I am, for fear of becoming like my mother. You would think that after decades of being a mother, these thoughts wouldn’t be in my head anymore, but they are. I constantly check the way I react to my children. It’s a daily avodah.
The other day, I was sitting on the couch, pen and paper in hand, going through my Yom Tov to-do list with my daughter. We were figuring out all the meals and clothes and errands and who needed what. I was having trouble being in the present because something upsetting had happened earlier and it was taking an emotional toll on me. But instead of emotionally shutting down and locking myself in my room, I willed myself to smile and be present with my daughter. I felt like Hashem was hugging me, telling me, “You can do this, Zahava.” In that moment, I was breaking the chain of dysfunction and creating a different model for the next generation.
Every time I’m able to be there emotionally for my children or care for their physical needs, I feel gratitude. I whisper, “Thank You, Hashem,” because I know it’s He Who’s enabled me to be healthy enough to do so.
I don’t have an incredible, dramatic end to my story; there’s no profound final sentence. My journey is still ongoing. I am still writing.
(Originally featured in Family First, Issue 862)
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