| Pinpoint |

Pinpoint: The Mother I Never Had 

Stick a pin in the phonebook. See where it lands. Make the call. Does everyone have a story? Five writers find out


I was in, as soon as I heard about this project. It was Elul; what better time for me to break through natural reserve, reach out to an unknown Jewish sister, and build a bridge of words, a bond of shared experience.

I was spurred on by the lockdown experience, where our world narrowed to only those within our walls, and we lost the opportunity to smile and connect with a wider circle of humanity.

I love real-life stories, I believe in the premise that everyone has their own journey, and I’m good at entering others’ worlds. So I was ready to roll.

I wasn’t too worried I’d prick a name I knew, because I moved here as an adult and always say that I don’t know anyone in town. Yet my first few tries turned up acquaintances.

A student’s mother, whom I did not want to sit across the café table from — nixed. A girl who was in my school, the grade below me, and we chat a little when we meet. I know her background, does that disqualify her? Bassi responded that as long as I wouldn’t invite the lady to my son’s bar mitzvah, I can use her. My son’s a year old, how would I know, so I just called her. Voice mail, a whole bunch of times. Move on.

The next time, I pricked a cell phone number. I dialed and blurted out the reason for my call “I’m writing for Family First, and we’re doing a really unusual project for Succos. Different writers in different locations are calling ladies from the phonebook at random…”

The lady listened to my shpiel and said she reads Mishpacha occasionally. She wasn’t sure if she could help me, because she was on vacation. She’d be back in town in a couple days, but then have to quarantine for two weeks. I imagined myself standing in a garden, outside an open, barred window, hands cupped behind my ears to hear the lady’s story. It was too impractical. I needed someone I could actually meet.


Next up, a sweet lady with a South African accent who was friendly with Bassi’s mechutanim and would have liked to help me. Thing was, she didn’t feel she had a story. Once we talked about her life, it transpired that she did, but when I followed up to suggest we meet and chat about it in person, she felt too exposed. A catch had slipped through my fingers.

I was getting desperate. I flipped the phonebook upside down, shook it, and tried again. A very serious and proper older lady heard me out and said she thinks she has something to share, but wanted to sleep on it. By the next day, she’d decided against it.

Was I ever going to catch a fish? The funny thing was that the disappointments did not alter my belief that everyone has a story. I was sure that if each woman I spoke to would sit down in a creative writing workshop, accessing memories and musings and subconscious associations, and letting words flow onto paper, she’d have found her story. It was just that the stream of consciousness wasn’t opening up on demand, over the phone.

Flip, pin, dial, no answer. Try again. Hey, there was someone there. Time to give the shpiel. And the lady, this blessed lady who picked up her phone, who lived just two blocks away from me but was completely unknown, didn’t say no. Yes, she would share her story, if I felt it was of interest.

I’d found my lady, she had a story, and I couldn’t wait to hear and share it. We arranged to meet for breakfast.

We began with small talk. It was almost ten in the morning and the breakfasters were emptying out of the café; perfect. Michal had told me over the phone that her story was about her fifth child, and the change he had brought to her life, so once we had ordered, we started there.

Michal knew what she wanted to share and she was so eloquent. My fingers were racing to keep up with her flow of words as she went back a few years to the birth of Chaim, her first son after four girls. She described him as “not cute, not attractive, very skinny and with droopy eyes. I didn’t connect to him as I did to my other newborns. And he was a screamer.”

Her life was busy at the time. “At night, I was giving art classes. I was overextended, with women asking me to open new groups. From eight o’clock, I ran two or three classes in a row. It was fulfilling and exhilarating, because I was so good at what I did. From being just a hobby, art had become a side business.

“I felt energetic in the early days after Chaim’s birth, and rather than go back to working in a school during the morning hours, I decided to open a children’s clothing business in my home. A couple months after he was born, I set myself up. There was no chance that I’d be able to take care of my little Chaim at the same time as running a store, so he’d have to go to a babysitter. He wasn’t an easygoing baby, but I had full confidence in my babysitter, a kind and motherly lady.

“Off he went, in his princely carriage, equipped with moisturizers for his flaky, eczematic skin, and I settled down to the morning’s work, advising customers, making sales, labeling, straightening the racks, and doing minor alterations.

“Meanwhile, at the babysitter’s, my awkward little Chaim, with the scrawny body and the drooping eyes, cried a lot, had to be held, and never giggled at the toys or explored the room. At first, the babysitter figured that he was just an unsettled newborn. She held him and tried to sooth his misery.

“But as the months went by, I started to get mid-morning phone calls. ‘Michal, he’s too unhappy. He’s screaming nonstop. I can’t manage him today,’ she’d say, this homey expert who had soothed dozens of little screamers in her arms. I had to find a neighbor to watch my store and run to get Chaim, tiny, tense, and miserable.

“At home, Chaim’s eyes hardly met ours. He rarely smiled, and was totally not cute or photogenic. I could never show him off, and it was hard to actually like him and enjoy him.”

“The endless screaming must have been really hard,” I say. “What were the nights like?”

“The nights weren’t as hard,” says Michal. “He’d wake up, but my husband helped with bottles. A lot of babies don’t sleep through the night.

“But the days were nightmarish. I couldn’t go out with Chaim on errands or to the park, because he screamed and threw himself from side to side when placed in his carriage. The perfectly-maintained Bugaboo with the updated hood color, which had lulled my girls to sleep from such a young age, was a jail cell to him.

“He passed three months, six months, nine months, and he still wasn’t settling. He wasn’t becoming the doll-like baby with round cheeks my girls had been at his age. He was not adorable, even dressed in his new three-piece-and-hat ensemble for Yom Tov. In fact, he was screaming more, ever more tense.

“I had Chaim tested, and found that he was allergic to many triggers, including some foods I had to eliminate from my diet, since I was nursing him. His eczema improved a little, but Chaim didn’t seem happier. Even when he wasn’t screaming, he wouldn’t make eye contact, giggle, or show interest in toys.”

Somehow, the family coped, and went on with life through Chaim’s cries. Michal was working through the mornings, spending the afternoon with her children, and then there was the pressure to have her home clean and shining for eight o’ clock. She was working on adrenaline. Until she somehow stopped herself.

“I’m not proud of this,” she says, “but it took me a year and a half to get off the treadmill and answer Chaim’s plea. It was terribly difficult. I was making good money from my store, and the evening art classes fulfilled me. We had a mortgage to pay.

“But I looked at my child’s unfocused eyes, and I knew, deep down, that he needed me more.”

Michal sold her business and let her ladies know that the art classes were finishing at the end of the semester. Chaim was one and a half years old when she began to spend her mornings with him.

“We sat on the floor and played, Chaim and me. I held him and stroked him, looked into his eyes, and talked and talked. A lot of the time, I explained the world to him. I told him about everything and anything, explained him what his dad and I were doing and what his sisters were playing.

“I faced myself and knew that I had to find it within me to like him and see his charm, but it took time for me to connect to this fussy baby. To look past his being ‘difficult’ and ‘kvetchy,’ and touch the little person inside. I started to tell him how much we loved him, and the words made the feelings more real.

“My husband joined me in these efforts, and with time, we saw his eyes focus and engage more. Over the next weeks and months, Chaim became more alert, happier, and more responsive.”

It wasn’t just a change in her child, but a huge shift in her parenting approach. Michal describes how she and her husband now try to relate to their children’s inner world and personality.

“I learned the hard way that if a baby is crying, it’s not about ‘I can’t manage to get anything done, he needs to go to the babysitter so I can get moving here.’ It’s about why this child is in distress, and how I need to connect to his specific needs.

“For example, the other day, I wanted my daughter to get into the Shabbos outfit that matched her sisters’, and she was having a meltdown. But once I got into her headspace, I could understand why she had an issue with the dress. I empathized with her and we came to a compromise where she only has to wear it on a few occasions that are really important to me.”

Michal and I sip hot chocolate and cappuccino and eat our breakfasts. She’s poised and confident; she can’t believe how far she and her child have come. But as she continues, she’s cutting her cheese panini into small pieces with a knife and fork.

“I never had that emotional bond with a parent. When I see my Chaim, I realize that I was that child with droopy eyes and unhappiness all over my face.

“I was the sensitive, sometimes miserable child in my family. I was always battling my parents. As an intense, deep-thinking kid, I needed to talk, to analyze. I was also very strong-willed and opinionated. But in our house, the only opinion that held sway was my mother’s. Mum was a strong person, and things were always done her way.

“She was a good person, with the best of intentions, but she wasn’t emotionally aware, and she moved through life briskly — with a total lack of understanding of how my mind and emotions worked. The words I heard most often growing up were ‘Just get on with it!’ closely followed by ‘Why are you still chewing that over? Stop thinking about it and go on!’

“There was also a lot of ,‘Why can’t you be more like your sisters?’ My siblings either had personalities more similar to my mother’s, or just kept quiet and didn’t make waves. But I couldn’t hold back what was inside me. ‘I don’t want to talk about it,’ my mother would say firmly, when I tried to direct a discussion toward something that bothered me.

“Mum provided all our regular needs, and even tried to treat us, but always within her own frame of reference. When I asked for things, especially if they were slightly out of Mum’s idea of what was right, it was perceived as a threat, and she’d dig her heels in.

“We were never allowed to go out with our friends in the evenings, and the more I begged and cried, the firmer the no became. When I wanted my hair styled in a certain way for a family simchah, Mum wouldn’t let. I was a teen, but I had to wear a childish style because that was right for her taste and her circle of friends.

“Even though I was good at art, my mother couldn’t appreciate it. She looked through my work and gave a cursory ‘very nice,’ but she didn’t see it as valuable as my sisters’ academic achievements. This affected my confidence so much that in high school I never volunteered to paint scenery for production.

“When you live with parents who don’t believe in you, who see you as the difficult one, you get the message that you’re not good enough. My mother loved to list off her accomplishments — ‘Today, after work, I cooked Shabbos for us and Family X, I washed and ironed all the linens, and drove Mrs Y to her hospital appointment…’

“She didn’t like when I was ‘just sitting doing nothing,’ or ‘wasting my time,’ so I understood that only getting things done was worthwhile, and as I couldn’t get things done quickly, I wasn’t that worthy.

“I prayed to stay whole inside, and to find a husband who understood me.

“When I married at 19, my husband quickly sensed that I didn’t feel good about myself. He’d come in and I’d look upset, tell him that ‘I wasted my day, I didn’t do anything.’

“ ‘Do? Why do you have to do anything? Where are you running to? You’re fine as you are,’ he’d tell me.

“His character is so sensitive, and so laid back, that it took time for him to understand what my upbringing had done to me. We spoke and spoke, and my husband opened up a new world to me, a world where human nature was meant to be understood in depth, and my thoughtfulness and intensity were assets.

“I learned that there was value in being, not only doing, that there was nothing wrong with my being slower and more deliberate than my sisters.

“It took time, but with someone who believes in you at your side, you can move forward. My husband thought I was wonderful as I was. I allowed myself to develop my artistic talents by taking professional courses and then teaching.

“I thought of opening my own business, which would never have been an option for the girl I was before. When compliments came my way, I allowed myself to believe them. Psychodynamic therapy helped me to become stronger and happier, get rid of the emotional baggage, and stand tall.

“My girls were born quickly, and I was excited to mother them, to push an attractive carriage with a stunning baby, adorably dressed, to color coordinate their clothing and buy trendy shoes and backpacks so we’d be the cutest family. They were adorable kids and on the whole, easy. Looking back, my mothering was so superficial at that point.”

When Chaim was born, Michal had already changed so much. She was happy and successful, felt understood, validated and respected.

“Even my opinion of my own looks changed after I married,” she marvels.

But his birth brought another change, bringing her journey full circle, as she learned to mother a child with an intense nature and complex needs.

“You have to be open to fully accept the child’s nature, so he can shine,” she reflects. “Learning to mother Chaim and seeing him thrive has been a healing process for me, letting me rewrite the script of emotionally aware parenting.”

(Originally featured in Family First, Issue 712)

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