When we learned I was carrying a boy, I said to my husband, "I'm not going to turn into my mother." He nodded enthusiastically, probably thinking I wouldn't wear housedresses. What I meant was I wouldn't push my son to succeed. My brothers, fraternal twins eight years older than me, had been groomed by our Russian-born parents to go to a top law school. I, like a beloved dog, was praised simply for not destroying the furniture. In our pre-feminist family, the expectation was someone would take care of me. They became attorneys and I didn't stumble into a career until I was in my thirties. Still, I felt the sexism worked in my favor. I had less performance anxiety, healthier relationships and way more fun than my siblings.
This pregnancy had been extremely unlikely, closer to impossible than possible. Even before discovering a second fertility problem, my doctor had said, "I would never tell any woman she can't get pregnant, but..."
He seemed afraid of continuing so I quipped, "We should get a dog?" I refused to give up and managed to conceive with the help of a gynecologist, fertility specialist, surgeon and, of course, my husband. Getting married had been no easier. After achieving success as a television writer, I knew that a career wasn't enough. I wanted a family of my own. By the time I found the right man, I was 37. My eggs might expire before the ones in my refrigerator. Martin was recently divorced and bent on staying unattached. But his resolve was no match for my unrelenting badgering. When I finally wore him down, nobody was more excited except maybe my parents. The only thing to equal that celebration was this baby.
Despite our agreement that we wouldn't focus on achievement, hearing the delivery room nurse call out Apgar scores of 9 and 10, Martin and I lit up. Even before he'd been cleaned up, our son aced his first test. It took only to feel the tiny fingers of a newborn on my chest for me to understand why my mother had been so smitten with her kids. The challenge would be to make a distinction between mothering and smothering. To be consistent with our values and minimize performance anxiety, we chose those that described themselves as progressive. "We don't correct spelling," they boasted, telling us that self-esteem was more important than knowing where to arrange "e" and "I" after "v."
Accompanying third graders on a field trip, I was approached on the bus by a boy saying there was an obscenity scratched onto the seat ahead of his.
"It is spelled correctly?" I asked.
"Uh-huh," he answered.
"Then it wasn't done by anyone in this school," I told him.
Child rearing gurus encouraged us to praise, not criticize. If my son's shot missed the basket, I said "good try" with as much enthusiasm as if it had been the winning shot. He occasionally accused me of giving him too much credit, seeing it as a form of parental grade inflation. Though Martin didn't have a trophy wife, he did have a trophy kid who returned from every athletic event carrying something bigger than he was with a bronze plaque, even if the achievement was "Most Improved" or "Perfect Attendance".
Martin joked, "He'll grow up to be a very happy potter."
Despite our efforts, our son learned how to spell and is now a litigator. But the choice was his. Martin and I are pleased that he seems confident and happy. We don't know if we contributed in any way. "You can't make them better," Martin said, "but you can make them worse." I was no less involved, loving or proud than my mother had been, pushing my agenda with the same conviction and zeal. We had different goals, but maybe I had, in fact, become her. I may not have owned mom jeans, but I did have my mom's genes.
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