Examining the legacy of Jewish mother guilt

Let’s begin with a joke my boyfriend shared: a Jewish mother buys her adult son a brown shirt and a blue shirt for his birthday. He has a hard time choosing which one to wear to visit his mother, but eventually settles on the brown one. When his mother sees him, she immediately asks, “What? You don’t like the blue shirt?”

This joke about the stereotypical Jewish mother made me laugh – you just giggled, too, am I right? Of course, you’ve heard it before, in countless books, television shows, movies, jokes, memes – and now … under my roof. (I’d like to point out that my boyfriend is a Jewish lawyer, a brag-worthy career just slightly lower on the totem pull than doctor. And he is dating someone who is Jewish: me!)

But guilt trips in real life are so much different than the laughable, yet relatable ones we see in entertainment and old jokes. I always thought being on the end of the famed Jewish guilt trip – thanks, parents – was bad enough. How did our mothers do this to us? And how can they still do this to us?

As it turns out, being a modern Jewish mother who recently laid out a guilt trip on her child for the very first time brings forth emotions so much more powerful than any feeling of heartbreak, loneliness, despair, grief or the dread one may feel on Sunday nights before going to a job he or she hates. After my first guilt trip as a Jewish mother, I was traumatized.

“You never want to spend time with me anymore! You just want to spend time with me when you need me to drive you somewhere,” I yelled at my 16-year-old daughter, Rowan, recently in a complete random fit of rage. “What do you think I am? A chauffeur? Your personal driver?” (I was this close to adding, “What am I, chopped liver?”

Alas, I’m not so sure my daughter would get that reference.)

As the words of that inaugural guilt trip were coming out of my mouth, it was almost like an out-of-body experience. I knew what I was doing, but I didn’t recognize myself. My brain was emitting warning signals – “This is so unfair for you to say,” “You’re being totally unreasonable,” “Just shut the f–k up” – while the accusatory, and not entirely true, words poured out of my mouth.

Who was that mother pulling a guilt trip? Couldn’t be me! But, oh, it was indeed. I wanted to stop, but by then, it was too late and the damage was done. In the meantime, I had driven my car through a red light. My daughter cried. I cried.

Losing my Jewish mother guilt trip virginity was oh so classic. I’m almost embarrassed to share it (kind of like sharing stories of actually losing your virginity and realizing, “Meh, what’s the big deal?”).

How could I say that to my daughter, the love and light of my life? Especially as I, like many mothers my age, had always promised myself that I would not parent my kids the way my parents parented me. I had been manipulating my daughter into spending more time with me, even though, rationally, I know that she is a teenager and is supposed to want to spend time with her friends.

As soon as the guilt trip was out there, I felt a sense of shock and awe that I went there. The guilt I felt drove me into such a state of mental exhaustion that I slept for 18 hours straight. My daughter was so affected that she couldn’t concentrate or be productive in school the following day (which also affected me). The emotional wound was so deep. I never want to relive that day again.

I apologized to my daughter, profusely, and promised myself, never, ever would I lay another guilt trip on my teenage daughter, or my seven-year-old son. Two C-sections was literally a foot massage in comparison to the feelings I felt from laying on a guilt trip. I was forgiven, but inwardly, I’m still traumatized.

* * *

My daughter and I love watching The Big Bang Theory. We lie on the bed together, watching reruns, our legs intertwined. One of the characters, Howard Wolowitz (portrayed by Simon Helberg), has a stereotypical Jewish mother, although we never see her. Viewers only hear her very obnoxious, loud and demanding voice in exchanges like the following:

Mrs. Wolowitz: “Where were you so late?”

Howard: “I was out with Bernadette.”

Mrs. Wolowitz: “I know what that means, I watch Dr. Phil. I hope to God you used a condom.”

Howard: “I am not having this conversation with you, ma.”

Mrs. Wolowitz: “God forbid you get one of them fancy sex diseases.”

Howard: “Nobody has a disease!”

Mrs. Wolowitz: “I hope not. I share a toilet with you. Is that what you want, to give your mother herpes?”

How did our parents do this to us all the time, as if it were second nature? For those of us lucky enough to still have parents, how do they keep doing it to us now? The answer is simple. Are you ready for the dark secret of Jewish mother guilt? It comes down to this: our parents truly have no idea that they lay guilt trips at all.

I asked my 74-year-old mother, also a bubbe of five, if she knew she pulled guilt trips on me and my siblings. “No, I never pull guilt trips. Not ever,” she professed. To which the only reasonable response was to wonder whether my mother had become a stand-up comedian in her retirement. I couldn’t stop laughing at her answer. Not ever? Seriously?

Type “Jewish mother guilt trip” into Google and you’ll get more than seven million hits. “Jewish guilt trip” is even in the online Urban Dictionary, a site I visit to learn the new teenager lingo my daughter brings home from school, where it is defined as “the course of action taken upon a Jew when one feels they need to get their way. A Jewish guilt trip is more powerful than anything in this universe and can be very dangerous if not used correctly. Jewish mothers use this power quite a lot. These are performed best by Jews.” Well, thank you, thank you very much. Hurray for us Jews and our apparently award-winning guilt trips!

My teen daughter would tell me – annoyingly, mind you – that saying “guilt trips are performed best by Jews” is a “micro-aggression” (ask your children or grandchildren; it’s too difficult to explain) and that not all Jewish mothers give guilt trips. I chewed on my lip hard, wanting to say, “wait until you’re a mother.” But I am terrified now, hyper aware of what comes out of my mouth. A response like that would only be taken as me pulling another guilt trip.


* * *

I do not know one modern-day parent, Jewish or not, who would ever say to their child who came home with a mark of 98 per cent, “What happened to the other two per cent?” But I grew up with a dad who always said exactly that. To this day, I’m not entirely sure if he was joking. Those types of comments made me super ambitious. They also made me super hard on myself.

“My mother who was always very slim (was never caught eating) always reminded me that without much brains or looks, I had no hopes to ‘catch’ a doctor or a lawyer,” one of my Jewish mother friends told me. “I promised myself I’d be a completely different parent than her, and for the most part, I’ve succeeded. I don’t hit, and I don’t yell. And I don’t practice much in the way of guilt.”

My generation of mothers tell our children, “as long as you tried your best,” then we hug them fiercely and remind them how proud we are of them, at least five times an hour (before finding a tutor to outsource homework help to).

My mother once guilted me, even making me cry, on the day I brought my son home from the hospital, yelling that I never offered her tea when she came over. Sure, maybe I was on morphine, but I had no idea where this guilt trip was coming from, especially since I had just brought a newborn home from the hospital. We didn’t talk for weeks, until the Jewish guilt inside me became so toxic. I folded, called and apologized.

My generation of parents – mostly in our early 40s – are much more reflective and self-aware. Quite frankly, the good, old-fashioned Jewish mother guilt trips have turned into straight up bribery instead. To get my son to attend his weekly flag football practices, I don’t say, “I just spent $600 on this! Do you know how hard I worked for that money? Suck it up!” No, no, no. I say, “If you go, I’ll take you to the toy store after.” Another Jewish mother friend of mine bribes her children with cash to play on a selective, high-level hockey team. The more goals and assists he gets, the more money he makes.

Most of my friends’ complaints about getting guilt trips from their mothers usually have to do with the grandchildren. “When am I going to see Adam?” “Why don’t you ever let us know when Simone’s games are?” Or the classic, “It would be nice to have all the grandchildren together.” During the High Holidays, one of my friends felt obligated to go to her mom’s house for dinner, mostly because her mother kept saying, “This may be my last Rosh Hashanah dinner as the host. You never know what could happen at my age.”

It was impressive, because everyone she invited showed up.

The thing about guilt trips is that they do work. They are superhero powerful. If only there was a prescription drug people could take every time their mothers made them feel guilty. I’m pretty sure most doctors would prescribe it without much prompting. “I see here on your chart you said you’re suffering from Jewish guilt? Here’s a prescription. Take as needed. Bye.” Because, yes, guilt is powerful. As children, we were taught to seek approval from our parents and that never goes away. “The Jewish guilt I received lives in my head all day every day,” one of my friends said. “I fight it constantly.”

Our generation of self-reflecting, of journaling, of therapists, knows how it feels to be guilt-ridden and so we fight to raise our kids the opposite way – bribe them with sugar, toys, trips and give them a medal for everything. It’s better than spanking and guilt trips, I think.

A lot of us mid-lifers with children and elderly parents are learning to just say no. “No, I want to spend time alone with just my children.” “No, I worked all week and I’m taking Sunday off from everyone, and that includes you!” We don’t make up excuses and we don’t mean for our parents to take it personally. It’s like breaking up. “It’s really not you, it’s me!”

“We suffer two great inheritances of the Jewish people,” Molly Jong Fast, Erica Jong’s daughter, once said, “irritable bowel syndrome and guilt.” She deemed our quintessential Jewish way of life as “praying on a shrink’s sofa,” which is funny. For most of us suffering from Jewish guilt, and for those of us who have, or will one day, use the power of Jewish guilt, we need a sense of humour in order to deal with the fact that our mothers truly don’t know they give guilt trips (even when they go as far as using their grandchildren as ammunition).

Or maybe, just maybe, we modern moms do still play guilt trips, even if they are done in jest. The other night, I was in my bedroom, tired and lazy. “Can you bring me up a snack please?” I texted my daughter, who was in the kitchen. “I’m doing homework,” she texted back. To which I texted her back, “You made me gain 70 pounds when I was pregnant! And I had a C-section. Bring me a granola bar!”

Oy. What can I say? At least I don’t have irritable bowel syndrome.