"Well, at least my daughter is talking," she shot back. "If my daughter wasn't talking, I'd be really upset."
I was crushed. I had already reviewed every week of my pregnancy to try to figure out what it was that I had done or not done to myself that could have caused this problem. Remembering how my baby had banged his head on the sink as I bathed him one day, I felt sure that my clumsiness and inexperience were responsible for his seeming inability to speak. It didn't matter what the pediatrician told me. I was to blame.
Just before he turned 2, I enrolled Alex, who was still not saying an intelligible word, in a music class for kids. Its location was inconvenient, but everyone said it was "the best," and God forbid my son did not learn how to bang on a tambourine with other toddlers. After class one snowy afternoon, we headed out to catch the Third Avenue bus uptown. We reached the bus stop in minutes. Then we waited, and waited some more. Eventually we started getting cold. Since there was still not a bus in sight, I decided to hail a cab. Suddenly I couldn't find one of those, either. As the snowstorm intensified, I began to panic. We were a fair distance away from home. What if I couldn't find a cab and the bus never came? I could probably walk home on my own, but what about my 2-year-old, who was bundled in a big snowsuit? I had chronic back problems, and there was no way I could carry him.
"How the hell am I going to get us back to the apartment?" I asked myself, feeling increasingly frantic. All of a sudden, Alex put up his hand and yelled: "Taxi! Taxi!"
After all the angst, his first word!
What a relief. I was convinced that whatever went wrong with Alex, it was my fault. I was an educated New York woman who had been raised on books and movies featuring pushy, troublesome Jewish mothers, thanks to Philip Roth, among many others. I had learned the lesson of blaming mothers long before Alex's birth, and I remembered that in the early days when the pioneers in Israel were formulating the design for living in the kibbutz, they consciously tried to break the mold of the overly close family, diffusing mother-child closeness by having children sleep away from the parents and having everyone eat communally to avoid the intense family meals they remembered from the old country.
It was in the air. Mothers who were too close to their sons made them homosexual; mothers who were too distant made them autistic. Mothers were even blamed for schizophrenia. The term of blame was the "schizophrenigenic mother." (Try saying that five times fast.)
This is not meant to blame the experts for all the angst of being a mother. I think we naturally carry a sense of deep responsibility for the health and happiness of our offspring. Why shouldn't we? But something happened in psychology during the 1930s that made a tremendous difference to my sense of guilt -- and yours.
It all started out innocently enough. A large number of infants and small children who were orphaned were not thriving in the orphanages, and too many of these babies were not surviving. These were good orphanages. The babies were fed and changed and kept clean, but many became quiet and weak, and then died. According to the wisdom of the day, infants and small children were not to be picked up and held. That was considered to be bad for their young characters.