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My friend Cate said she squirmed through the first half of Barbra Streisand and Seth Rogen’s comedy film The Guilt Trip, seeing a bit too much of herself in Streisand’s character, Joyce, an unrelentingly overbearing Jewish mother.
My sister and I saw the film together, just after saying goodbye to our three twenty-something sons who’d spent the Christmas holiday with us. Grown men in boys’ beds. Young men figuring out what to do with their lives. We were so happy to see them we let them make fun of us when we told them we wanted to see this film.
Cate was right; the first hour was jarringly familiar as Joyce commented on her son’s grooming, career choice, romantic life or lack of, his dental habits and nearly every aspect of his private life, inducing eye-rolling and under-the-breath comebacks from him caught on camera but blissfully unheard by his nagging mother.
I actually used to believe that I was not that mother, and that I would never be. I believed I understood that my children had to learn to care for themselves through trial and error and would not learn through my nagging. But out here in the middle distance, I have become a worrywart supreme and a font of unwelcome advice — a mother who uncomfortably fits the interfering stereotype played by Streisand in The Guilt Trip.
It’s inevitable and it doesn’t end here. From middle age on, if we still have mothers living, we will suffer cosmic payback in the not-so-subtle criticisms disguised as compliments aimed our way. When I first saw my mother last month after a six-month absence, she greeted me just as Joyce might have: “You look great,” she said, looking me up and down. “You must have lost a lot of weight.”
I squirmed out of that one without snapping, but shared it with my sister in a gripe session over glasses of wine later. The temperature of our mother’s house, the way the laundry doesn’t get done just right, the amount of wine we tipple, how much or how little we fill our plates — all fodder for guilt trips under her watchful eye.
We hate it, and then we turn around and give it back to our own children in return. When my son arrived at Christmas having quit a long habit of smoking, did I look him in the eye and tell him how overjoyed I was, how difficult I knew it was for him to quit? No. I complimented him underhandedly with a veiled insult: It’s great to be with you when you don’t smell like a cigarette. Instead of “You’re taking care of your body,” he gets “You don’t stink like you used to.”
Here is the dirty secret that feeds this dynamic, this place we don’t want to go but can’t stop going. By the time we have reached our late 50s we have discovered how little power we have over the events that change our lives and that our fantasies of the grownups we thought we wanted to be are largely out of reach. We look at our children and instead of seeing all the promise of time, we see all we didn’t do when we were their ages. Instead of love and adventure and joy and satisfaction in their present and their futures, we see our own disappointments.
Over the Christmas holiday, my sister and I managed to scrutinize and comment inappropriately on our sons’ lives with frightening ease: Were they nice to their girlfriends? What was their workout routine? What were their reading habits? Their eating habits? Their drinking habits? Their toiletry habits? Their driving habits? Did they know how to dress for a job interview? How to clean a spot from the rug? How to write a thank you note? They might have been six or eight, not 26 or 28 when we reminded them of their manners while forgetting our own.
The Guilt Trip stumbles when the Streisand-Rogen mother and son road trip becomes a cable television side-show at an all-you-can-eat-for-free steak house, and when a handsome, rich cowboy falls for Joyce and she miraculously finds her sexiness and her composure on a Lubbock, Texas parking lot, and when everything works out Hollywood-style in the end. But it is spot-on when it suffocates, condescends and patronizes, when it strikes like a python, like an uncoiled mother.
It works when it begs and delivers forgiveness, the only possible grace. That and the assurance that we are not our children and, thank God, they are not us.
Kathryn Eastburn is the author of A Sacred Feast: Reflections of Sacred Harp Singing and Dinner on the Ground, and Simon Says: A True Story of Boys, Guns and Murder in the Rocky Mountain West. You can comment and read or listen to this column again at The Big Something at KRCC.org. “The Middle Distance” is published every Friday on The Big Something and airs each Saturday at 1 p.m. right after This American Life.