Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Is Your Jewish Mother A Maximizer, and What Can You Do About It?

Synopsis: The Jewish mother as maximizer in Jewish culture, Imago theory - What is a maximizer, "Tikkun Olam - Now"


Read this quote ,please, and ask yourself if the description does not sound hauntingly familiar:

"…since her boundaries are lax, she does not know how to protect her space from her children, nor how to protect theirs. When she cannot get her way with her child, she will manipulate or bribe him and claim that she is doing it in the child's best interest.
When she cannot have her way, she collapses into passivity and depression, coercing her child to take care of her. Her life is unfocused, self-abnegating and martyred. She presents herself as a self-sacrificing person, who meets other's needs before her own, but those who benefit from her generosity end up feeling guilty after she repeatedly points out what she has done for them. The child of a maximizer grows up without being able to clearly separate from her parent and become an independent adult."

Does that ring a bell or what?
How about this:

"…she is so full of unmet needs that she smothers her child with affection as a way of vicariously meeting her own needs. She is full of feelings and fears, often sharing them with her child in the form of warnings about the dangers of the world... She invades every part of her child's life, giving advice it hasn't asked for. She likes her children to keep their doors open so she can hear if they are sleeping well or doing something wrong. She talks incessantly at the dinner table, inquiring into the private lives of her children and interfering with their relationships with their peers. She likes to have lots of people around to increase her security so she encourages her children to have friends over. She feels children have no ability to know what they want and offers them what they haven't asked for and often do not need."

(Source: "Giving The Love That Heals By Harville Hendrix and Helen Hunt, pp. 64-65)

Some Famous Jewish Mothers and Jokes About Them

Reading this passage I was immediately reminded of some famous Jewish mothers (besides my own of course). The first one that came to my mind was Sylvia, the overbearing mother of Fran Fine, the famous Nanny. Other similar mothers include Seinfeld's mother, and, going back a bit, Mrs. Portnoy and the mothers (and women) in Woody Allen movies.
There is also no lack of jokes portraying this character. These are from the "Jewish Mothers" section in the previously mentioned (Passover Joke and Greetings) - "Big Book of Jewish Humor " a collection of jokes in Hebrew, gathered and edited by Prof. Adir Cohen:

"There is a famous Yiddish saying that states: "There comes a time in the life of every man that he must stand up to his mother and tell her that he is a grown up. Usually this happens when he is about 45…"

Isaac Asimov tells about the time he was walking down the street with his mother one wintry day when she said to him: "Isaac, I'm cold – put on your coat"
There are lot more in this vein which I am skipping in the interest of being concise.
There is a funny (but loud) flash presentation on Aish on this subject here.

You can read about "How to Survive a Jewish Mother" and there even is a book about the history of the Jewish mother:

"YOU NEVER CALL! YOU NEVER WRITE! " (sounds like a good book too, but I haven't read it - yet).

The point being that the Jewish mother as possessing many of the attributes of the maximizer seems to me quite ubiquitous. Having established that, we can now discuss what is a maximizer and why this may be important to you as a human being and as a Jew.

What is a Maximizer:
The quote above comes from the book "Giving the Love That Heals – A guide For Parents" by Harville Hendrix and his wife. Dr. Hendrix is the originator of the Imago theory which has been discussed on this site (see label on sidebar for more) including a post with a list of behaviors common to the minimizer and maximizer.
Imago theory assumes that every human is born with the potential and need for becoming a whole human being. Being whole means being connected to all parts of the personality and to the world, and being able to express the different personality aspects appropriately, with the correct force at the correct time. The ability to do this is impaired every time the caretaker (usually the parent) disregards the child as an independent - if still developing -human being, and instead assumes that he (or she ) and the child are one and the same. This kind of relationship is called a symbiotic connection with the child, defined by the parent's assumption: "We are one, and I am the one". Since the parent is "the one" she always knows what is best for her child, and will do anything to coerce her child to comply.
It is important to understand that the maximizer parent is completely unconscious of her behavior, and in fact was raised in exactly the same manner by a maximizer parent of her own. Unless the pattern of parenting is brought out of the dark into the light of consciousness, nothing can change, and the wounds of the parent will be passed on to the child, one generation after the other.

What Does This Say About The Jewish People?
The pattern of behavior described in the quote above is intended, originally, to portray the most extreme behavioral pattern of the maximizer. Most people have only a partial fit with this profile, since most are not so severely wounded. But if it is true that this mother is typical of Jewish history and culture than it follows that we are, as a nation, spiritually wounded in a most extreme manner.
We might as well recognize this fact and start dealing with our wounds directly in our own personal lives, and try to stop hurting the people we love most: our children, our spouses and ourselves.
Instead of blaming other people for our troubles – secular Jews, religious Jews, gentiles, settlers, leftists, Arabs and so on and so forth, we should accept responsibility for our wounds and start healing them. In short the best, most effective way to heal the world, to Repair it, is to start healing yourself.
"Tikkun Now" so to speak.
Actually, if we, as the chosen people wish to be "a light unto others" than I suggest that such a personal Tikkun would be an excellent place to start. It does not in any way conflict with Jewish practice and in fact, in my view, even expresses it perfectly. More importantly it is the most effective way to start the "Tikkun Olam", since it does not depend on other people changing themselves – it only depends on yourself.

Are the Jews the Only Sick Nation?
No indeed. Quoting again from the Big Book of Jewish Humor:

"Author Isaac Asimov tells that he was at a large banquet listening to an Indian tell amusing stories about his mother. After listening a while with great interest he could hold back no longer and asked:
"Tell me, is your mother Jewish?"
To which the Indian answered:
"My friend, all mothers are Jewish!"

Which, if you have been following, merely means that all mothers are maximizers. Obviously, it is not possible that only the Jewish people are sick. The persecutor is no less diseased than the persecuted, just as the wife-beater is no less ill than his wife who submits to the punishment day in and day out. Every relationship needs two partners and both share the responsibility for it's existence and nature, since it serves the needs of both , which are, in this case, the distorted, hurtful needs of wounded people.

Thing I Forgot to Mention:
• A maximizer mother will always, according to the theory, have a minimzer husband. He is no less harmful, in his own quiet, avoiding way, than his wife.
• Men can be maximizers too (An excellent example can be seen in the character of Jerry Peyser , a hysterical, hilarious Jewish father in the romantic comedy "The In-Laws"
• Healing your wounds is an extremely painful process, the worse they are the more painful.


Anonymous said...

This is a fascinating post. Thank you for sharing that. Just one question. How do we go about healing our wounds?

Jerusalem Joe said...

Thank you for your kind words.
Your question is difficult to answer - everyone has different wounds and the way to healing them is highly personal.
Some people prefer starting from the physical side with yoga, meditation and martial arts, Alexander and so on.
Others prefer a more psychotherapeutic approach.
But if you like the Imago theory then why not read more about it?
Hendrix has published books for singles, couples and parents and all of them are very useful and not expensive.They also include a lot of exercises you can do by yourself.
Does that answer the question to your satisfaction?
I will post about the practical aspect of tikkun in the future.

I wish you good luck on your journey!

frumhouse said...

Your description of the Jewish mother has depressed me. I think I'll go find my kids....

Jerusalem Joe said...

I'm sure with that sense of humor they'll be delighted to see you.

Karma said...

Well, I certainly can agree to some degree about the trend....although I don't think its necessarily true about all Jewish mothers. I certainly love and am grateful to mine - who is not exactly as you describe.

Jerusalem Joe said...

I have a feeling from reading your blog that your father is the maximizer in the family. does that seem correct to you?
Remember that the descriptions Hendrix gives are of the extreme case, and also that the roles in a marriage are relative to one another.
In other words my mother is an obvious maximizer compared to my father,but perhaps she is not close to being one when compared to someone else.

Karma said...

Ah, brillant! I see that. I think your comment at the end of your post is very true by the way.

prof said...

rendez vous sur
a bientot