I am six months pregnant, living in a city that feels utterly alien to me, talking on the phone, as I so often do, with my mother. Talking to her makes me feel less isolated, more assured, though on this particular day our conversation takes a strange turn.
“I am thinking of taking an easier job,” she says, “now that I am old.”
“Mom,” I scoff, “you’re not old.”
“Soon I will be sixty-five.”
“That’s two years away!”
“I must face reality. I can no longer be who I was.”
I go quiet, unsure if I am supposed to argue with her or not.
My mom has a history of abrupt decisions. Ten years earlier, when I was in college, she divorced my dad after nearly thirty years of marriage, a shock to our Indian family. She quit her job and moved from Long Island to the unknown suburbs of New Jersey. These decisions weren’t bad ones—I’d wanted her to divorce my dad for some time—but they were startling for the way she did them, all at once. “Why New Jersey?” I asked from my dorm room. It was all I could think to say. “It will be good for work,” she replied. She was right. She landed a dream position running clinical trials for pharmaceutical companies and was happier than I had ever seen her.
However perplexing, her decisions have always worked out. Who am I to doubt her? When I was a girl, there was once a car accident on our street, a motorcyclist flung onto a neighbor’s lawn. My mom rushed outside and took control of the scene. This is how I picture her, a doctor radiating authority, even in a nightgown. She is the most capable person I know. I may not always understand her, but I have complete faith in her.
A week after that phone call, she gives notice. Her boss is stunned. He offers to reduce her hours, eliminate travel, hire assistants, all to no avail. She has already applied for a position at a state hospital. “A state hospital!” her boss cries. “You’ll be bored to tears!”
My mom sounds pleased when she shares his reaction with me. She is up against a wall no one else can see, which is more or less her ideal state.
“What if you don’t get the job at the hospital?” I ask nervously.
“I will get it.”
“Is this what you want?”
“It is not what I want. It is what I need.”
Such are my mother’s pronouncements.
“But why?” I press. “You’re giving up your dream job.”
“This way I will have a pension. If I am ever in a nursing home, those places are so expensive, you would not believe.”
Off she goes citing statistics. I picture her absorbing the numbers through her reading glasses. She is farsighted: eyes like a hawk for distance, but unable to see anything up close. This applies not only to reading.
An immigrant, she came to this country for her children. Throughout my childhood, she fixated on the costs of sending me and my brother to college. If my outgrown jeans showed ankle, she told me to wear longer socks. “Everyone at school thinks I’m poor,” I mumbled. “Let them think that,” she snapped. “Their parents will have credit card debt to go with their nice jeans.”
In the distance, she sees her goals. She funnels herself toward them. She scowls if anyone suggests alternatives. Help and convenience are to be batted away.
A few days later, she gets the job at the state hospital, just as predicted. This is the thing about my mom: She may be cryptic, but she is always right.
“I don’t know if I should congratulate you,” I confess.
“This is for the best.”
“Maybe you’ll be able to visit me more, with a less demanding job.”
She chuckles. “That would be nice. What matters is my pension. I do not want to burden my children!”
So it goes between us. Everything she does is for my benefit. This is what a mother’s love looks like to me. It looks like suffering.
I accept it. I am about to become a mom three thousand miles away from her, in a gray, drizzly city that feels wholly unfamiliar. Soon, I will be the one putting my needs last. It helps to believe that somewhere in the world, I still come first.
Before moving to Seattle, my husband, Noah, and I lived in Manhattan. We had grown tired of the city—exorbitant rents, minuscule apartments—and were at a crossroads in our careers.
I was about to complete my PhD in comparative literature. I was no scholar, but I was happy enough pretending to be one. I got to read books all day. It felt like a grand luxury.
I wasn’t sure, however, what to do with my degree. I didn’t want to apply for tenure-track positions. I’d wanted a PhD for the same reason I’d ever done anything: to be impressive. At twenty-eight, I had a series of stints behind me. I’d been pre-med, then a management consultant, then an academic. I had leapt from one role to the next. None fit.
Noah, four years older than me and from Southern California, was working as a lawyer at a big firm, a glamorous–sounding job he loathed. He hated watching partners yell at secretaries, the lack of women and minorities in positions of power, and the fact that many of the companies he defended (tobacco and chemical conglomerates) deserved, in his mind, to be sued. Noah’s conscience was one of the reasons I fell for him. He grew up poor. He didn’t want his future kids to go without health insurance the way he had. His pragmatism and conscience butt heads in his work.
The funny thing is that because Noah grew up poor and Jewish, we understood each other perfectly, though I had been neither of those things. He understood why I felt guilty buying a nice pair of jeans. I understood why he felt excluded at Christmas. We had both been shaped by guilt and frugality and a complicated shame. We were the kids who had shown up to school with our textbooks wrapped in brown paper bags. We knew what it was like to be on the outside, looking in.
We also learned what it was like to be on the inside, looking out. We had escaped our pasts. Noah’s family never expected him to put himself through law school or move to New York City. My Indian parents never imagined that it was acceptable to read books all day. We had proved them wrong. We had made it. Yet no matter how impressive our jobs (a lawyer at a big firm) or achievements (a PhD at twenty-eight), we felt like misfits. We didn’t really belong.
When Noah was offered a job as in-house counsel at Nintendo while I defended my dissertation, the timing seemed perfect. Here was a chance for him to join a feel-good company, for us to leave Manhattan, and, best of all, for me to duck the question of what to do with my life. We were moving across the country! It was like being handed an alibi.
We packed our small apartment into our car and headed west. Our dog, Lola, a black Lab mix, sniffed curiously at the fresh air from the back seat. We had just put an offer on a house, something we had no experience doing. We were filled with conjecture about what it would be like to be homeowners. Any concerns came from Noah. I was in charge of the giddiness. “Relax!” I told him. “We’re going to love it.”
Were we? He raised some good points. We didn’t know Seattle well. I had pushed us into buying a house because I wanted something to show for myself. When friends said, “You bought a house already?” I felt a little better.
I didn’t have a job. I didn’t have a plan. Beneath my enthusiasm, I was filled with doubt. Never before had I uprooted like this. It was the sort of all-in move my mom would make. I thought about how her gambles always worked out. I wanted to believe that if I sounded confident the way she did, if I laughed off concerns, I would land on my feet just like her.