Why you should care
Because growing up with a therapist for a mother can be complicated.
Elana Rabinowitz is an ESL teacher who lives in Brooklyn. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post and USA Today.
My mother, a psychoanalyst, converted our living room into a sanctuary for her patients when I was 10. This meant, most days, that strangers sat outside in the foyer, reading our copies of People magazine, waiting to be cured.
At first, this was a game for my sister and me. We’d take turns placing juice glasses over our ears, propping them against the French doors and eavesdropping on the sessions of our mother’s patients. We were lousy spies, though, only able to hear the whir of the sound machine. And I was frustrated that I’d been told to whisper, while these strangers were allowed to talk as loudly as they wanted.
Once, I slithered down to her office and heard a man screaming. It frightened me. I ran back upstairs as quickly as I could, slipping on the hardwood floors and almost getting caught. I never listened again. I tried to stay as far as possible from her patients, believing I might catch their sadness if I got too close. I preferred to sit in the kitchen and eat Cap’n Crunch with Crunch Berries, all the while worrying my chomping was too clamorous.
Both my parents were therapists, but my father worked at a local university, while my mother chose to bring patients into our home. My mother’s parents had died when she was young, and the loss was the impetus for her career. She needed to help others to heal, in part to help herself.
Patients showed up every day and poured out their problems; ours stayed bottled up.
Outside our front door, Brooklyn in the 1980s was a precarious place. Muggings were common, petty theft ubiquitous — “No Radio” signs were posted in car windows to ward off would-be thieves. A nice guy who lived up the block was walking his dog late at night and was stabbed to death in front of our house. We discussed the attack briefly and then were expected to resume our routines. I had always loved sports but refused to play outside with my neighbors after that, scared by the remnants of sticky white tape peeling from the pavement. Patients showed up every day and poured out their problems; ours stayed bottled up.
I couldn’t understand why the patients always came first, and I’d rebel with loud screaming matches with my sister, forcing our mother to leave a session and silence us. Most evenings were filled with back-to-back appointments that left her drained. Sometimes I wished something terrible would happen to me, just to get her attention, but nothing ever seemed bad enough.
So I retreated upstairs and played with my Barbies and wooden blocks, preferring the magical world I created in the playroom to the unpredictable one outside.
My mother’s private practice grew, which meant more people filed into our foyer. They entered through the front door, while I had to use the back entrance. They were invited to sit on a velvet couch and got her undivided attention. Still, I reaped the benefits of her success: I filled my closet with clothes she bought me, cellophane-green Benetton bags stuffed with sweaters I’d wear proudly.
When I turned 16, my parents gave me the large room on the top floor with my brother’s high-tech stereo system. I loved my new space, especially how it muffled the reverberations from my mother’s patients. As my teenage angst grew, I absorbed endless cocktails of menthol cigarettes and rock music. I turned up Pink Floyd and the Who to drown out the urban chaos. I spent hours staring in the mirror, making lasso-size smoke rings, plotting my escape.
I headed to Buffalo for college, the farthest I could go and still pay in-state tuition. Then I traveled overseas. Leaving home, I found I blended seamlessly into new ones. When I was 24, and finally settled, my brother wrote to say our parents had sold the house.
I was overwhelmed by a longing for the place I had fled, where I’d played for hours with my siblings. We made pillow forts and igloos during a blizzard, and I learned to swim in a pool I built with my father in the backyard. All my favorite memories were pre-clients, when we could scream, laugh and roam free in the oversize Victorian.
“That’s so cool your parents are shrinks,” my friends tell me today. They love to talk to my mom about their problems, and I just smile.
My mother is retiring this summer. For the first time in 35 years, her living room will be just that: a place to live. Family photographs can finally come out of hiding.
I admit to feeling a certain satisfaction, and apprehension, when I imagine lying down on her new leather couch, the worn sound machine tucked away, and not having to worry about the volume of my voice. Then we will talk, mother and daughter. Just us. Free from all that noise.