The Magical Properties of Worrying

American Jewish families have been noticeably cut off from a shtetl philosophy: the healthy appreciation for the magical properties of worrying. “If you worry actively enough, something might come out of it,” explain Zborowski and Herzog in their classic book Life is With People. Worrying not only proves a mother’s love, but it may also have the actual power to “keep the misfortune away.”

In today’s culture, however, we find adult children noticeably irritated and annoyed with what is now perceived as their mothers’ intrusions, nagging, and badgering. In the following case, the Goldman family [not their real name] sought therapy with me, presumably for their 25-year-old son who had dropped out of graduate school, was living at home, and was not interested in “doing anything.”

The father was a physician and the mother owned her own small but successful business which she started after their last child left for college. The other two siblings were working and doing well. None of them had yet married. The family described themselves as anti-religious and perceived themselves as assimilated. They had both Jewish and non- Jewish friends and were very politically active in the larger non-Jewish community.

Although the father was quite concerrned with the son’s “floating,” he seemed equally concerned with his wife’s worrying. She worried “too much,” he said, and he didn’t know what to do to get her to stop. He lectured a bit about how worrying “did not help,” and he couldn’t quite see the sense in it. The son told me in a sighing, long-suffering, and disdainful tone that his mother “drove him crazy,” and that he felt all she did was “nag” him about what he was going to do with his life.

I found the son rude. It was hard to imagine an Irish son talking that way to his mother. I thought perhaps the tendency of 1960’s popular literature to pathologize Jewish mothers had given more license to Jewish children to be openly critical of their mothers. Or maybe this is a product of the more democratic atmosphere in Jewish homes.

The mother felt that the criticisms of the son were an expression of their closeness, and she told me she was glad he felt close enough to tell her what he thought. Despite his complaints about her— she continued to worry.

Over time, the household had become highly conflictual, with the father constantly working to restrain the mother from telling the son of her worries and concern for him. The mother and father inevitably ended up arguing between themselves. When the father failed to stop the mother from talking to the son, the son would himself explode at his mother, and a yelling scene would ensue. The father felt he couldn’t live this way any longer; the mother was upset that her family was in such chaos.

Asking the son to leave was not an option that the mother or father felt they could employ, firmly believing that kicking him out would represent non-support of their son.

Since the mother’s worrying was not appreciated, I asked the family to explore its shtetl history. Both sets of grandparents were immigrants from Russia, and the parents were the products of the kind of immigrant mothering that produced very successful children. The father found his wife’s worrying and complaining too reminiscent of his own mother, and felt he had to protect his son so that the latter could have the chance to explore what kind of work he really wanted to do in life—something the father felt had been denied him in his own life. As for the mother, she felt trapped in her worrying, but experienced it as being out of her control. I then explained to the family the magical properties of worrying in the shtetl. As therapeutic homework, the father was asked to listen daily for at least 15 minutes to the mother’s concerns and worries. He was to reassure her of his hopefulness about the son’s finding himself. He was to share with his wife the story of his own difficult struggle to fulfill both the dreams of his own mother as well as his own dreams. I directed the son to find a temporary job and a place to live.

I explained the latter as being necessary so that the son would have built-in solitude in which to figure out his life. With this explanation, the parents felt they were supporting the son (rather than withdrawing their support) through the act of asking him to live elsewhere.

I instructed the son to call his mother for lunch weekly in order to give her “active worrying” time with him as a way to “protect him.” The son was to hum an old Yiddish song which the father knew and sang when he himself was young and his own mother’s worrying got on his nerves. But this humming was not to be done in a disrespectful way—rather in a way which let both the son and the mother know that they were part of a long, ancient legacy that was much more powerful than just the two of them. It often made the mother laugh when the son did this, and she would hum along with him.

A good many months passed and soon the son went confidently off to graduate school in journalism. The mother continued to worry, but now in a proud way tied to her history—without shame, apology or embarassment. The father, despite his cynicism with the therapy, left telling me he felt things were better not just between his wife and himself, but also between himself and the memories he had of his own Jewish mother.

Lois Braverman is a family therapist and editor of the Journal of Feminist Family Therapy. This appeared in different form in the Journal of Feminist Family Therapy, Vol. 2(2),1990.