One summer in college, I had an unpaid internship in Washington, D.C. Every other summer since I was 14, I’d worked full-time—at a farm, restaurants, a landscaping company, and a gas station. This would be the first time I’d concentrate on building my résumé instead of my bank account. But I had a plan. If I worked for two weeks of 12-hour shifts when my college hosted reunions in June, I’d cover my expenses and have enough left over for books in the fall.
So off I went, full of optimism and excitement… except, when I arrived in Washington, my check from the shift work hadn’t been cut yet. I wouldn’t have it for at least a week. In a panic, I called my mom to ask her to lend me a hundred dollars. She said, “Why don’t you ask for an advance?”
I reminded her that my internship was unpaid. Her next suggestion was to ask my boss, a formidable former head of the National Organization for Women, for a loan.
Thanks but no thanks. I got a part-time job at a coffee shop. And I resented my mother—rolling my eyes every time I remembered her response, telling the story at parties to friends who’d shake their head at her cold-heartedness.
Last year, I finally asked her for her side of the story. It was just a hundred dollars, I told her. What was the big deal?
The big deal, she said, was that she didn’t have a hundred dollars.
Looking back, I can see she’s telling the truth—a truth that never occurred to me when I was 19. My father had essentially abandoned our family a few years before, and my mom, who’d mostly stayed home with her four kids, became the sole provider. She was struggling to pay the mortgage and the power bill. She didn’t have a spare hundred bucks.
I think about this story a lot now that I have children of my own. I think about how quick I was to judge my mother and about how harshly my girls might judge me someday, for different mistakes, mistakes that I don’t even know I’m making.
In the Jewish tradition, the Talmud outlines a father’s duties to his sons: to circumcise them, find them wives, teach them the Torah and a trade…and to teach them to swim. Initially, it seemed pretty clear to me what parents had to teach kids or give them: a moral foundation, a way to earn a living, the ability not to drown.
Now that I’m a mother myself, I read those lines differently. I see how they tell us not just what we need to give our kids, but how we have to let them go. Teaching a child to swim means, ultimately, setting her free in the water, without our hands to hold her up.
My mother let go, even when I wished for her to hold me tightly. As a result, she made me more resilient and responsible. When I left college, it was with the knowledge that I could take care of myself. My mother gave me a gift, one that took me a long time to recognize as a blessing and one that I’m now focused on giving to my own girls.
Jennifer Weiner’s latest book is Hungry Heart: Adventures in Life, Love, and Writing.