Combing the wisdom she acquired as a Freudian psychoanalyst with the wit and writing skill that pervade her 14 books of stories and poems for children and another 15 works for adults, Judith Viorst informed and entertained 100 listeners May 4 at a Community Forum for the Modern Family.
The Jewish Family Service of MetroWest program — “The Future Ain’t What it Used to Be: Life’s Challenges Moving Forward” — was held at the Aidekman Campus in Whippany and was part of a celebration in honor of the agency’s 150th anniversary.
Standing behind a podium at the Gebroe and Hammer Conference Center, the 80-year-old Viorst told her audience she “expected by now to be a retired parent. But as every parent knows, there is no such thing as retirement.”
Among her works are those with such interesting titles as It’s Hard to Be Hip Over 30 & Other Tragedies of Married Life; People and Other Aggravations; You’re Officially a Grown-up: The Graduate’s Guide to Freedom, Responsibility, Happiness, and Personal Hygiene; and Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day.
Her 40-minute speech made frequent references to her work and was punctuated by frequent laughter. Viorst tickled an audience made up mostly of middle-aged women who smiled and often nodded in agreement with her observations on family life.
“Most of us expect we are going to have only the most sublime and tender feelings when our child is born, and we probably do, except they aren’t the only feelings we have. Having a baby, in addition to being wonderful and marvelous, is a major shock to our body, our psyche, and our life.
“I remember when I washed my hair on a Saturday and couldn’t find a moment to comb out the knots until Wednesday afternoon,” Viorst reminisced. “I remember trying to nap and hearing him scream and recognizing that I was meeting for the first time in my life a totally non-negotiable situation and that I had said farewell forever to sleep and to sex.”
Viorst, who grew up in Maplewood, now lives in Washington, DC, with her husband, political writer Milton Viorst. They have three grown sons and “seven perfect grandchildren,” she said. But reaching that coveted place in life isn’t easy.
“Eventually our kids will stop doing whatever it is they do that can drive us crazy and figure out a whole new way to drive us crazy,” she said.
Viorst offered consideration of the “ridiculous notion of having it all” by being a mother and working outside the home. She defined “having it all” as “when you get to get up at 6 a.m., exercise, get dressed, give breakfast and quality time to the children,” then go to work, run to the bank, see the dentist, resolve a work crisis, give dinner and quality time to your husband and children, finish the morning paper, call a parent, put the children to bed, have brief but meaningful sex with your husband, and try to decide while you’re falling asleep if, while having it all, you are also having a nervous breakdown.”
Once parents survive their children’s childhoods, a new set of intense challenges comes along.
“We’ve all been warned about the hell of adolescence, but we are still not prepared when puberty strikes,” she said. “This is when our kids’ need for autonomy becomes so urgent and so painful that even a simple request like ‘pass the butter’ can feel to them like an attack on their entire existence.
“Liberation is hard because their need for autonomy is accompanied by their need to be cared for…. They want adult privileges along with the comforts of being a kid,” said Viorst. “They want to guzzle champagne while clutching their teddy bear. They want to be free to make love while their mom makes their dentist appointment. It is sort of a combination of staying out as long as they want and knowing that when they come home there is still milk and cookies waiting for them.”
Turning to the issue of guilt — perhaps an integral part of being a parent, Jewish or otherwise, Viorst noted that “while guilt is a burden we parents lay on our children, it is also a burden we parents lay on ourselves.”
“If we totally take the blame when our children stutter and wet their beds and are busted and maladjusted and drop out of school, do we get to take the credit when our children grow up to be brilliant, nice people plus mentally healthy and chairman of the board? I guess my answer is ‘no,’ we do not get to take all the credit because we also do not get to take all blame,” she said.
Her “one overriding suggestion” about child raising is that “parents should try whenever possible to notice how good it is, how precious it is, how sweet it is — not by looking through photo albums but right this minute while it’s going on.
“But you would not have caught me saying that on the day when one of mine threw up all over my new pants suit.”
Following her speech, Viorst was asked whether there was anything about her work that was especially Jewish.
“A woman wrote me a letter saying, ‘I am a plump blonde Methodist farm woman, and I think you are a thin, dark, New York Jewish woman, but we live the same lives,” she told NJ Jewish News. “In all of the stuff I was talking about it is true, absolutely.”