I was born at Brooklyn Jewish Hospital on November 30, 1944. Less than five years later, before finishing kindergarten, I decided to become a clinical psychologist-a decision I never veered from. Perhaps my early career choice had something to do with the fact that my mother put me in therapy before the age of three.
I later joked that my mother would send me to a therapist if I came home from school with anything less than a B plus. I was exaggerating, but only a little bit.
Unlike other parents of the day who viewed therapy to be a last resort for the mentally ill, my progressive Jewish mother considered therapy to be a learning experience. For much of my adult life I resented my mother for always sticking me into therapy for no good reason that I could tell. Then, when I was forty-three years old, I cornered my mother in the kitchen of my home in Topeka, Kansas, and confronted her with the big question: Why had I been put in psychotherapy from the time I was barely out of diapers? Surely, I was no crazier than any other kid on the block.
My mother beamed. "I got it for a dollar," she said.
"You got what for a dollar?" I asked, not registering that she had just answered my question.
"The very best therapists for you and Susan!"
My mother explained that she had obtained a special health insurance policy that allowed my sister and me to go to weekly therapy sessions for one dollar. Susan's psychiatrist was nationally acclaimed in psychoanalytic circles; mine was her disciple. This was definitely a bargain.
"Did I have problems?" I pursued uncertainly.
"Of course," my mother responded reasonably. "Doesn't everyone?"
Giving her children an early start in therapy obviously reflected more than my mother's love for a good bargain. Unlike other mothers of her day who considered therapy a last resort for the mentally ill, my mother thought that therapy was a learning experience. Family therapist Monica McGoldrick, an expert on culture ethnicity, notes that Jews enter therapy more readily than any other cultural group and stay longer, viewing it as an opportunity to understand. In this regard, my mother was true to stereotype.
My mother also went for the best of what she believed to be most important. Although we were poor during much of my growing up years in Brooklyn, my mother made sure that my older sister Susan and I had the following four things:
(1) a therapist
(2) good shoes (I don't mean stylish)
(3) a firm, quality mattress
(4) a top pediatrician (non other than Doctor Benjamin Spock, who was also a bargain).
My mother was confident that these four things-along with the values and principles she passed down to us-would provide her daughters with the foundation we needed to "be somebody" and not just "find somebody," as was culturally prescribed at the time.
To be continued in Part II.