She nags! She complains! And please: Nobody is good enough for her son (who’s a doctor or a lawyer with a Harvard degree, of course). The stereotype of an overbearing Jewish mom has existed through the ages. The careers of Philip Roth, Woody Allen and Jerry Seinfeld would be dead without them.

Journalist Marjorie Ingall wants to explore and dispel those myths in her upcoming book, “Mamaleh Knows Best: What Jewish Mothers Do to Raise Successful, Creative, Empathetic, Independent Children.” The accomplished journalist (Tablet Magazine, The New York Times, the late, lamented Sassy magazine) talked to JewishBoston about motherhood, stereotypes and carving out the time to live a creative life.

For those of us who can barely get out the door in the morning without forgetting one of our children: How does someone actually get a book deal to write about this juicy stuff?
Marjorie Ingall
Marjorie Ingall (Photo credit: Deborah Copaken)

My kids are older; they’re now 11 and 14. I always want to say to people whose kids are little, who are in the trenches: they get more self-sufficient! I’ve also been writing for a long time. When my kids were small, I worked part-time, and we had a wonderful caregiver. People want parenting writers to parent and somehow write around the edges. Writing is an actual job! I also had that fantasy of being able to work while the baby was in a Moses basket, typing with one hand and breastfeeding with the other. We had a great caregiver, and I remember realizing that I was being ridiculous and crying when she was the first person to give my daughter a manicure and not me. If you’re so blessed as to have a choice, there are wonderful things about being a stay-at-home mom and about being a working-outside-the-home mom. You can’t have everything all at once, though.

Anyway! I didn’t want to write a parenting book initially, but I’d been a parenting columnist and writer at Tablet Magazine and the Forward. I even did a column about how I wasn’t going to write about my kids anymore without them vetting it. (Now they get to read stuff.)

Periodically, people would ask me about writing a collection of columns, but you really can’t do that anymore. I needed to have something new to say, and I didn’t want to write a parenting book when my kids were little. I felt I didn’t have the perspective that I do now.

 

Why a book about Jewish mothers?

Mamaleh Knows Best
Cover design by Elena Giavaldi, with cover illustration by Luci Gutiérrez

 

My younger child is obsessed with “The Big Bang Theory.” One of the nerd’s moms is a stereotype of a screaming, neurotic, food-obsessed, direct pipeline to an old Philip Roth character that hit its heyday in the 1950s through the 1980s. But when comedians do the Jewish mom inflection, it’s still there. And now there are these women creating Jewish moms on TV, in shows like “Transparent,” “Broad City” and “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend.”

 

Jewish moms do still get this blame for messing up their kids. Then why is it that we’ve done so well artistically, scientifically? It’s because of the Jewish mother! We’re still the ones responsible for much of the parenting, and God love the dads who are doing more and more of it. There’s something about Jewish traditions and history that have produced kids who are really flexible thinkers. It’s not quite the “tiger mom” thing, which comes with a real respect for authority. Jewish mothering comes from distrust of authority.
Did you pitch the book, or did an agent see a real need for it?
Everyone wants to write a magic-bullet book on how to raise a great kid. This is kind of a mash-up of the Talmud, science and just funny stories. One thing about Jewish parenting is that we look at the interests of our own kids and nurture those.
So I pitched this book. I wondered: Why do Jewish moms get blamed for everything? The hard thing is tuning out the crazy, this crazy thing about winning at all costs, being gifted, going to the best school. It’s not helpful for kids, or parents, or family life, or America.

How much of this is personal for you?

 

My kids get to OK what I write. I have such respect for writers who will just go balls to the wall, talking about liking one kid more than another, or suicide, or wishing a kid was gay, or loving your husband more than your kid. It’s useful to read those things, but I can’t do it. If I were writing a straight-up memoir, it’d be way more dishonest. Other people are more interesting! I went through this juggling of making the book erudite and historical and funny. My idol is Mary Roach, who does that really well.

Why do you think people fetishize motherhood these days? Why is it such a polarizing cottage industry? Tiger moms! Helicopter moms! Attachment parents! Isn’t it too much already?
You should read Ann Hulbert’s book about parenting writing, “Raising America.” Since the beginning of [parenting] writing, there has always been this message: “You’re doing it wrong.” Now, stuff you used to put in a journal, you can do in a blog. There’s always been this notion of blame the mother whenever we’re nervous. A lot of parenting literature is about school shootings, or our anxieties about changing gender roles. We’re just hoping for answers to confusing cultural things, so we look for mothering advice. There’s a notion of, if you do everything right, you’ll be safe.
I think people have always judged other people about parenting, but now there are much bigger forums for people to know they are being judged! When you lash out, you’re afraid. But I think everything goes back to Dr. Spock: You know more than you think you do.