Therapy in the Holy City: Container

It was two hours before the start of Yom Kippur 2013, and the five of us – my husband, three children, and I – were sitting around the dining room table eating our pre-fast meal.  In keeping with what had become our tradition, we were talking about what we hoped to do differently in the year to come.

“I’m going to give more tzedakah,” my husband said.

My oldest child nodded in a way that meant:   That sounds familiar.

My middle child came right out and said, “You say that every year.”

My youngest, the earnest one, said, “I believe you, Pop – I believe you’ll do it.”

Leaving the four of them to hash it out, I got up from the table and slunk off to my bedroom.  I needed the laptop.  There was something I had to do, and I had to do it now.  Hands trembling, I opened up my Outlook Express and typed in my mother-in-law’s email address.  The subject line was “Gmar Hatima Tova.”  The content was:  “I’m sorry for having hurt you. I hope one day you’ll forgive me.”

“Something important has happened,” I said to Ronit when I went in for my next appointment.

Her eyes widened with expectation.

“My mother-in-law and I are speaking to each other again,” I said.  Then I told her about the email I had sent, and the immediate – positive – response I had received in return.  For the previous two years, my mother-in-law and I had exchanged only obligatory hellos and good-byes.

Ronit smiled.  “So how do you understand this development?” she said.

“I think it has to do with what happened between you and me last time,” I said.  “Remember how upset I was?  How I said that I never see you anymore outside of the office?  On the street?  In the neighborhood?  How you just don’t seem to be around, even though you said you hadn’t moved yet?”

“Yes, I remember.”

“And you said to me, But I’m here, I’m here, I’m right here, I’m very much here!”

Ronit nodded.

“After our session I went home and thought, I guess she’s right, I guess she was there.  What more do I want from her? It’s not my business what goes on outside of business hours.  So I started thinking that maybe my expectations of you have been unreasonable.  And then I started thinking that maybe my expectations of my mother-in-law have been unreasonable too.”

The mother-in-law daughter-in-law relationship could be fraught in the best of circumstances.  How much more so when the daughter-in-law saw in every female authority figure a potential mother, and as such, expected to be mothered by her.  But my mother-in-law had mothered me.  One such occasion, which I remembered clearly even after all these years, occurred when I returned home from Hadassah Hospital after the birth of my youngest child, the earnest one.  My mother-in-law had walked the floors of our apartment for hours on that dark cold February night, carrying my new baby around in her arms, pushing off his next feeding so that I could sleep.  There were many other occasions like that one, and yet over the years, I was unable to stop myself from focusing on how many more nights she had done the same, or more, for her daughter.  Was this just an example of good old-fashioned run-of-the-mill jealousy?  Exacerbated perhaps – as my husband’s whole family also lived in Israel – by too much exposure to a particularly tight mother-daughter duo?  Or was there more to it?

“Her daughter is her daughter,” Ronit would say to me matter-of-factly, whenever I cited a current instance of what I saw as preferential treatment.  “You’re not.”

“I know, I know,” I would say.  But I didn’t.  Not really.  And I was annoyed with Ronit for telling me so.

Another time, when I lodged some fresh new grievance, Ronit said, firmly, “Your mother-in-law is not your mother,” and I was so mad that I ran all the way home to Skype my sister and tell on her.

“Boy, if I had ever said that to you,” my sister said, “you would have hung up on me.”

Yes, it was amazing what Ronit could get away with:  saying things to me that I would allow no one else to.  Was that because she had become my mother?  Did people tolerate things said by their mothers that they wouldn’t tolerate from anyone else?

“I’m worried, though,” I said to Ronit.  “How long will I be able to behave myself?  I fear that if I were to stop coming here, I’d go right back to my old ways.  I fear that the only reason I’ve been able to start repairing some of my real-life relationships is because I come in and dump all the poisonous stuff on you.”

Ronit nodded.  “This is a place where those feelings can be put.  Like a container.”

“So then what’s in it for you?” I said.

I had been reading some of Donald Winnicott’s work, the English pediatrician and psychoanalyst, and had come to understand that a child who for one reason or another is unable to use her parent for her own development might in the future be able to use a good therapist for that purpose.  But, according to Winnicott, “using” was synonymous with “destroying,” and the therapist’s job was to allow this destruction and yet also survive it.  It didn’t sound like very pleasant work.

“A lot’s in it for me,” Ronit said, in answer to my question.

I didn’t want to hear again how meaningful it could be to send one’s little chicks out into the world – away from the nest – so I didn’t pursue this line of questioning.  Instead, as the session came to an end, I sat there quietly and let myself enjoy the fact that maybe I really did mean something to her.  This was not a foregone conclusion; not for me.  Once, in a moment of distress, I had said to her, “I wish I’d never met you; I wish you were someone who meant nothing to me,” and after a pause she had said, “I don’t want to be that person.” I had been stunned.  Thrilled.  Why was it so everlastingly difficult for me to believe that she cared about me, or that she actually wanted to have a place in my life?  The “daughter” comment had helped – the “daughter” slip-of-the-tongue – but only a little.  After all, I might have misheard.

“By the way,” Ronit said, as I was getting up to leave, “you are not the only person in these relationships.”

I shook my head.  I didn’t get her meaning.

“The other person can also be the unreasonable one,” she said.  “I was the unreasonable one on Terrible Tuesday.”

“Well,” I said, eager to let her off the hook, “I don’t know if unreasonable is the word.”

But Ronit didn’t back down.  “Sometimes it’s the other person who needs to apologize,” she said.  “Not you.”

I shrugged.

“You are so eager to avoid confrontation that you’d rather see yourself as the bad guy and the other person as the good guy, or vice versa.  But we’re all bad.  And we’re all good.”

I almost laughed:  the simplistic-ness!  And yet if this concept were as simple as it sounded, why was I always dividing people into the good and the bad?  By doing so I had cut important people out of my life.  I had deprived myself of rich – if complicated – relationships.

Last Yom Kippur, I enriched myself by one.

About the Author
Eve Horowitz is a freelance editor and writer living in Jerusalem. Her novel Plain Jane was published by Random House, New York, in 1992.