I loved his mom. Sure, I loved my boyfriend, too, but I really loved his mom. Carol was everything I wanted to be: a successful working mom. She had everything I thought I wanted: a loving marriage, two successful kids, and a powerful career as an attorney.
Seth and I had been dating for six months. We drove to an affluent Maryland suburb over a school break so that I could meet his parents—a major step in my first adult relationship. I was so nervous for the weekend. I wanted so badly to make a good first impression.
"She had everything I thought I wanted: a loving marriage, two successful kids, and a powerful career as an attorney."
My mother took me to Lord and Taylor to buy a new set of clothing for the occasion. Even though she was a stay-at-home mother and not a high-powered attorney herself, she knew exactly what I should wear. She always did. She knew what I should wear when I starred in my third grade production of Really Rosie (a feather boa, a skirt made entirely out of scarves, and a pair of high heels that looked like the ones Sandy wore in Grease) and she knew what I should wear to impress Seth’s family (an effortless blue dress for the Saturday night dinner, delicate gold jewelry, and smart houndstooth trousers for the daytime).
Carol was barely over five feet tall, but she was imposing. Her soft brown hair framed her face like a lion’s mane. Her energy filled the room, you could practically feel her presence before you saw her. She extended her arm to shake my hand. I wasn’t used to handshakes; my mother was more likely to offer you a warm hug, an open smile. But I shook Carol’s hand, hoping my palms weren’t too sweaty. She smiled deeply. Her smile was different from my mother’s; it wasn’t comforting, it was a challenge.
"Carol was barely over five feet tall, but she was imposing. Her soft brown hair framed her face like a lion’s mane. Her energy filled the room, you could practically feel her presence before you saw her."
Carol wasn’t beautiful. She was smart. She was savvy. She was aggressive. And I wanted to be just like her. Before dinner that night, Seth and I waited in the living room for his parents. I looked at a photograph of Carol, a headshot that was framed on the side table. (My mother wasn’t in any of the pictures that were framed in my house—she had always been the one taking them.) Carol wore an expensive army green suit and faced the camera dead on. I was taken by her power. She stared at you, her eyes bore into yours, challenging you to look away first. If I hadn’t adored her so much, I might have been scared.
“In your face,” her husband said, appearing from seemingly out of nowhere, “Isn’t it?”
I had to agree. “In your face” was the perfect way to describe the photograph. I couldn’t tell from his expression whether he considered this a good thing or a bad one. But I thought it was wonderful.
That night at dinner, Carol told me about her political aspirations. Her plans. I sat with rapt attention. Seth and his father grew bored and stopped listening, but I gobbled every word. My family dinners were not like this one. At my family dinners, we talked about average things, trivial things, like what we were learning at school, or which rooms in our house needed new wallpaper. At this family dinner, Carol was talking about taking over the world.
Carol took me over to the window of the restaurant where there was a clear view of the D.C. skyline. As we stood with her arm draped over my shoulder, I was sure that I could see my future. Carol would win the race. I would be the daughter-in-law of a United States Senator. I would be a part of a political dynasty.
I came home from the weekend raving about my boyfriend’s mother. My own mother quietly listened to me go on and on about how accomplished Carol was, what a great role model she was. How she had the career I wanted, the life I wanted—how I could look up to her. Carol had it all, I told my mother, she didn’t have to choose between family and the work she loved. My mother told me that she was happy that I had such a wonderful time.
What else could she say? She didn’t have the career Carol had. And I was talking about it as if it were the most important thing in the world. I was invalidating everything my mother stood for, the entire life that she’d chosen. Nights spent sleeping on my bedroom floor when I was being bullied in elementary school. Ferrying me around throughout junior high school so that I could have a social life. Helping me with school projects and homework assignments, pushing me to do the best I could academically so that I could meet my ultimate goal—become a lawyer.
"What else could she say? She didn’t have the career Carol had. And I was talking about it as if it were the most important thing in the world. I was invalidating everything my mother stood for, the entire life that she’d chosen."
My relationship with Seth didn’t last past the primaries, which Carol lost anyway. I finished out my senior year of college and spent the summer back at my parents’ house. Under my mother’s roof. She may not have had a law degree or a political campaign, but being back home reminded me of all the things I loved about my mother but had temporarily forgotten: her sweet nature, her sense of humor, and even her beauty. I had told my mother about how modern and chic Carol’s house was, but being back in my own home made me realize how warm it was, how welcoming.
When people asked me what my mother did, I would say that she didn’t work. But even though my mother didn’t go to an office each day, she did, in fact, work. She was the CEO and President of our household, making sure things ran smoothly, seamlessly, and she also served as my therapist, personal assistant, and most trusted advisor. She was my best friend, but somehow meeting Carol had made me temporarily forget that.
"But even though my mother didn’t go to an office each day, she did, in fact, work. She was the CEO and President of our household, making sure things ran smoothly, seamlessly, and she also served as my therapist, personal assistant, and most trusted advisor."
A few weeks into the summer, my friend Shawn called me.
“Did you hear?” she asked. I hadn’t. But I would quickly learn: my ex-boyfriend’s mother was being arrested on attempted murder charges. A federal indictment for allegedly hiring a hit man to kill her husband and a lawyer who’d testified against her in a lawsuit related to her failed Senate campaign. Everything that I’d seen, everything that I’d envied, was just a façade. The happy marriage, the effortless career, all a charade. And I’d bragged about it all to my mother. I’d made her feel small. I’d told her how women can have it all, they didn’t have to choose to stay at home and do nothing, while she sat quietly listening, smiling, refusing to contradict me.
None of it was real. What was real? My mother’s affection and devotion. Her empathy. When it came time to talk about what Carol had done, to process my thoughts and feelings, I turned to the one person who’d always been there for me. The one person who I could trust most in the world, the one I should’ve been looking up to all along: my mother.
Brenda Janowitz is the author of five novels, including The Dinner Party, available now from St. Martin's Press. Her work has also appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, Salon, the New York Post, Publisher’s Weekly, PopSugar, Mom.me, Hello Giggles, and Writer’s Digest Magazine. Learn more at www.brendajanowitz.com.