mothering my nieceThe voice on the phone was calm, at first. It was my niece Maya describing her last day in New York, getting ready to leave for film school.

As she continued to talk, her anxiety ratcheted up. Then, she burst into tears. “I don’t have any clean pants to wear,” I heard through her sobs. Apparently, between packing, closing her bank account, and running a million other errands, she didn’t have time to do laundry. Rather than face her fears about school, she fixated on this minor detail.

While I tried to talk her down, I wondered, how did our conversation take such a turn? Then I remembered having similar talks with my mom when I was Maya’s age. My mom’s soothing voice and warm sympathy lowered my defenses, allowing me to be open and vulnerable.

In that moment I realized what I had become to Maya and what she had become to me.

Maya has always held a special place in my heart. I see a lot of myself in her — her mix of bravado and insecurity, boundless enthusiasm, huge ambition and need. Yet despite our bond, I’ve had a limited role in her life. She was born and raised in Israel, and until recently, we only saw each other every other year or so.

Timing and geography had now brought us together. Last year, Maya and her husband moved to America to apply to film school; screenwriting for her, composing musical scores for him.

Thousands of miles from her parents, my niece needed me as never before. And at age 50 without children of my own, I was suddenly thrust into the unfamiliar role of life coach and surrogate mom.

While she and her husband moved between sublet apartments, our Morgantown home became their mail drop and occasional crash pad.

When she applied to graduate schools, I edited her essays, helped her fill out financial aid forms and read and critiqued her sample scripts. More importantly, I was there for her emotionally, providing endless hours of “therapy” and encouragement during those anxious months, waiting to hear whether she got in.

My real taste in parenting came after Maya was accepted into film school, and I found myself having mixed reactions. On one hand, I was enormously proud of her for getting into a top school. But I also began to realize the potential costs of her decision, financial and otherwise.

Turns out that her highly ranked and very expensive program doesn’t award scholarships, only loans. Even with my help, Maya will face a significant debt burden when she graduates, and I’m concerned how that will circumscribe her life. I’m also worried how her sensitive soul will fare in the fiercely competitive and cutthroat film industry.

Becoming more invested in Maya’s life, I now feel more responsible for her future. I’m torn between wanting her to make safe choices and hoping she’ll follow her big dreams. I’m trying to balance my fears with my faith in her intelligence, talent and drive.

But while “mothering” Maya is stressful at times, my life is ultimately richer because she is in it. It’s deeply satisfying to be necessary to this young person and to know I’ve made a difference in her life. She is now thriving in film school, honing her craft, learning how to pitch her ideas, and deftly managing difficult situations and people.

So when the phone rings, even if I’m rushing out the door, I stop, pick it up, and listen to her young voice, full of hunger and hope— a voice that speaks directly to my heart and soul.

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