all in the family

Calling My Mom for Micro-Advice

Photo-Illustration: by the Cut; Photos courtesy of the subject.

They say we become our mothers. I wish; Sherry Roberson is like me but cool and universally beloved. I got her cackle and her daily habit of drinking an amount of coffee roughly equivalent to the total volume of blood in the average human, but I failed to absorb most of her wisdom and her basic knowledge of how much a person should spend on a wedding gift. So I call my mom for advice constantly.

I call her from dressing rooms — if I’m unsure about a dress or a shirt or a fleece, I’ll see what Sherry has to say about it. “I’m sending you a photo,” I tell her. (Few things have revolutionized our relationship like my mom learning to look at photos on her phone without hanging up first.) “I just sent it. Do you see it? Does this dress make me look cute, or do I look like a jaundiced pilgrim?”

Sometimes I call my mom because she has practical knowledge I lack: She can cook, she can sew, she has a law degree, whereas I spent literal years of my life studying longform improv. I’ll call her when I’m trying to decide whether or not to sign a contract, and I’ll call her when I have a mysterious stain on the ass of my jeans. The jeans don’t really fit me anyway, and they were free after my boyfriend “found them” (long story), so the stakes could not be lower, but why not see what my mom thinks? “Should I turn them into hot pants? Should I dye them? I’m sending you a photo.”

My mom is my go-to resource for any question of etiquette. She’s gracious and practical, and my lodestar is “trying not to do anything that would mortify her.” I call her about condolence notes and about regifting protocol. Is it weird to send someone a letter about how great a mom I think they’re going to be? Is it weird to buy a baby a set of wooden mushrooms, or is that exactly the kind of thing an artistic, woodsy baby would love? You know who would know? Sherry Roberson.

When I need someone to talk me out of buying a gym membership I have no intention of ever actually using, I turn to my mom. When I need someone to talk me into buying a fake stained-glass panel at the Met Cloisters that my boyfriend thinks is “not worth $40,” I also turn to my mom. (This is a woman who owns a decorative abacus and who had an entire cloche era.)

Some questions I ask my mom because, well, the questions make it clear that I am crazy, and no one else is allowed to know how crazy I am. I’m feeling lightheaded and I can “hear electricity” — does she think I have (does a quick Google) Meniere’s disease? (No, she thinks I am either undernourished or ate too much sugar, but if I’m really worried, I should see a doctor.) I once sped past a cop, pulled into a gas station, and noticed the cop pull in after me, idle for five minutes and then leave. My mom was the only person who wouldn’t think I was being ridiculous when I called her just to make triple sure that “a cop can’t give me a ticket if they don’t actually, like … give me a ticket, right?”

The past two years have opened up a whole new category of questions for my mom. Here are my symptoms, do you think I should get tested? I feel hot, but I don’t have a temperature, should I get tested? (I text her later that I figured out my radiators had turned on.) My throat hurts imperceptibly, should I get tested? (“GREAT NEWS!!!” I text her. “I have strep! Easily treated with medicine.”) By the time I actually got COVID, I was like the girl who cried wolf. “Oh my! Get well soon,” she says and then moves to the next topic of conversation.

She gives me advice on the big stuff, too. I call my mom for career advice, about whether to apply to a job or leave the one I have. (“No one stays in one job their whole life,” she once said. “I mean, it would be weird if you stayed married to one husband your whole life.”) She’s the first person I send my book covers to and the person I call when I’m drafting an email to someone who owes me money for freelance work and I’m trying to strike the right balance between “polite” and “creating a paper trail that will hold up in court.”

And I even ask her for advice on my love life. Sometimes she just listens, and sometimes she tells me she doesn’t know what I should do: She always knew she wanted to have kids, and her dating life in the ’80s was more straightforward, it seems, than mine, which can feel like I’m blazing a new trail through a thick jungle of “what do I want if not necessarily a husband and children” and “why is everyone on Hinge already in an open relationship?” Not every problem I call my mom about has an easy answer. That’s what therapy is for. Which is why I recently called my mom about which of three therapists I should choose.

But she does, often, come through with Mom Wisdom. I’ll be spinning out about some tiny inconvenience, and she’ll give me some practical advice. Then she’ll say, “One day I will die a slow, painful death, and you will be shocked you were ever this upset about something so small.”

My mom loves that I call her for advice and thinks it’s ironic that I spent my high-school years complaining about her taste and her music, rolling my eyes as she played Carole King’s Tapestry on repeat and shuddering as she sang along to Leonard Cohen lyrics about anal sex. I listen to Carole and Leonard now. I rely on her advice, and sometimes think about how I would be bereft, paralyzed with questions, if my mom ever died, which thankfully she will never do because she is not allowed.

But the best part of calling my mom 400,000 times a day with questions about the dumbest things imaginable is, simply, talking to my mom all the time. She’s brilliant and hilarious and generous, and I never want to regret not talking to her more. So I call her and ask her if I should spend $5 to get a little Sagittarius man on my bank checks, or if it makes sense if I write that something is “the color of a sinus infection.” She answers: yes and gross, respectively.

She pauses, then says, “What else?”

Calling My Mom for Micro-Advice