Thank God for Ayelet Waldman. Thank God she has the courage to deconstruct the myth of “having it all” that translated somehow for those of us raised under the umbrella of feminism into “doing it all.” Thank God she had the courage, even after being pilloried in the public eye (on The View, no less) for writing in passing that she loved her husband more than her children, to come forth and write an open, often hysterical, and heartbreakingly honest memoir about the contemporary meaning of motherhood.
Bad Mother: A Chronicle of Maternal Crimes, Minor Calamities, and Occasional Moments of Grace is not for those of you who sign up for the post of class mother before the school year begins. It is for those of us who are searching through the mounds of paperwork and e-mails to determine when the school year begins. It is not for those of you who diligently launder organic-fiber cloth diapers. It is for those of us who shove our poor toddler into a swim diaper in order to buy time to hit Costco for more Pampers. It is not for those of you who photograph and video every moment of the lives of not only your children but all of their friends and a few distant neighbors. It is for those of us who began elaborate newsletters with full color photo essays chronicling the infancy of our first child, but who rely upon the kindness of others to provide even occasional proof of the existence of the third child.
Bad Mother is for those of us who end the day inhaling the sometimes sweet, often sticky or slightly rancid, smell that wafts from the head of a child snuggled into the crook of one’s arm while realizing that the same child has no clean socks to wear tomorrow. It is for those of us who wonder constantly why everyone else has it all together, and whether our failure to remember to provide goodies for bake-sale really will scar our kid permanently. But, because Waldman seems to know that each of us is at some point each kind of mother, Bad Mother is for all of us who strive, fail, and love because, sooner or later, each of us judges or is judged, and each of us knows that the highest standard is the one that haunts our 3 AM minds.
“One of the darkest, deepest shames so many of us mothers feel nowadays is our fear that we are Bad Mothers, that we are failing our children and falling far short of our own ideals.” In the introduction to Bad Mother Waldman lays out her reasoning for writing the book, her justification for making public the lives of her children and husband, author Michael Chabon. In a seeming apology for the premise of the book, Waldman attempts to answer the question “Does writing about my children make me a Bad Mother?” At first this section comes across as an odd bit of self-defense, an incongruous beginning to a book lauded for its unflinching honesty. Then, I looked more closely as I read the lines: “It’s always easier, and in the short term can even feel right, to pretend everything is okay, and to encourage your children to do the same. Only if you name a problem, confront it head-on, drag it into the light, does it become surmountable.”
I remembered picking up a copy of Bad Mother from a table near the front of Barnes and Noble. I looked around guiltily and set it back onto the pile despite the lure of the first few pages. I felt the same way about buying it that I do about the Kama Sutra: the book might be enlightening, informative, and useful, but I can’t take it to the checkout counter. I don’t want anyone to know that I might be interested in improving my sexual skills, and I don’t want anyone to think that I might be a Bad Mother. I wish I had read another page into Waldman’s introduction. By setting forth her rationale for the book, she was giving me permission to read it, and to judge myself a bit more gently.
Waldman begins the book by exploring our societal fixation with the images of Bad Mothers. She delves into the media frenzy that surrounds each example of poor mothering from the horrific (Andrea Yates and Susan Smith) to the ridiculous (Brittany Spears.) Waldman postulates that modern women have set ourselves an impossible standard for motherhood.
When we were little girls – we daughters of the late 1960’s and 1970’s – none of us said we wanted to be wives and mothers when we grew up. None of us said we wanted to run the nursery school committee or frost perfect cupcakes or spend our days ferrying children back and forth from hockey games to music classes. We all had ambitions that went beyond the confines of our own houses. We wanted to work, to have careers, to have professions. But for so many of us, the realities of the work place and of family life have either defeated or drastically changed these expectations.
…So here we are, either staying home or making serious professional compromises in order to be more available to our children or feeling like terrible mothers for having failed to make those sacrifices…Most of the women I know feel an underlying and corrosive sense of disappointment and anxiety. The women I know are, on some level, unfulfilled. And the women I know spend a lot of time trying to avoid wondering whether the sacrifice was worth it.
Here is the first of the “spidery places” beneath the rocks that, in her introduction, Waldman promises to turn over. This is the secret that most (all?) mothers share, the one we gleefully point out when it glares forth from someone more unfortunate than ourselves.
That’s what triggers our most intense anxiety. Feeling dissatisfied, bored, and unhappy is unpleasant, yes, but what really scares us is the very fact of our dissatisfaction, boredom, and unhappiness. Because a mother who isn’t satisfied with being a mother, a mother who wants to do more than spend her days with her children, a mother who can imagine more, is selfish. And just as the Good Mother is defined by her self-abnegation, the single most important, defining characteristic of the Bad Mother is her selfishness.
Waldman notes that two opposing strategies have developed for coping with the burden of maternal guilt. On the one side is the Bad Mother police, those who point out examples of shameful mothering, while worrying endlessly about their own failings. At the opposite pole lies a group of self-proclaimed “bad moms.” While Waldman identifies herself with this latter movement: “Beating our critics to the punch is certainly effective as a way of short-circuiting attacks. How much do they think it hurts me to be accused of being a Bad Mother when that is the name of my book?”, she also notes the hollowness of perceived victory in this war. “But in our conscious rebellion, we bitches and slacker moms are as focused on the Bad Mother archetype as any of the vigilantes of the Bad Mother goon squad” As the chapter closes, Waldman sues for peace. “Can’t we just try to give ourselves and each other a break?”
Readers hoping for an adorable, witty anecdote about some parenting mishap may be disappointed by this thoughtful beginning. While Waldman provides wit and anecdotes galore, people looking for cute childish antics should really look elsewhere. Bad Mother is essentially a memoir of parenting; however, it is a book about the adult side of parenting: the relationship between two people that forms the parental unit, the relationship with one’s own parents and, somewhat more treacherously, the relationship with the parents of one’s spouse. It is a book about the choices we make as parents: the joyful ones, the awkward ones, and the heartbreaking ones. It is a book about the people we are and the ways in which we shape and are shaped by our children.
The humorous anecdotes lean decidedly away from the “Family Circus” vein, running, instead, something like this:
It was the night we wove an Iroquois cradleboard out of natural fibrous materials that drove me over the edge. It was 9:00 p.m., an hour after bedtime, when Sophie – eleven years old at the time – suddenly remembered that in addition to a written report, her Native American history assignment required a visual presentation.
“It’s okay, I can do it,” she said. “I just need some hemp.”
Frankly so did I.
Other essays are far from funny. In “Rocketship,” Waldman recounts her experience with a choice no one wants to face. With incredible honesty and intelligence, she tells the story of the child she did not have – the pregnancy that she and Chabon chose to terminate due to a chromosomal abnormality. Waldman’s sensitive, unflinching depiction of this wrenching choice shows just how empty and hypocritical are the epithets hurled from both sides of the abortion-rights line.
In my memory I am hovering by the ceiling watching the scene unfold beneath me. I see myself collapse onto the floor. I hear myself scream, my voice hoarse, my wails so loud it seems the windows might shatter. I watch my husband kneel down beside me and pry the telephone from my rigid clasp. I watch him cry.
And I think, “A person really does fall onto the ground screaming when she experiences a hideous shocking pain. Remember that.” This, alas, is part of what it means to be a writer, someone whose job it is to observe closely enough to convincingly turn what she sees and feels into words. A writer stands at a distance and watches her heart break.
There are those who will, and I’m sure already have, condemn Waldman for her choice. Yet, her essay speaks neither for nor against either side of the political debate on abortion. It is intensely personal, almost unbearable painful, transcendently honest. “Since my experience with Rocketship, I have come to question most things about the abortion debate, except my commitment to the right to privacy and to choice.” Lest anyone thing that Ayelet Waldman takes this right to choice lightly, read on:
Although I know that others feel differently, when I chose to have the abortion, I feel I chose to end my baby’s life. A baby, not a fetus. A life, not a vague potentiality. As guilty and miserable as I felt, the only way I could survive was to confront my responsibility. Rocketship was my baby. And I killed him.
I know my opinions on the subject are harsh and unpopular.
Interestingly, though Bad Mother and Michael Chabon’s memoir Manhood for Amateurs were both published in 2009 and both address marriage and family, in Manhood for Amateurs Chabon barely addresses the subject of Rocketship, passing by the episode with only a brief mention of “pregnancies and terminations.” This omission of detail in his book, coupled with her descriptions of his involvement with the decision and his support, speaks volumes about their marriage. It seems as though Chabon has stepped back, silently present, standing behind his wife as she tells her story.
Bad Mother is a good book by a woman who seems to be a very good mother indeed: one who tells her children the truth even when it hurts or discomfits them, who engages them in family life and in the world around them, who is aware of her children as individuals, and who is aware of, and seems to mostly avoid, her own desire to impress herself upon them. Ayelet Waldman strikes the reader as the mother at school whom people either love or hate. She says the things we may not want to hear; the things that need to be heard. One gets the impression that stopping Ayelet Waldman on a mission would be tantamount to jumping in front of a train, yet when she is wrong, she acknowledges it honestly. Waldman does not suffer fools, even when the fool is she. I can see other mothers whispering “can you believe she said that?” Personally, I’d like to sit down over a cup of coffee and hear more.