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Book Review: Bad Mother by Ayelet Waldman

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Forget Bruno Bettelheim and the good enough mother. In her new book Bad Mother, attorney, author, wife to noted novelist Michael Chabon, and mother of four, Ayelet Waldman is telling us we can aspire to being not bad mothers and she means it. And not bad is good enough for me.

Although a recent reviewer in Elle magazine calls Waldman a “bogeymama” and a “literary bomb-thrower,” the real story is that Waldman is nothing more than a truth teller and the collection of often brilliant, inspiring, sometimes heartbreaking, and mostly right-on-the mark essays that make up Bad Mother should be required reading for anyone who has ever been a mother, aspires to be one, or is married to one. Hers is the kind of much-need veracity that women who bear children almost never get and desperately need during the child-rearing years, as anyone who has ever become pregnant and longed for a little honesty will tell you.

Soon after my own 40th birthday I began my own expedition into truth telling, trading in novelistic truth for that of the essay and I have begun to speak and lecture about such truth telling when asked to talk about writing to other writers. Like Waldman I believe in honesty and so I appreciated her saying, right out in her introduction that “I believe that mothers should tell the truth, even — no, especially — when the truth is difficult.” This is crucial, Waldman says, because as she points out, the world is constantly trying to make us feel like bad mothers, even when we try our best to be good ones, and “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.”

If we can own up to that simple fact, I think, and this is what Waldman writes about, mothering will be a whole lot less guilt-inducing and a whole lot more joyful.

Her book is divided into 18 chapters – in a rather rigid conceit built around the notion of the Hebrew alphabet and numerology for the letter chai, which means “life.” But she manages to tackle all the big issues: from our monitoring of other mothers’ public parenting skills – those we view personally and those we see in the media: the famous bad mothers like Andrea Yates, Susan Smith, Britney Spears, and now, I might add, the infamous Octomom, in contrast to what it makes to make a good father. Good fathers, Waldman says, with no small sense of irony, are made by just showing up. If he makes it to birthing classes, the delivery room, and a few soccer games and recitals, he’s good. Mothers, on the other hand, need to do a whole hell of a lot more to earn their appellation. As Waldman points out, self-abnegation is key: if mom doesn’t put the kids first, she loses big time in the good mother department. And that means first above everything. No wonder even the best of us find some solace and, shall we dare admit it, happiness, in finding a mother worse than ourselves. “Terrified of our own selfishness and failures,” Waldman writes, “we look for models further on the spectrum from ourselves than we are from the Good Mother.”

In another chapter, Waldman expertly handles the expectations her mother had for her and how she measures up against her own expectations of herself and where she herself veered off course and also her own expectations for her children. I well remember holding my first child, a son, in my arms and wondering how I was going to mother him with so little to go on. And I also recall the first time I realized that I was no longer invested in my daughter’s successes or failures, and that if she messed up her piano piece at the recital it simply wasn’t my fault. Waldman, in a later chapter about the gifted child and the expectations we all have for our children hits those subjects right on the nose. “The most toxic thing parents can do is allow their delight and pride in their children to be spoiled by disappointment, by frustration when the children fail to live up to expectations formed before they were born, expectations that have nothing to do with them and everything to do with the parents’ own egos.”

Waldman has a hilarious chapter riffing on Marlo Thomas’s Free to Be You and Me record (which she takes to task for its bad grammar) – a shared childhood memory of both hers and her husband’s which shaped both of them as early feminists and seems to have helped their marriage work in ways many others don’t, including sharing household chores. Waldman is positive that that is the best way to happiness in the bedroom, a sentiment that is not new but one that many women with young children might be a little more honest about when speaking in terms of foreplay. She cites the usual statistics, which won’t come as a surprise to anyone who has read anything about who cleans the house, no matter who goes out to work or who doesn’t but it is the way that Waldman writes that bears repeating:

Most men I’ve talked to understand that the women in their lives are not interested in sex when they are feeling beleaguered and frustrated, but they don’t really get it. The average man can be angry and frustrated with his wife, but still be perfectly happy to fuck her. The anger might even be just the pinch of Spanish fly he needs. Your typical man uses sex to unwind, while the last thing typical woman wants when she’s wound up is to have sex. Women — or most women, or some women, or the women I’m talking about, or maybe just women like me — do not find resentment erotic. On the contrary. If I am angry with you, or even just irritated, then the last thing I want to do is give you pleasure. I’ll withhold it, even if it means I’m hurting myself, too.

And this is from a woman who was booed on the Oprah show for admitting in a New York Times' “Modern Love Piece” that she loves her husband more than her children. You gotta love a woman like this!

Waldman covers the gamut: from nursing to failure to nurse, from her pregnancies, to having the courage to abort a child that might have been born seriously defective. That particular chapter is hard to read, especially in its brutal and searing openness. But Waldman does not spare us. And that is why her readers should be grateful. She tells us about talking to her kids about sex, about realizing that they have overheard her fighting with her husband, and she is revealing in her own mental illness, her struggle with bi-polar disorder, a hereditary disease that has been passed down through her family like the eye color and hair color and noses and intelligence that she and her children have also inherited.

But the reality is that, in the end, Ayelet Waldman is no crazier, no saner, and no different than the rest of us mothers out there struggling to balance our kids and their needs with ourselves and our own needs. As much as we love those babies and want the world for them, we need to try and keep a little piece of it for ourselves.

Waldman, in her writing, in her truth-telling, in her soul-baring, helps us do that. As we attempt to keep all our many many balls in the air we acknowledge, along with Waldman, that they will drop and drop again and again. But, as she tells us, “When they fall, all you need to do is pick them up and throw them back up in the air.”

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About Lisa Solod