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.”