Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Bad Mother by Ayelet Waldman

Bad Mother: A Chronicle of Maternal Crimes, Minor Calamities, and Occasional Moments of Grace Bad Mother: A Chronicle of Maternal Crimes, Minor Calamities, and Occasional Moments of Grace
by Ayelet Waldman

May 5th 2009 by Broadway
Hardcover, 224 pages
0385527934 (isbn13: 9780385527934)

  rating: 3 of 5 stars

 “The morning after my wedding, my husband, Michael, and I, were lying on a vast expense of white linen in the bridal suite of Berkeley’s oldest hotel; engaging in a romantic tradition of newlyweds the world over: counting our loot.”

(I didn’t realize until halfway through this book that the above-named Michael is Michael Chabon.  Don’t tell Moonie.  Waldman also went to law school with some guy named Barack Obama.)

Given the humorous quote on the front of the ARC I received, I expected Bad Mother to be equally humorous, possibly irreverent, and even somewhat flippant.  That’s not, however, how it begins.  Ayelet Waldman comes out swinging every ounce of intellectual muscle she’s got; she’s a formidable contender.  Bad Mother starts out less as a book of humor than as a feminist critique, almost scholarly and certainly political, of current expectations of women who are mothers.  With humor thrown in.  (A similar tactic is used by Jessica Valenti to soften the serious message in  Full Frontal Feminism.)

Waldman sets up her book with a chapter about “bad mothers,”  mothers like the the woman Waldman reprimanded on the bus who was yanking her daughter’s hair as she braided it.  Why do we obsess over “bad mothers”?  (Besides the fact that “worrying about egregious freak-show moms like Wendy Cook and Britney Spears distracts us from the fact that, for example, President George W. Bush cheerfully vetoed a law that would have provided health insurance to four million uninsured children.) By defining for us the kind of mothers we’re not, they make it easier for us to stomach what we are.

Waldman informally polled her friends to find definitions of Good Mothers and Good Fathers.  A definition of a Good Mother always involved self-abnegation: “she is able to figure out how to carve out time for herself without detriment to her children’s feelings of self-worth.”  The same people “had no trouble defining what it meant to be a Good Father.  A Good Father is characterized quite simply by his presence.”

She ends the first chapter with a question.  “Can’t we just try to give ourselves and each other a break?”  My good postmodern deconstructionist self cheered.  My brain and my heart were engaged.  I settled in for more discussion, re-thinking, and questions to spur us toward a new paradigm of expectations for motherhood.

After such an auspicious beginning, Bad Mother rolls into territory that is more memoir/social commentary, territory that is humorous, irreverent, and, at times, flippant.  Waldman spends the remaining seventeen chapters self-consciously bragging about what a fabulous partner and father Chabon is, enumerating what she perceives as her failures as a mother, and offering the mechanisms she used to cope with the fact of these "failures."

The underlying message from Waldman is: “Here are the terrible things I’ve done – just be glad you haven’t done anything this bad.”  After the conclusion to that first chapter, I’d hoped that Waldman would be proposing a different way of thinking; an entirely different way of analyzing motherhood. 

Granted, Waldman’s commentaries and anecdotes are both poignant and hilarious.  (“A Good Mother doesn’t resent looking up from her novel to examine a child’s drawing.”)  She's a hell of a writer.  From opinions about breast feeding and Attachment Parenting and sending snacks to preschool, to her own stories about terminating a pregnancy and about revelations concerning her own mother’s parenting style, Waldman's rich writing moves along smoothly, like a bottle pouring a nice merlot.  It’s certainly a book worth reading.

I wouldn’t buy this book for your own mother, but it would make a great gift between (or among) girlfriends, or for someone who considers Michael Chabon her secret boyfriend.  And, unless you live in Berkeley (as Waldman does, and reminds her reader…frequently) or Boulder, it would surely spark heated discussion in a book or moms’ club. And even if you’re not in love with Michael Chabon, I dare you to admit that there’s not some part of you that wants to be as wise and funny and erudite as Waldman when you grow up.


  1. Oh. I think I have this one on my wishlist. Now I am rethinking.

  2. Hehe, I just had a chuckle at the irony of buying this for your own mother. My mom would look at the title and be like "What are you trying to say?" Lol

  3. I reviewed this one a couple of weeks ago, and I've edited my post to add a link to your review. I liked the book more than I expected to, and I think Waldman's writing has a lot to do with that. (The fact that I'm also secretly in love with her husband seems like it would push me in the other direction, but no...) I agree that it would be excellent book-club material.

  4. I have this on my TBR list. It's really only there because of the controversy that she sparked while on Oprah. I'll just just check this out from the library instead of buying it.

  5. This sounds like something I'd really like -- thanks for the review!

    btw, you read A LOT!

  6. Thanks for the review Aerin! This sounds like something up my alley... I'm always interested in what others think constitute "bad" vs. "good" mothers. & why oh why are we so judgmental? (except in the extreme cases!)

  7. Aerin, I would like you to please revisit your above post very closely and reconsider the word "considers" as in "considers Michael Chabon her secret boyfriend..." which implies some kind of perspective or judgment which is JUST not applicable.

    Also, thanks for the review! I read the NYT review, which ripped it to shreds in a disjointed an ambivalent way ("I really wanted to hate this book. And I did! Ayelet complains about her sagging boobs! How boring. But hey, wait, are my boobs sagging, too?! I wish she weren't right!" ad infinitum). Better to have a personal take.

    So have you read LOVE AND OTHER IMPOSSIBLE PURSUITS? I felt about it much the way the NYT felt about BAD MOTHER.

  8. Interesting review! This one's on my wish list after reading Florinda's review and yours has just made me more curious about this book!



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