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.
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.