“One of the reasons we tell stories is to find meaning in events that seem devoid of it, to make sense of the senseless.” Ayelet Waldman
Author Ayelet Waldman wrote Bad Mother: A Chronicle of Maternal Crimes, Minor Calamities, and Occasional Moments of Grace to explore “the perils and joys of trying to be a decent mother in a world intent on making you feel like a bad one.” And there are lots of perils, as any mother knows. Society blames her when children are anything less than its definition of perfect, and she blames herself for whatever society misses. But Waldman’s book is not a droning sociological dissertation. Not at all. It’s light and weighty, humorous and intimate, thought provoking and entertaining.
Waldman starts off by listing the numerous fuzzy and unattainable definitions of a GOOD mother, she then goes on to describe the judgmental workings of the BAD Mother police, mothers compelled to correct other mothers’ poor parenting. Why do they do this? She says, “Perhaps it’s because there is so much at stake. Another parent’s different approach raises the possibility that you’ve made a mistake with your child. We simply can’t tolerate that, because we fear that any mistake, no matter how minor, could have devastating consequences”
Waldman gets serious as she examines how her mother’s feminist influence/agenda has affected her marriage and mothering choices. She notes there are women “who have ended up, contrary to their expectations, living lives disturbingly similar to those of their mothers.” And she confesses she’s a bad mother because she allowed her newborn to starve for weeks before she realized he wasn’t nursing correctly, and because she loves her husband more than her children.
She takes a look at gender roles in her marriage, and she takes on her relationship with her husband’s mother— a GOOD mother, of course. She then complains that mothers shouldn’t be asked to shepherd their too-young kids through complex, time-consuming homework tasks and that her kids shouldn’t have to go through the shame of being a dodgeball target like she did. But then she says, “sometimes what you have to protect them [your children] from is the ongoing avalanche of your own childhood.”
In some chapters Waldman is incredibly vulnerable. For instance when she relates her extensive sexual history: “At Wesleyan University there was no dishonor in being a slut… I slept with roommates and bandmates (although never at the same time), with frat boys and stoners, with exchange students and grad students.” Most touching is when she shares her agony about her decision to have an abortion in her second trimester. She says it is “the most serious of the many maternal crimes I tally in my head when I am at my lowest, when the Bad Mother label seems to fit best.”
Waldman lightheartedly describes her children’s reactions to her arguments with her husband and her guilt over the disparity between the documented minutia of her first child’s life with that of the occasional references to her fourth child’s life. She reveals her family’s legacy, bipolar disorder, and how difficult it was to accept that she too has the disorder. She states she will like her children just the way they are, even if they turn out to be gay and that when she said this in a column she created uproar.
In the later chapters, Waldman confesses her desire to have more children, even though she knows four is enough. She examines her tendency to be pessimistic, yet she’s hopeful her children will soon live in a more tolerant world. In the last chapter she concedes that children who don’t excel in school, who have physical or cognitive problems—one of her sons has ADHD—aren’t necessarily the product of bad mothering, that even good mothers can have less than academically perfect children.
Waldman speaks for many women who don’t buy into the latest mothering fad, which pins a “Good Mother” badge on those whose reason to live is to bolster their children’s success, and pins “Bad Mother” on those who insist they have a name other than so-and-so’s mom. This book is bound to rile some mothers, and I hope it does.
Note: This review is based on an advance review copy and not a final copy of the book.