It’s Not Like She’s Medea
Bad Mother: A Chronicle of Maternal Crimes, Minor Calamities, and Occasional Moments of Grace
Ayelet Waldman's Bad Mother: A Chronicle of Maternal Crimes, Minor Calamities, and Occasional Moments of Grace is one in a genre of books that presents motherhood as a messy, ignominious affair. Details of the beaming bliss of becoming a mother are a part of the style, but this is balanced by a healthy dose of poop and descriptions of postpartum parts that won't bounce back. Other books in this genre include True Mom Confessions, Confessions of a Bad Mother and I'd Trade My Husband for a Housekeeper: Loving Your Marriage After the Baby Carriage. I think you get the idea.
The conceit behind Waldman's version is that there is such a thing as the Good Mother. "The Good Mother remembers to serve fruit at breakfast, is always cheerful and never yells, manages not to project her own neuroses and inadequacies onto her children, is an active and beloved community volunteer: she remembers to make play dates, her children's clothes fit, she does art projects with them and enjoys all their games. And she is never too tired for sex." If this is the grail, then every mom inevitably falls short, a crusader on a doomed mission in pursuit of a myth.
If all mothers are in some fashion Bad Mothers, this book is a chronicle of Waldman's own areas of expert badness. She's a yeller, she hates preschool events, she couldn't nurse her fourth child, she loves her husband more than her children. It's this last one that, when she wrote about it in the New York Times, caused an uproar. Thousands of volleys of "Bad Mother," and worse, were lofted at her. To her defense, she says that it is this love that has kept their family strong, and has kept, after four children, the couple's sex life alive.
One chapter is devoted to her relationship with her husband, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author Michael Chabon. The spark has gone out of so many other marriages, she posits, because the work is not shared equally, even by other Gen Xers who grew up with notions of gender equality. Her marriage works because her husband cleans. "There is nothing sexier to a woman with children than a man holding a Swiffer." I'm sorry: I should have prepared you with a warning to grab an air sickness bag before that quote. Bad Writer.
It's not just that the tropes Waldman mines are well-worn; they are, but other writers, namely Erma Bombeck and the stunningly hilarious Anne Lamott, have done it much better. Few of Waldman's observations are fresh, and her writing isn't strong enough to carve new paths through old ideas. She relies on the shock of her honesty, opening up about her early sluttiness and use of antidepressants while pregnant. But memoirs are like reality show participants: They're everywhere, and their ubiquitousness forces them to fight for attention by being the most unsettling. In the end, the effort has the converse effect of being stupefyingly boring.
Another problem with Bad Mother is that Waldman lives in Berkeley. Which isn't to say that Berkeley itself is wrong (though, have you been there?), but rather that the context of her experience is far from universal. She acknowledges this, but when the definition of being a Bad Mother comes from her community—a community so liberal it makes Ralph Nader look like Montgomery Burns—it's hard to connect with. The majority of mothers in this country have made their peace with not washing out cloth diapers and choosing a good, store-bought baby food over pureeing vegetables fresh from an organic garden every morning. Waldman's conflict over issues like these seems stupid.
Also stupid is the fact that though Michael Chabon might grab the Swiffer every now and then, they have a maid. And a nanny. Which, you know, great for them, but I'm not sure that having a hoard of outside help qualifies Waldman to wax about the struggles of modern motherhood. I don't begrudge them their success, but I don't feel like commiserating over tales of hiring one maid to clean up after another maid, either.
There is one section of Bad Mother that is moving. Called "Rocketship," it describes the agony that Waldman and Chabon found themselves in when an amniocentesis during her third pregnancy revealed a genetic abnormality. It is here that Waldman's honesty about the overwhelming grief, and then the guilt, that she felt over aborting her child (nicknamed Rocketship) is truly powerful. She never questions the decision, which she's sure was the right thing to do, but nor does she use euphemisms. "Rocketship was my baby," she writes. "And I killed him."
Bad Mother isn't wholly bad. The bulk of it is perfectly fine, and slivers point to something more. The cover consists of, in large blue letters, the words “Good Mother,” with “Good” crossed out and “BAD” scrawled beside it. It's reminiscent of the cover of Marilyn French's The Women's Room, with “Women” scribbled over “Ladies.” The ’70s novel was about redefining women's roles and capabilities. In its own way, Bad Mother seeks to do the same, to claim the epithet as a mark of honesty and strength. A great idea, and one I loved reading about when it was called Operating Instructions by Anne Lamott.