The Bad Mother Police and What to do About Them.
One of the best things about Mommy Track’d is its attitude: its role as cheerleader for working moms. There may be disagreements among its writers and subscribers, but they don’t snipe and snarl at one another as they do on other sites called out by Ayelet Waldman in her new book, Bad Mother, scheduled for release in May. In it, she points to the vitriol directed these days at “bad mothers,” blasted at them in books and magazines and especially in blogs, where it’s possible to insult others with ease, anonymity, and apparent lack of consequence.. What is it, she asks, about parenting, about motherhood in particular, that allows us to indulge our inner scold about other people’s choices – about sleep training, feeding, schooling, immunizing, and on and on? Where did all this sanctimony and self-righteousness come from and what can we do to protect ourselves from it? In Waldman’s own words, she has written “ a book about the perils and joys of trying to be a decent mother in a world intent on making you feel like a bad one.”
This isn’t the first book to try to make women feel less anxious about their efforts to be good mothers and it probably won’t be the last. But it’s a lively and sensitive addition to the genre. As a mother of four who feeds her kids organic food and milk, but whose youngest child will eat from only two food groups - meat and candy - Waldman offers a mix of memoir and reality-grounded counsel on subjects ranging from kids’ sports and homework (she and her kids all hate it), adolescent sexuality, race, homosexuality, parental spats, even patriotism, all in an effort to persuade us to relax and do the best we can.
There are women who will have problems with this book or, rather, trouble with its author. Ayelet Waldman is a former criminal defense attorney turned stay-at-home mom, turned author of a successful series of books (coincidentally) called The Mommy Track mysteries, a host of essays, plus two other well received novels. She also happens to be married to Michael Chabon, one of the best writers of his generation, who also does all their cooking and home repair, more of the housework than she does, and at least half the childcare in their family; he is so wonderful, she tells us, that he will even comb the antique shops of Venice with her looking for the perfect tassled pillow. As successful writers, they are financially secure. Oh, and Barack Obama was her classmate at Harvard Law.
Okay. A resume like this does unfurl the envy snake in many of us, especially when, as a memoirist, Waldman tells us all these things about herself. But this, after all, is what a memoirist does. (She did actually go to that law school and write all those books.) And if readers allow that snake to curl too tightly, it can choke off the pleasure to be taken from this smart, honest and funny book. Even worse, it can align us with the Bad Mother Police who are the villains of the piece, those scolds who manage to make even the best of us feel inadequate. For despite her accomplishments and very good fortune, Waldman feels guilty about being a Bad Mother. A lot. She tells us that and a good deal more: that she was a geeky unpopular teen-ager whose sexual activity bordered on the promiscuous; that one of her babies was born unable to nurse, despite her ferocious efforts; that one of her children has learning difficulties; that she and her husband went through the agonizing decision to terminate a pregnancy; and that one of the legacies from her father is that she inherited his bi-polar disorder. With humor and insight she reflects on how each of these, along with her mother’s unsatisfying marriage and feminist activism, affects her life with her family and her sense of herself, freely admitting the ways in which her unrealistic expectations, her fears and her ego get in the way of the real work of motherhood. But none of that stops her from being able to see clearly. Nor has it caused her to lose her sense of humor.
Though she’s written all those books, Waldman may be best known for the provocative essay she wrote for the NY Times declaring that she loved her husband more than her four kids and still really liked having sex with him. The piece produced the predictable results – scathing criticism from Good Mothers and an appearance on Oprah. But some of her respondents were men who simply wanted to know what they could do to get their wives to have more sex. She has an answer for them: take up a toilet brush, do the laundry, really share the family burdens – there’s nothing so erotic to an overworked mother than a spouse with a Swiffer in his hand. If being a Good Mother demands selflessness, being a sexy wife requires some help. For the iconic “Good Mother,” she whose selflessness is constant and total, is a fantasy, of course. Nonetheless, mothers measure themselves against her, necessarily always falling short, more often than not suffering from a mix of anxiety and disappointment that can prevent them from enjoying their lives and their children, not to mention their partners. Observing that “self-flagellation is not the crux of the paternal experience,” that there are no “daddy wars,” Waldman points out that it’s hard enough to minister to the needs of children without trying to live up to an impossible standard at the same time. She wants us to give one another and ourselves a break and let up on the judgments, instead trying simply to be a mother who “does her best, and for whom that is good enough, even if, in the end, her best turns out to be, simply, not bad. It’s a gutsy book- funny, honest, smart, and often pretty wise. Look for it when it comes out next month or preorder it now.
See what Vicki Larson has to say in A Pretty Good Mom