Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Bad Mother by Ayelet Waldman

Although a friend was kind enough to lend me her copy of Ayelet Waldman's Bad Mother, I think I will actually have to go and purchase my own. And about six extra copies for other people I know.

Yesyesyes, I know it's a parenting book, and a parenting book that says "Look at all the crappy things I do! Why, I'm barely hanging on!" neither of which are terribly revolutionary for the literature of our time. However, it is NOT one of those pretending-to-be-shamefaced-but-really-smirking "confessional"-style books that are so popular with the Mom set nowadays. The first chapter is, in fact, all about these supposedly-shocking crises of conscience. While I was reading, I made a connection that seems so obvious but somehow gets lost in all the screaming about what makes a bad mother.

Remember in middle school and high school, when you and your girlfriends (or any gaggle of girls in a school bathroom) would play "I'm so fat"? Someone would start it and then it would go around and around. "Oh, I'm so fat," she would say, looking in the mirror. "Of course you're not," the next girl would say. "I'm so fat." "You're not fat, I'm so fat," the next girl would say. It would go on until everyone had a turn or three or the bell rang. The point of the exercise was not that you thought you were fat; just that you might be, and you needed to test the waters. You needed to hear someone else say in front of witnesses that you weren't and that she felt the same way too. It was a way of seeking what all adolescents crave: reassurance and acceptance.

Well, guess what? Times haven't changed. We just gather at coffee houses, bars and playgroups instead of in beige school bathrooms and "I'm a bad mother" has replaced "I'm so fat."

"Oh, god, I'm a terrible mommy," someone will start. "I didn't give my daughter her organic whole-wheat granola cereal this morning, just some organic locally-farmed naturally-sweetened yogurt." Then someone picks up the torch and starts to run. "That's not bad," says this second mom. "I gave my kids Popsicles yesterday that had corn syrup in them. I'm the worst mother!" and on and on it goes, a round-robin of imaginary transgressions, each slightly worse than the last, none of them much worth writing home about. Until they get to me, and I stammer something about how I gave her wheat, dairy, AND strawberries before she was a year old, when really I'm thinking I locked myself in the bedroom closet last night so I could have five minutes of personal time.

These sorts of "confessions" are quite popular lately, but nowhere so much as the peculiar echo chamber that is blogging. There are entire websites devoted to this stuff, and a whole lot of people getting book deals (and a lot of advertising dollars) out of it.

Waldman tackles this phenomenon, and notes that she has been accused pretty vehemently of bad mothering by the screechy voices of people on the Internet (also people on Oprah). Then she goes on to actually talk about some things that she has done that are a) interesting and b) possibly worthy of feeling guilty about, at least in a personal sense. She is pretty blunt when talking about her abortion of a fetus that had a birth defect, her despair at the knowledge that one day her son will love his wife more than he loves her (and puzzlement about why she feels this, after territorial struggles with her own mother-in-law), or her children's learning disabilities. It's a refreshing voice to read, rather than the Coquette (look at me, the bad mommy, wink-wink) or the Life of the Party (HEY I'M SUCH A SHITTY MOM HA HA LOOK AT ME WHOOO!) that seem to be the only ones available for writing about navigating modern motherhood.

The truth is, this is the first parenting/mothering writing I've read that didn't make me feel totally alone. No matter what book or blog or essay I tried, no matter if it was fact, fiction, memoir, or rant, they have all made me feel as though I were completely alone on some far-flung desert island outpost otherwise known as Motherhood. Waldman doesn't craft syrupy-sweet pages of prose dedicated to how wonderful she thinks it all is. She doesn't go on and on about poop and crying. She doesn't write about how she's such a "slacker mom" or whine about how hard parenting is. She talks about the why, and the when, and the where of self-criticism and how it causes us to criticize other mothers. She doesn't talk about all her great modernist kids' furniture or name-drop celebrities she hangs out with or give me ridiculous tips for "keeping it real." In fact, she comments on how she started writing as an escape from the tedium of stay-at-home-momdom and says she knows how fortunate she is to have the outlet available. There are no posed photos of her children in outrageously expensive clothes, no rambling attention-seeking recounts of traveling Europe with an infant in tow. This book did not make me feel jealous, inferior, superior, inadequate, overcompensating, or hyper-vigilant. I did not once have an urge to chuck it across the room and scream "Oh, for God's sake, SHUT UP!" For a parenting book, that's a pretty good score.

In fact, the only irritating thing about the book is Waldman's near-constant mention of her husband, writer Michael Chabon. For a book with "Mother" in the title, the father of her children makes an appearance in every chapter. Which is fine, modern parenting being all about sharing the workload and all, but the continual mention (and praise) of Chabon started to seem almost like an uncontrollable tic after a while. Eh. C'est la vie, I guess.

Verdict: Thumbs up
Buy it: Yeah, probably
Gift it: definitely


Antoinette said...

This is an AMAZING review. You are totally right, there seem to be two opposing subcultures in the SAHM world: perfect mom and perfectly imperfect mom. Just really well-written, Steph. Keep reviewing more books! I'm tweeting this one!

Steph said...

Thanks for the tweet (and the praise)! :)