Saturday, November 14, 2009

Bad Mother -- Ayelet Waldman

(Full disclosure: my copy of this book is on loan to my own mother, so I'm not able to include direct quotes or page references. Apologies.)

As I've mentioned before on this blog, I'm a pretty big fan of author Michael Chabon. So I was intrigued to find out that his wife, Ayelet Waldman, is also a writer. She's not nearly as well-known or respected as her Pulitzer Prize-winning husband, but she has a series called the "Mommy-Track Mysteries," has written a couple of other novels, and has been frequently anthologized as an essayist. But she became a notorious overnight sensation back in 2005 when she appeared on Oprah to defend herself against dozens of profanity-spewing, fist-raising moms. Waldman's crime? Opining in the New York Times that she loved her husband more than her kids. The result of that PR nightmare (Oprah defended her position, by the way) is her new book Bad Mother -- a work that earned her a slot on Newsweek's "50 books to read now" list (her husband didn't make the cut).

Bad Mother is an 18-chapter ode, lament, confession, and call-to-arms about modern motherhood. Waldman points out that in almost no other arena save that of parenting do we find it socially acceptable to criticize the choices of our neighbors and friends. She draws an analogy to house hunting: if you prefer a split-level ranch and Waldman prefers a Craftsman bungalow, you're happy to coexist and don't feel a need to march up to the front door, ring the doorbell, and chew each other out over aesthetic differences. Parenting, though, is different: complete strangers feel no qualms about accosting a pregnant woman in the supermarket aisle to lecture her on the egregious wrongs of her shopping cart contents.

Waldman recounts the tale of just such an encounter she experienced when she was waiting in the cashier line, her tiny baby in tow. As she tried to balance a bottle and her purchases, an older woman tapped her on the shoulder and announced sternly, "You know, breast is best." Though in hindsight Waldman wishes she had fired back with a cutting retort, her response at the time was to burst into tears. All of her children had been breastfed until her last who had such severe palate deformities that he was starving to death before they realized it and switched him to a bottle. Who was this woman to admonish someone she had never met or to impose her own preconceived notion about what it means to be a good mother? Through this and many other personal anecdotes -- some humorous, some poignant -- Waldman makes the point that mothers should be bonding together for support during an incredibly challenging part of the human experience rather than trying to chop each other down at the knees. We all want to be good mothers, she asserts -- to assume that someone would make a decision purposely to be a bad one is to attack someone at their weakest moment when instead mothers should be supporting and rallying around each other.

When she's not arguing for a motherhood truce, Waldman becomes a memoirist, sharing intensely personal moments from her family's past. She admits to being an "oversharer," and this can be a welcome trait in a writer. In some places, these stories are a comforting view into a "normal" family life filled with love, tragedy, mistakes, and moments of joy. Some of her experiences and views will come across as controversial -- her aforementioned stance on the balance of relationships within a family is one example, as is her frank and heartbreaking discussion of a decision to terminate a pregnancy -- but her frankness on subjects that are often seen as taboo will elicit a sigh of relief from mothers looking for a sympathetic ally. But at other times the oversharing is too much to take, and the book starts to veer off course. The numerous breaks in the action in order to sing the praises of her apparently saintly husband, for instance, are so frequent as to become nauseating. Isn't it just as wrong to stereotype the father figure as it is to pigeonhole the mother?

On the whole, though, the book is a refreshingly honest take on the struggles faced by mothers -- working or stay-at-home, old or young, seasoned veterans or new to parenthood -- in our modern society where parenting has become a choice rather than an obligation. And whether your child is snuggled in a Baby Bjorn, screaming for his bottle of formula from his playpen, or still merely a twinkle in her future father's eye, you'll find yourself wishing this smart, sarcastic writer was a member of your neighborhood mommy support group.

Final Verdict: ***

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