Bad Mother: A Chronicle of Maternal Crimes, Minor Calamities, and Occasional Moments of Grace

Meeting Ayelet Waldman for the first time in “Bad Mother” was a truly New York experience, reminiscent of many a legal recruiting event during which I’d first recoil from an acerbic, on-message female powerhouse across a cocktail table and then, three drinks later, she’d get real – and I’d fall in love a little. As advertised, “Bad Mother” is a memoir “about the perils and joys of trying to be a decent mother”; it just starts with an unappealingly academic and alarmist treatment of my two least favorite straw(wo)men: the omni-sacrificial mother and the titular “bad mother.” And then with the turn of a page the book unfurls into the smartest, bravest (only Anne Enright comes close) mommy memoir I have yet read; and it’s funny to boot.

Thank goodness I didn’t give up after the first chapter. I’m just sick of the whole “bad mom” phenomenon which posits an epidemic of maternal self-abnegation, anxiety, disappointment, and dissatisfaction. Waldman, like many others, describes a world in which a woman must choose between “sacrific[ing] herself on the altar of [her child’s] paramount importance” or an overwhelming sense of failure and guilt for refusing to do so. For those who aspire to the unattainable goal of perfect parenting and those who eschew it alike, “[s]elf-flagellation is . . . the crux of the . . . experience.” Sorry, no dice. Yes, most mothers could stand to cut themselves some slack, the job is hard (for both stay-at-homers and those who work for money), finding balance takes constant effort and recalibration, sacrifices must be made, and there are moments of guilt – but I’m just not convinced that we’re all miserable. I know plenty of moms who, like me and Waldman 2.0, manage to preserve “an identity separate from that of mother to [their] children,” are as likely to be satisfied with their lives as single folks, and “do[]n’t worry so much about being bad or good, but just recognize[] that [they’re] both, and neither” (i.e., “who do[ their] best, and for whom that is good enough”).

Luckily, the remaining seventeen chapters soar with astute observations, interesting anecdotes, and witty writing like the following:

  • “He doesn’t clean – I’m pretty sure he lumps toilet brushes and mops into the same ‘feminine products’ category as tampons and vaginal deodorant.”
  • “I shamelessly made use of my pregnancy to curry favor with judges and juries alike. I encouraged my clients to pull out my chair or take my arm as I heaved my bulk around the courtroom. The jury reacted to this solicitude just as I wanted them to. They took one look at how sweetly the tattooed, methamphetamine-addled drug dealer took care of his adorable, little pregnant lawyer, and decided that he could not possibly be as bad as the prosecutor was making him out to be.”
  • “‘Yes, thank you for doing the dishes, but it’s not like you cured cancer; don’t act like you deserve the Nobel Prize.’”
  • “Women . . . do not find resentment erotic.”
  • “If Michael accidentally brushed against my nipple while he was opening the car door for me [in the postpartum months], it took me a monumental exertion of will to keep from severing his hand at the wrist.”
  • “Taking care of a house and family is work that never ends; like Sisyphus’s wife, you and your basket of laundry never reach the top of the mountain.”
  • “[B]ecause I feel a certain amount of shame at the idea of being able to afford a cleaner, my relationships with these women . . . tend to be fraught. I find it incredibly difficult, for example, to fire anyone, and have more than once found myself in the situation of hiring a maid to secretly clean up after my other maid.”  
  • “I’m sure that there are women who circumcise their sons, who use disposable diapers, and who feed their infants formula who are smug, snarky, and unpleasant. But there seems to be a particular brand of sanctimony practiced by those who choose to exclusively breast-feed, use a family bed, and wear their babies in slings – choices generally associated with attachment parenting,” perhaps “because this kind of parenting is a belief system, nearly a religion.”
  • “Let’s all commit ourselves to the basic civility of minding our own business. Failing that, let’s just go back to a time when we were nasty and judgmental, but only behind one another’s backs.”
  • “[After Michael fixes a toilet] I feel a wave of contentment, of security. I feel protected. I am a damsel in clogged-drain distress, and he is my knight with shining plunger.”
  • “Feminism, for all that the word has fallen out of fashion, is ubiquitous enough that it feels vaguely shameful for a woman to want to feel protected.”
  • “[A]s marriages progress, you surrender areas of your own competence, often without even knowing it. You do this in part because it’s more efficient for each individual to have his or her own area of expertise, but also as a kind of optimistic gesture. By surrendering certain skills, you are affirming your belief that the other person will remain there to care for you in that way.”
  • “I was hurt, but I am not harmed.”  
  • “Once something like this happens to you, you learn that among the happy community of Bugaboo strollers and preschool picnics is a secret society of loss, of miscarriage and stillbirth, genetic termination and SIDS, like a single black thread winding through a length of white silk.”
  • “Can I take a minute here to complain about the un-magnetic fridges?”
  • “[T]here is an inverse correlation between the cleanliness of a bathroom and Rose’s need to move her bowels.”
  • “I pulled my back out twice last week, once, honorably, while lifting weights, and once, ridiculously, while turning on my bedside lamp.”
  • “Michael is a natural patriot. If it were up to him, we’d have an American flag flying from a pole in front of our house, not because he is naive about what the flag has come to mean both here and abroad, but because he refuses to allow jingoistic bigots who substitute a flag pin for a commitment to the Constitution to own that symbol of freedom.”
  • “Sophie playing the violin sounded exactly like a violin rolling itself halfheartedly down the stairs.”
  • “[H]ow does one balance the cost of having to replace leather car upholstery against the pleasure of being able to say to one’s husband, ‘I told you a knife was no gift for a child’?”
  • “Why is it that the most self-actualized people seem so often to be the most self-absorbed?”

Even when I don’t agree with Waldman, I applaud her honesty (“I believe that mothers should tell the truth, even – no, especially – when the truth is difficult”), humor, and refusal to let hurdles (be they mental illness, online criticism, or social ostracism) silence her. If you’re a fan of authors who won’t dumb themselves down in order to reach a broader demographic, if you like to laugh, or if you crave stories from the trenches told without the rose-colored glasses so often bestowed by the passage of time – then purchase and persevere. I found that the brash, over-reaching theorist is actually a chick whom I quite like (in the Facebook sense as well as the more traditional one) and whose writing I love.

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