Waldman examines her own shortcomings against society's expectations, and then urges mothers to give themselves -- and each other -- a break.
What acts of abuse or neglect inspired Ayelet Waldman to title her memoir "Bad Mother"? Did she lock the kids in the basement? Leave them alone while she went out bar-hopping? Fly into rages over the use of wire hangers?
Not exactly. Most of what Waldman calls "maternal crimes" are more like minor imperfections. She quit her job to care for her four children but felt bored at home. She serves organic foods, but one son eats a lot of chocolate. TV is forbidden on weekdays, but the kids watch "The Simpsons" on weekends.
Hardly reason to call Child Protection, but that's Waldman's point. She makes a plea for mothers to stop measuring each other -- and themselves -- against some hypothetical ideal, the Good Mother who "remembers to serve fruit for breakfast, is always cheerful and never yells. ..." etc. A mother, in other words, who doesn't exist outside of parenting magazines and '50s sitcoms.
"There is little I do as a mother that can't be criticized, not least by myself," Waldman writes. " ... Let's all commit ourselves to the basic civility of minding our own business."
Waldman is all too familiar with having others mind her business -- though, to be fair, she kind of asked for it. In 2005, the attorney-turned-novelist published an essay in the New York Times in which she confessed to loving her husband, novelist Michael Chabon, more than she does their children. The column, with its sex-life references and other cringe-worthy details, ignited fierce blogosphere debates and led to Waldman appearing on "Oprah" before an indignant audience.
Waldman makes no apologies for the controversial column. A few of her maternal experiences, however, obviously genuinely trouble her. In some cases the guilt seems overblown, such as the "sense of stabbing shame" she feels "to this day" over having curtailed efforts to nurse one of her babies whose malformed palate made breastfeeding impossible. Other events were understandably wrenching, such as the decision to terminate a pregnancy after a genetic test showed a chance the child might be born developmentally challenged.
Waldman is an intelligent and often graceful writer with a sense of humor, though she can come on strong -- candid, opinionated, a bit self-absorbed -- which may not be to everyone's taste. Like many motherhood memoirists, Waldman has been accused of whining and oversharing. But if you ask me, frank looks at motherhood are always welcome. Until recent years, motherhood literature too often emphasized the sugary and blissful -- Erma Bombeck and Jean Kerr among the few exceptions -- leaving readers frustrated by real-life tantrums and boredom and wondering what they were doing wrong. Books like this are a reminder that if you care enough to wonder at all, you're probably doing OK.
Katy Read writes for Brain, Child magazine, More magazine and other publications. She lives in Minneapolis.