A Conversation with Bad Mother Ayelet Waldman
Most of us have admitted to being bad mothers at times, but New York Times best selling author Ayelet Waldman wrote a book about it. Bad Mother: A Chronicle of Maternal Crimes, Minor Calamities and Occasional Moments of Grace (Doubleday, 2009) resonates with readers. A mother of four, Waldman’s honest, unpredictable and humorous reflections on motherhood have earned her many fans — and a few angry critics. I spoke with Waldman on the phone about her thoughts on motherhood.
Q: You’ve written several novels, Mommy Track Mysteries, Daughter’s Keeper, Love and Other Impossible Pursuits. What brought you to write Bad Mother?
A: The genesis of the book was this essay [I wrote] that ended up in The New York Times. The outcry was so intense. I realized that I had an unusual take on parenting, and I also realized I wasn’t alone, so I started writing essays expressing my point of view on different parenting issues. They always found really receptive audiences. So I decided to get all of this down in one place and come up with kind of a coherent thought on the way I feel about motherhood and the way we treat mothers. That’s when the book was born.
Q: What do you mean by “the way we treat mothers”?
A: We’ve always been pretty hard on mothers, but I think we’re particularly hard on ourselves. We women have come an incredible distance and our rates of education are higher than men, so the vast majority of women are educated. Most women either have worked, work, or will work at some time in their lives. At the same time as our role in society shifted in terms of our employment, our lives didn’t shift as quickly in terms of our personal lives, so we are struggling with this work/life balance, and it’s not really a balance at all. It’s really just trying to juggle as fast as we can, and it creates a lot of anger and resentment. We’re trying to juggle 37 balls in the air, and we drop balls because it’s not possible not to drop them, and then you feel terrible about yourself. When you feel terrible about yourself, you kind of lash out at other people. You want to find these models to make you feel better, so we create this kind of iconic bad mother whom we’re so obsessed with. We can’t get enough of talking about bad mothers.
Q: Who are the bad mothers?
A: I say all of this is just a crock. With the exception of someone who is, say, physically abusive, the majority of us are fine. We’re not bad mothers; we’re not good mothers; we’re people doing our best. If we continue to sort of idolize this version of a good mother and strive for this impossible dream of a good mother and, at the same time, we continue to be so quick to condemn people we think of as bad mothers, we’re going to be in misery forever. As I say in the book, it’s “a cultural zero sum game of ‘I’m okay; you suck.’”
Q: Can you talk about your view of motherhood?
A: From my point of view as a mom — I’ve been through this kind of preschool, mommy and me, thing four times because my youngest is 6 — the people who tend to be the quickest to condemn are the stay-at-home mothers because they have so much invested in their kids. Working mothers tend to be stretched so thin that they don’t have the time to look at what anyone else is doing, let alone complain about it. But God bless the stay-at-home mothers because they’re the ones who carry the load for everybody. God bless the room parent. My son’s 7th grade class has had the same room parent since kindergarten. She’s volunteered every year. She should get some kind of award. We should cast her in bronze. It’s all about letting go of judgment on all sides.
Q: You were booed on Oprah for writing in The New York Times essay that you love your husband more than your children. Tell me about that.
A: I went on [the show] knowing Oprah agreed with me, but I did not know there would be so many women assembled who would be so very angry with me. They were yelling and telling me that my husband was going to cheat on me, that I deserved to have my children taken away from me. It was a free for all.
A year later, my novel was out and I was on a book tour that included a lunch where I went from table to table. A woman said to me, “You know, my husband bought me this ticket because I’ve been so obsessed with you and so angry with you for a year. He said I just had to finally confront you.” I said, “Really? Really? This is how you’ve spent a year of your life? What a colossal waste of time.”
When I said I loved my husband more than my children, I was writing this book where I was imagining the death of a child, and the unbelievable agony of what that would be like. The only way I could imagine getting through that would be with my husband helping me. I couldn’t imagine writing a book about being a widow. I couldn’t imagine my life without him. That made people feel like I say saying, “I would throw my children in front of a bullet to protect my husband,” which is not what I was saying at all. I would throw myself in front of the bullet to protect both of them. There’s no choice to be made.
Q: You have been open about your struggle with bi-polar II. How do you deal with that as a writer, wife and mother of four?
A: I do cognitive behavioral therapy pretty aggressively. And my kids notice. They’ll be like, “Take your pill, Mom.” And I’ll say, “Go do your homework.”
Q: What advice would you give to other moms?
A: Nothing you do (barring physical or other abuse) will cause permanent damage to your children, even though you feel like most things you do will cause damage. Just relax. Give yourself a break. Chill. It will all be fine.
Q: Your husband, Pulitzer Prize winning novelist Michael Chabon, has a new book of essays out about being a father. Is he a good dad?
A: My husband is God’s gift to fathering. From the beginning, I was working outside the home and he was home full time, so he was spending more time with the baby. We were lucky. He’s a good father…no, he’s a really, really good mother.
Q: What’s the best thing about motherhood?
A: The best thing about motherhood – and this is temporary – is the unconditional love toward you. Children love you and love you like crazy when they’re little.