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Bad Mother

November 5, 2010

Bad Mother: A Chronicle of Maternal Crimes, Minor Calamities, and Occasional Moments of Grace by Ayelet Waldman
Genre: Essays/Memoir
Age Level: Adult
Published: Doubleday, May 5, 2009
I Chose It Because: I enjoy thoughtful writing about motherhood.
Discussion Points: parenthood; feminism; balancing work and parenting


Ayelet Waldman was a highly driven, successful defense attorney, married to a full-time novelist, when she left her job to become a full-time mom to her first child, Sophie. Fifteen years later, she is writing about her experiences with marriage and motherhood.

Bad Mother was not what I expected. I checked it out expecting a memoir, and while revelations about the author’s life run throughout the book, it’s actually a group of loosely connected essays. They explore marital roles, breast-feeding, maternal guilt, and other topics that are familiar to many of us. I am not sure Waldman represents the “typical” mom, as she is clearly highly educated and upper middle class. As she was expressing mild guilt over hiring maids to help with housework, I was thinking about the years my husband and I couldn’t afford heating fuel. 🙂

However her essays are beautifully articulate, a bit edgy, and often laugh-out-loud funny. As a mom, I could relate closely to most of what she had to say; at times, reading these essays was like chatting with a friend. The first topic she discussed was the unrealistic expectations and judgments we mothers put on ourselves, and on each other.

Being a Good Father is a reasonable, attainable goal; you need only be present and supportive. Being a Good Mother, as defined by mothers themselves, is impossible. When asked for an example of a Good Mother, as defined by mothers themselves, the women I polled came up with June Cleaver and Marmee, from Little Women. Both of whom are by necessity, not coincidence, fictional characters. The good Mother does not exist, she never existed, not even in those halcyon bygone days to which the arbiters of maternal conduct never tire of harking back. If the producers of Leave it to Beaver had really wanted to give us an accurate depiction of late 1950s and early-1960s motherhood, June would have had a lipstick-stained cigarette clamped between her teeth, a gin and tonic in her hand, and a copy of Peyton Place on her nightstand. But still, this creature of fantasy is whom the mothers in my sample measured themselves against, and their failure to live up to her made her feel like Bad Mothers.

It’s as if the swimmer Tracy Caulkins, winner of three Olympic gold medals, setter of five world records, were to beat herself up for being slower than the Little Mermaid. (p. 11)

Other topics explored:

  • Some parents are incredibly dogmatic about parenting philosophy, and this often seems to pop up in relation to attachment parenting discussions. Despite some of the rhetoric I’ve seen on the interwebs, there’s no solid evidence that my kids will grow up to be serial killers because I didn’t wear them in a sling for the first nine months, sleep with them, or breastfeed until they were in graduate school. I appreciated that Waldman was on the same wavelength. 😉
  • Roles partners adopt in a marriage, whether they be traditional, egalitarian, or mixed. While Waldman considers herself a feminist she never changes a light bulb. 🙂
  • Keeping intimacy and passion alive after marriage and children.
  • Her experiences with seeking parenting support on the internet.
  • Teenage sexuality, her own sexually adventurous youth, and how she talks to her kids about physical intimacy.
  • The burdens of homework.
  • That unrequited longing for another baby, that just won’t quite die.

She also explored parents’ inflated hopes and expectations for their kids’ development. Her family lives in Berkley, in the heart of an academic community, and intellectual achievement is clearly important to her. But she has learned to leaven this with realism and allowing herself to live in the moment. I liked this passage:

When Rosie was little, she was a slow talker … She would sit on the floor, her fat legs stretched out in front of her, as I built and rebuilt a tower of blocks, , laughing each time I toppled it over. I was so busy saying, “Rosie can you say ‘boom’? Say ‘boom’ for Mommy,” that I barely registered her full-body smile, the way every inch of her, from her cornflower blue eyes to the pink tips of her toes, wriggled as she grinned at the tower’s collapse.

The most toxic thing parents can do is allow their delight and pride in their children to be spoiled by disappointment, by frustration, when the children fail to live up to expectations formed before they were even born, expectations that have nothing to do with them and everything to do with the parents’ own egos. (pp. 205-206)

There were several things that touched me deeply. I connected with Waldman’s account of her son’s diagnosis with ADHD and coming to terms with the unexpected twists presented by a child’s learning differences. I was also moved by her disclosure that she’s bipolar and struggled with the decision to use medication during pregnancy. I went through this too. I had to make a choice, with each of my last two pregnancies, whether to use medication for anxiety and depression. Despite my severe history with my mood disorder, which runs in my family, and although increasing medical evidence indicates that SSRI use during pregnancy and nursing is safe, this was very difficult. I also related to Waldman’s fear that her children would inherit her illness. She wrote about constantly gauging her kids’ emotions and reactions, looking for signs of bipolar disorder. She also described the stress her illness puts on her children. This almost made me cry.

I recommend this book if you enjoy essays and memoirs and motherhood is a topic close to your heart. I also think it would be a great book club pick. There is enough fodder for discussion here to keep you up well into the night.

Other Reviews: The Book Lady’s Blog; A Good Stopping Point;

15 Comments leave one →
  1. November 5, 2010 2:15 am

    I couldn’t believe Waldman’s openness! I too thought this would be a terrific book club choice.

  2. November 5, 2010 8:46 am

    Though I don’t have kids myself, I think this is a book I would love. She’s absolutely right that mothers have to deal with all kinds of unrealistic expectations and are judged FAR too easily. When something goes wrong, it’s always the mother’s fault. I wonder if it’d be interesting to read this in conjunction with her husband’s Manhood for Amateurs.

    • November 5, 2010 3:35 pm

      I think those two books would be terrific to read together. And the mother-blame thing goes WAY back. At least, due to advances in medical knowledge, we no longer “cause” our children’s autism or schizophrenia.

  3. November 5, 2010 12:32 pm

    I think I would like this one – my mom and I enjoyed reading her “Mommy Track Mysteries,” and I do love a good memoir or collection of juicy essays. 🙂

  4. November 5, 2010 12:57 pm

    I’ve heard a lot of great things about this book and it’s definitely one that I’m looking forward to reading at some point – even if I have no interest in having children myself. Great review.

    • November 5, 2010 3:37 pm

      Amy, even though you don’t want children, I think you’d still enjoy this book, especially since you have an interest in women’s issues. This author is an articulate and funny writer.

  5. November 5, 2010 2:12 pm

    After reading Manhood for Amateurs, I really wanted to pick this one up. I think reading the two books together would be tons of fun (talking to you Ana! 🙂 ).

  6. November 5, 2010 5:33 pm

    Sounds like an interesting book. I like how honest it sounds.

    Peace and Laughter!

  7. November 5, 2010 11:39 pm

    I was not aware that the Little Mermaid was particularly fast in competition swimming.

    The impression I got – and this is from Andersen and Disney – is that Ariel felt very inferior to the human species, especially in terms of attraction.

    (This is unlike the Sirens, who were always calling out adventurous men. Lorelei was a shiny one!)

    Thinking about 50s and 60s “bad mothers”, I am thinking a lot about Betty Draper from Mad Men. She is portrayed as a “bad” mother because she seems to lack certain elements. She seems to provide for her kids well enough physically, but probably not so much emotionally. She sometimes has the sense to see when she might need help from somewhere else.

    The feminists I tend to remember had a very adventurous sexuality (which does not seem to be confined to a life stage or a time), like Germaine Greer and Simone de Beauvoir. Ocassionally they can be child-positive, as in Greer’s description of a “child village” where multiple women and men share the raising of the children.

  8. November 6, 2010 12:23 am

    Wasn’t this a thought-provoking book? I think even if you don’t agree with a lot of what she says, you can find some area where you’ll either nod your head or recognize a moment in your own life. And it would be a fantastic book club pick … so much to talk about that I could imagine you could sit and talk for hours.

  9. November 6, 2010 2:51 am

    I feel like there are tons and tons of books about motherhood, but I loved it that Waldman was able to be so honest about all kinds of things that were unflattering to her – without seeming like she was unaware of how unflatteringly she was portraying herself.

  10. stacybuckeye permalink
    November 15, 2010 9:47 pm

    I just picked this one up last week when I bought some other parenting and baby books. Can’t wait to find the time to read it!

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