Who is a good mother? Is it a woman who stays home, always
making herself available, cooking fresh meals and ensuring that the
needs of her children come first? Or is it an ambitious woman, one
who teaches through her example, professional pursuits and
intellectual curiosities? Does a good mother combine these
characteristics? Are these paradigms useful at all?
In her latest book, BAD MOTHER, Ayelet Waldman suggests that
defining good mothers or good mothering may be beside the point: it
is too slippery a topic, too nuanced and too emotionally fraught.
Instead, in this poignant collection of 18 essays, she explores the
idea of motherhood by turning the lens inward and sharing her
personal parenting triumphs and failures. In the end, it seems good
mothers are loving people who do their very best.
Waldman begins by looking at how easy it is to judge mothers.
From celebrity mothers (the saints and the sinners) to criminal
mothers, from high-powered career moms to very involved
stay-at-home moms, American society judges and finds fault with
them all. Waldman herself was villanized by the press and people
across the country after infamously writing that she loved her
husband more than her four children. In BAD MOTHER she explains
herself (and stands by her statement), but also shares how it made
her feel to be attacked for revealing her thoughts and emotions.
The book goes on to detail her life as a mother, and readers are
left with no doubt that she indeed loves her children.
In reading BAD MOTHER Waldman's comment is put in perspective:
we get an intimate glimpse into her family dynamic. She wittily and
honestly delves into her relationship with her husband, writer
Michael Chabon, and lovingly discusses the differences in her four
children. She ponders that fragile relationship between a wife and
mother-in-law, and unpacks the relationship she has with her
mother-in-law. She examines her bond with her own mother and
touches upon the obligatory topic of preschool politics.
Waldman's book is most compelling and challenging when she
bravely writes about two topics oft-ignored in the tomes of
motherhood: the abortion she chose to have and her struggles with
bi-polar disorder. These essays, especially the one about aborting
her unborn child (dubbed “Rocketship”), may offend some
readers. But, as Waldman makes abundantly clear, motherhood is full
of moral, physical and emotional peril, and even good mothers
cannot avoid it all. Some will undoubtedly judge Waldman for her
decisions (and for her decision to write about them), but the
open-hearted and open-minded will find a woman both strong and
sensitive, a mother of fierce love and self-doubt, a book worth
reading, and a description of the complexities of motherhood that
will be familiar.
While it sometimes verges on self-indulgent, what
autobiographical essays don't? Waldman's writing style is smooth
and light-handed, even in the most painful passages. BAD MOTHER is
often funny, though the subject is serious. Overall, this is a
thoughtful and thought-provoking book sure to get tongues wagging
in judgment and heads nodding in understanding.
Reviewed by Sarah Rachel Egelman on December 22, 2010