Sunday, September 26, 2010

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

Bad Mother: A Chronicle of Maternal Crimes, Minor Calamities, and Occasional Moments of GraceBad Mother: A Chronicle of Maternal Crimes, Minor Calamities, and Occasional Moments of Grace by Ayelet Waldman

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

So many things about Ayelet Waldman's book of essays rang true for me. I loved this book.

She organizes it into 18 chapters, 18 being a significant number in the Jewish faith. Each chapter tackles a different topic related to her experience of motherhood.

Waldman was a lightning rod on the internet a few years ago, when she published an essay saying that she loved her husband more than her children. She went on to say that if one of her children were to die, she would survive somehow, but it would be vastly more difficult to survive her husband's death.

Frankly, I don't even want to consider such questions, which reflects my tendency to avoid thinking of such potentially difficult subjects. But is it really so horrible to say that she loves her husband more than her children? After all, he came first. I remember, growing up, that my parents' relationship was primary in our family. They always made the time to go out on dates and spend time alone. It was their opportunity for recharging. This never upset me (except on a few occasions when we were left over the weekend with people we didn't know very well).

Ayelet Waldman was raked over the coals and pilloried on the internet for making such a statement. She was called a "bad mother," both literally and by suggestion. This experience, along with her realization that women are apt to label each other such, prompted her to write this book.

Here's what resonated with me:

Chapter 1: Waldman's admitted sanctimony before she had children...when she saw a woman speaking harshly to her woman on a Muni train...and she informed the woman that everyone was watching her. She then goes on to talk about how readily we label women as "bad mothers," while all a man has to do to be called a "good father" is to simply show up and be present. Rarely are men labeled as "bad fathers" unless they have abandoned their families or are drug addicts or criminals. The standards are completely different for men and women. There are no "daddy wars."

Chapter 2: She describes the moment when she first met her husband, writer Michael Chabon, on a blind date. He came to her door, and even though as a cynical soul she didn't believe in love at first sight, when she saw him, she knew he would be her soul mate. She uses the Yiddish term--bashert--the one that God, or fate, meant for you.
"The legend associated with this word says that before you are born, an angel appears to the soul of your infant self and takes you on a tour of your life. You visit your future, or a version of your future. One of the things the angel shows you is the person whose soul is a match for yours. The person with whom you are meant to share your life. Then the angel strikes you beneath your nose, leaving that subtle channel in the skin between the nose and the mouth, your philtrum. The blow causes you to forget what you have seen. But there remains a vestige of memory, an unconscious sense of what you saw and learned. Enough of a memory to evoke a jolt of recognition when you stumble across your bashert..."
I love this description, because it describes so well how I felt about my own Michael when I first met him and began getting to know if we had been destined to meet and join together.

I also enjoyed Waldman's description of how she multi-tasked while breast pumping...that was me, for so many months and years of my life! Fortunately I didn't have to deal with young men barging in on me to sneak a peek at my breasts, as Waldman did in her law office.

Chapter 3: Waldman devotes a chapter to her (and her husband's) growing up to "Free to Be You and Me." And here is my only criticism of the book. She claims that "Free to Be You and Me" is faulty grammar, and actually titles the chapter "Free to Be You and I," which she claims is correct. I beg to differ: "Free to Be You and Me" is correct. The grammatical error in that song is "And you and me are free to be you and me," which should be "And you and I are free to be you and me."

But anyway...I loved the descriptions of that wonderful book, record, and TV program, which was the backdrop of my own childhood. I too could recite "Ladies First" by heart. I remember my sister saving up all her money to purchase a copy of the record for our beloved teacher, Mr. Sposito (I had him in 3rd grade and she had him in 2nd), when we invited him over to dinner--one of the highlights of our childhood!

When I had my own children, I sought out and purchased the video for them. Even if my husband didn't grow up on "Free to Be You and Me," he could have, given his full commitment to being an equal partner in our marriage and parenting.

Chapter 9: She writes of her anxiety about her children getting excited about dodge ball, because she had painful memories of that game. She called the children's gym teacher to protest, armed with the facts (the National Association for Sport & Physical Education had issued a position paper on dodge ball, claiming that it was an inappropriate activity for K-12, because it targets and eliminates weaker kids).

She eventually had to give up her fight when she learned that not only did her kids love dodge ball, but no one else was complaining. (As a fellow dodge ball hater, I question that...there must have been kids at that school who didn't like the game, but they were being quiet, like I was.)

Chapter 10: Waldman's anecdote about receiving a bonus package of condoms and installing them in her children's bedroom, to their horror, reminds me of a friend of ours in Japan, whose mother would arrive from England with a box of condoms for him.

Chapter 11: She poignantly writes about experiencing a pregnancy in which the baby was suspected to have a serious chromosomal defect, and their decision to terminate. This is never an easy choice for parents, and I admire Waldman's courage in writing about this, including her own doubts and guilt about their well as their grief for their lost child, Rocketship. She also points out that when our mothers' generation was fighting for the right to choose, they didn't have to "confront the ugly physical reality." They didn't have ultrasounds and get the opportunity to see their babies on screen and form emotional attachments to them. I've never been the pro-choice advocate who insists that a fetus is not a baby. After giving birth to a 24-weeker and experiencing multiple miscarriages, I know all too well that a fetus is a baby. I still passionately believe in choice, but this knowledge makes the issues of abortion ever more painful and makes the issue far more complicated, with large areas of gray shading.

Chapter 14: When discovering during one of her next pregnancies that the baby was underweight (which could be an indicator of a fatal trisomy defect), she lets herself go to the dark side, for awhile. Then she goes to temple on Rosh Hashanah and listens to a sermon about hope and trusting in God. She suddenly had a moment of certain realization that her baby would be fine...even though she was the worst kind of pessimist. I could relate to this deep-down feeling--I had the same feeling when Chris was in the NICU. Even in spite of the dire predictions, I clung to my hope that he would be a healthy, happy child. That's not to say that my hope didn't ever falter, but with a few exceptions, that hope got me through the dark days. And my gut feeling was correct, just as Waldman's was.

Chapter 15: Waldman writes about hoping that one of her sons will be gay, because she thinks he will be closer to his mother that way. And she also won't have to compete with a daughter-in-law. I truly hope that I have some wonderful daughter-in-laws, but I confess to a few worries about that prospect. Will she drive my son away from me? Will she love us as much as he does? I get her concerns. Add to that the fact that gay men often tend to be more forthcoming and sensitive than straight men...and I get it.

Chapter 16: Maybe it's hormonal, maybe it's just loving babies. But I can relate to Waldman's baby lust. In my case, I know that three children is enough (four for her), but I can't help but feeling a bit of baby lust when I see a baby. Not that I want another one, mind you, but for a brief second, I remember the feel of that brand-new soft skin against mine, the complete helplessness and cuddliness of a newborn, and I have a moment of insanity.

Chapter 18: Finally, she writes about the parent who inevitably asks--at every back-to-school night, "What accommodations do you make for the exceptionally gifted child?" I love the way she confesses to her own secret hopes that her children will be brilliant and gifted, and then comes to realize that while they may not be brilliant on the standardized testing model, they are brilliant in other ways. While we are desperately wanting our children to be advanced or gifted in some way, we can miss the magic of everyday wonder. And so much emphasis on aggressive education and advanced learning can also reduce a child's chance to just be a child.

One of Waldman's sons has a "malformed palate"--and he nearly starves, or so she tells it. She talks about her intense guilt for missing this until it was almost too late (although the medical professionals missed it, too!), and her feelings of guilt because she had been taking medication during the pregnancy. She writes about her difficulties in getting him to eat--and so desperately wanting him to breastfeed--and I think of the struggles my own mother must have gone through when I was born with a cleft palate.

At first, I was marveling at Waldman's depth of revelation...even though some people who read my blogs might think that I reveal too much, actually I do hold back! But later I read about Waldman's bipolar diagnosis and her own fears that her children might end up with the same disorder, and it made more sense. Waldman herself admits that she has a tendency to "overshare" at times. This makes for better and more memorable writing, but it also sets her up to be a target and to be called a "bad mother."

Reading about the depth of love Waldman has for her children convinced me that she is anything but a "bad mother." We've all felt like bad mothers at times, and Waldman is no different.

But how many of us would be willing to share our warts and scabs for all the world to read? This book, clearly, is not for everyone...but I feel like I have found a new friend.

Finally, I love synchronicity. We are reading the Lemony Snicket series to our 7-year-old, Kieran, at the moment, and he is loving them. In Waldman's acknowledgements, she lists several people and then there is this line:

"To Daniel Handler (whose idea this was in the first place)..."
Daniel Handler is the author of the Lemony Snicket series. Is that not a perfect ending?

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