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Cannonball Read #8: Bad Mother

11/29/2009

I originally discovered Ayelet Waldman through her Mommy Track mysteries about eight or nine years ago. Her protagonist, Juliet Applebaum, was the frazzled mother of two (and later three), solving mysteries with one eye on her kids. The mysteries were cute, but Juliet’s funny struggle to keep her shit together – and be a good mother – is what was a big part of the attraction.

I’d read and loved the first two or three of the five, I think when I found out that Waldman was Michael Chabon’s wife. How cool was that!

I hadn’t read her other non-Mommy track novels, but when I found her newest book, Bad Mother at the library I jumped at the chance to read it. An honest look at motherhood with the subtitle: “A Chronicle of Maternal Crimes, Minor Calamities, and Occasional Moments of Grace,” this biography rang true for me in so many ways.

Waldman’s description of trying to sustain nursing a child while in the workplace was dead on. Those pumps are just not as efficient as a child, and it can be really hard to keep up with the child’s needs as they’re drinking breastmilk – more easily, I might add – from a bottle. With my first child, I really drove myself crazy, with taking tons of vitamins and herbs, getting up early to pump, and just a tense worry the whole time. The words “breast is best” were so strong in my mind that I really made myself crazy.

Since then, I’ve scrutinized the things I’ve done as a mother, tallying up bad vs. good. Kid gets in advanced placement? Score one for “good mommy.” Let child eat in front of the TV? Mark one on the “bad mommy” side. Waldman brings this issue to the forefront by discussing our nation’s obsession with bad mothers. Britney Spears? Andrea Yates? the Octomom?

To a certain extent, of course, we’ve always been both terrified and titillated by the Bad Mother. Think Euripides’ Medea and Agave, think Jocasta, think Joan Crawford. But I can’t help feel–and perhaps only because I’ve been tried and convicted of the crime–that there is something especially sharpened and hysterical about contemporary Bad Mother vitriol.

And why? Because the Andrea Yateses and Susan Smiths, the “crack hos” and the welfare moms, provide us with a profound personal service. By defining for us the kinds of mothers we’re not, they make it easier for us to stomach what we are.

Waldman’s book is not merely an essay on this topic. It’s her biography, and we find out about her dating Michael Chabon, her upbringing, their early marriage, her struggles with bipolar disorder, a child who could not breastfeed properly and was literally starving, and the termination of her pregnancy of a child with genetic disorders. Her writing is very witty and honest, and I wish I could write like that.

At the heart of it, though, Bad Mother does focus on her (and all of our) idea of what it means to be a good mother, the struggles, the mental anguish, and the joys and triumphs. It has made me take another look at how I perceive mothers out there in the world from the ones who make choices I wouldn’t have to the ones who seem to have it all together, to myself. In the end, Waldman’s last words are ones I’m trying to keep in mind.

…I think it’s worth trying to be a mother who delights in her who her children are, in their knock-knock jokes and earnest questions. A mother who spends less time obsessing about what will happen, or what has happened, and more time reveling in what is. A mother who doesn’t fret over failings and slights, who realizes that her worries and anxieties are just thoughts, the continuous chattering and judgement of a too busy mind. A mother who doesn’t worry so much about being bad or good, but just recognizes that she’s both, and neither. A mother who does her best, and for whom that is good enough, even if, in the end, her best turns out to be, simply, not bad.

Here’s to being “not bad.”

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