Commiserating with a Bad Mother

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I love to read, but reading books has been a challenge for me this year. Staying focused, during the brief moments when I’m actually able to read uninterrupted, is the first challenge.  The second is remembering what I’ve read when I am finally return to a book hours, or days, or weeks later. So, when I picked up Ayelet Waldman’s Bad Mother: A Chronicle of Maternal Crimes, Minor Calamities, and Occasional Moments of Grace, I was delighted to discover that each chapter is really rather independent of the others, meaning that I didn’t need to have perfect recall in order to follow a plot.  Reading her book was like having a conversation while your kids are in the room, which is to say, I was often interrupted, but when I came back, we’d pick up right where we’d left off.  In this book, Ayelet discussed her views on everything from Mommy Wars, the fantasy of the Good Mother, feminism and how her actions sometimes were in conflict with her views on the subject, Attachment Parenting, breastfeeding, sex, how she met and chose her husband, and how she knew he was “the one”, the division of labor in the home, her relationship with her mother in law, abortion, mental illness, how being a mother changes as we age and gain some on the job experience, homosexuality, patriotism, Barack Obama, family size, having certain expectations for her children, and various other parenting issues, such why fighting with your spouse is not the worst thing you can do to your kids. But mostly, she talked about how all of these things relate to how she sees herself as a mother, and how others see her as a mother.  It is just over 200 pages long, and there is a book club version available.

Not only did I not know anything about this book when my husband brought it home from the bookshelf at work, but I also didn’t know anything about the author.  I went in a blank slate, and I that was probably for the best.  When you get to know people in real life, you often don’t know where they stand on hot button issues, which I think is why we are willing to take a chance and get to know people.  After reading it, I googled the author, and learned that Ayelet seems to be the type of person that people either love, or hate.  She is a gifted writer, and surely has many fans, but a quick internet search of her name, or any number of her popular essays, shows that she also has many detractors.  If you look up this book on Amazon, reviews are quite polar. She discusses her “haters” in the book, and seems to take them in stride.

The general pretense in this book is that mothers strive to match the perfect ideal of The Good Mother, but in reality, this goal is impossible to achieve, as the mother that we strive to be is based on a fictitious notion.  Since our idea of the good mother is beyond what we can achieve, we privately beat ourselves up about the many ways in which we perceive ourselves to be falling short.  What’s more, though, is that we beat each other up, although not so privately, and more so, seek out examples in the media and in our community, to showcase as further evidence that we, being better than them, ARE  not so bad after all.  While I agree that the goal of “Good Mother” is out of anyone’s reach, it won’t stop me from trying to a better mother (although I’m glad to think that I’m not the only one who finds themselves falling impossibly short of meeting the mark).

In discussing the fictitious notion of The Good Mother, the author goes on to discuss all of the ways in which she herself feels that she has fallen short.  I didn’t feel that this was a “poor me” confessional, but rather, an honest memoir that made me chuckle, cry, and reflect on myself as a woman, a wife, and a mother.

This book sent me go through a range of emotions.  I found myself nodding passionately in agreement when she described the astronomical differences between A Good Father, and A Good Mother, namely that A Good Father is a realistic goal that men can easily meet simply with the gift of their presence, whereas A Good Mother, by her definition, is an impossible standard that women will most certainly fail to reach.  I identified with her when she discussed how she feels that women can lose their sense of self in the throws of motherhood, defining themselves by how they feel they measure up  in comparison to this impossible ideal of the Good Mother , and  I agreed with her when she called the so called “Attachment Parents” out on being the largest offenders in the Mommy Wars, because that’s also been my experience.  I sympathized with her regarding leaving a much loved career to take on the world that encompasses being a stay at home mother, and the notion that feminist teachings didn’t exactly tell the whole truth when it said that women could “have it all”.  I found myself tearing up reading her chapter on her relationship with her oldest son, and her competition with her mother in law, thinking about how one day, my own sons’ future wives will indeed win the war for superiority in my boys’ lives. I sobbed when I read the chapter entitled Rocketship, which tells of her experience and the emotions surrounding her own elective abortion.

I loved reading the chapters that spoke of her parenting ventures.  There’s no advice in this book, at least I didn’t think that she was trying to dish out any, and that’s one of the reasons why I enjoyed it. Let’s be honest: there’s enough people giving out parenting advice, often unsolicited.  Rather, it felt more like the author’s journey towards catharsis.  It was like having a girl’s night, the kind where one person gets to hold the spotlight for an evening, and just lets it all hang out.  In the end, I really did feel like I had gotten to know her, and could be her friend.

Which is to say that I don’t always agree with everything that my friends do or say.  It was evident that some of her politics are polar opposite of my own, but, as is my tendency in real life, I don’t eliminate friends based on politics alone.  I wouldn’t parent my children in all of the same ways in which Ayelet professes to parent hers, but I will admit that some of her methods made me raise an eyebrow thinking that perhaps she was on to something.

Bad Mother: A Chronicle of Maternal Crimes, Minor Calamities, and Occasional Moments of Grace was a book that I enjoyed due to its format, content, and sentiments.  I felt that it was written from the vantage point of a mother that doesn’t fit neatly into a certain category, which I identified greatly with.  While Ayelet Waldman is clearly not a bad mother, I think many of us can identify with feeling that we’re still a parenting work in progress, and I’d recommend this book if you are looking for a nonfiction read that isn’t quite as mindless as a months worth of Facebook updates, but probably is more enjoyable.

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  1. Pingback: since today does not really exist « South of the Fork

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