Genre: Non-Fiction Memoir, Parenting, Essays
My rating: 4 stars
For the All in the Family part of the Take Another Chance Challenge, I had to read two books by writers who were related to each other in some way. I chose Michael Chabon (the husband) and Ayelet Waldman (the wife). Today, I’m going to write about the wife’s book.
Subtitled “A Chronicle of Maternal Crimes, Minor Calamities and Occasional Moments of Grace,” Bad Mother is a warts-and-all look at Waldman’s experiences as a mother. (She has four children.) These types of books are like catnip to me. What mother doesn’t want to learn that she is not alone in her misgivings about her mothering skills?
Waldman writes openly and honestly about a wide variety of topics, including:
- pursuing a career versus staying at home (Waldman gave up a high-powered career as a lawyer to stay-at-home … only to find herself often bored out of her mind! HAHA! Don’t I know it!)
- balancing household chores and sex roles with your partner (Can we ever really break through the “this is woman’s work” and “this is men’s work”?)
- breast-feeding (more on this below)
- judging other mothers (more on this below)
- the mother-son relationship and how it affects the relationship with your mother-in-law (I still don’t quite measure up to how my husband’s mom used to take care of him … especially when he is sick.)
- dealing with your children’s homework (where do you draw the line?)
- projecting your own fears and hopes on your children (Waldman writes about her outrage and subsequent attempt to ban dodgeball in her children’s gym class … but her children loved it. She was fighting a fight from her own childhood.)
- dealing with daughters and sex issues (Waldman explores her own sexual history … and how she hopes her daughters don’t make the same choices she did.)
- having an abortion for a child who might be born with genetic defects (This chapter, entitled “Rocketship,” is easily the most heart-breaking and difficult to read.)
- arguing in front of your kids (They are listening … don’t fool yourself that they are not.)
- how honest to be with your kids (Just how do you handle the sex/drug talk if you want to be totally honest about your past but impart a “do as a I say, not as I did” message?)
- being a different mom for different kids (In other words, how she wasn’t the same mother she was for her first-born as for her last-born.)
- handing down a genetic legacy to your children that is less than perfect (Waldman writes about her own bipolar disorder and fear of passing it to her children.)
- parenting a child who might be gay (This felt like the least genuine chapter to me; it felt more like a political essay than a personal one.)
- baby lust (Those tiny baby feet will get you every time!)
- wanting to protect your children from the ugliness of the world (This is an issue that Mr. Jenners and I struggle with. There is a fine line between keeping your children safe and making them “street savvy” and scaring them into thinking the world is an unsafe, bad place.)
- managing your expectations/hopes/dreams for your children. (I struggle with this every day, and I imagine it is only going to get worse.)
As you can see, the book ranges over a wide variety of topics and delves into some deep and emotional issues. I admire Waldman’s honesty and directness. She really put herself out there with this book. I suspect that if you don’t share Waldman’s basic worldview (liberal), you might not care for much of what she has to say or appreciate where she is coming from in life. Yet I think most mothers would find some area of common ground with Waldman, and I think her message of “let’s all be gentler with ourselves and one another” is one we should all take to heart.
Structurally, the book is divided into 18 different chapters, with each one functioning as a stand-alone essay. Most of the essays are very personal and specific to Waldman’s life and background; yet I think she has a knack for making her personal experiences relatable.
This is one of those books where I could go on and on about the ideas and thoughts I had while reading it. But I’ll limit myself to discussing just two areas—judging other mothers and breast-feeding. These sections really don’t have much to do with the book review. Rather, I’m including it because this is the kind of book that incites you to have opinions and relate your own experiences as a woman and a mother. If this isn’t of interest to you, just skip on down to My Final Recommendation.
Thoughts On Judging Other Mothers
Waldman writes about how so many of us are quick to become the Bad Mother police—so eager and willing to slap the label of “Bad Mother” on others (or even ourselves). She talks about (in)famous “Bad Mothers” such as Britney Spears, Andrea Yates and Susan Smith. When we see these types of mothers, we think: “Well, at least I’m not that bad. I didn’t lose custody/drown my children/drive my children into a lake.” Waldman also writes about the characteristics of a Good Mother (including infinite patience, self-sacrifice and an “everything for my kids” attitude that is, quite frankly, impossible to achieve) and how a Good Father doesn’t have nearly as high an expectation put on him. She talks about how we flagellate ourselves and hold ourselves (and others) up to impossible standards. She asks: “Can’t we just try to give ourselves and each other a break?”
Lord knows I can relate to this! Ever since I became the Little One’s mother, I have harbored doubts about my own mothering instincts and skills. After all, I was a mother who had never changed a diaper until she had her own child. The first few weeks, it was literally “OK… I kept him alive another day.” Gradually, I began to relax and gain some confidence in myself. But I still doubt myself and berate myself for my “not-so-good” mothering moments. Reading this book was like finding another mother willing to admit her doubts and dark moments.
Too often, I think mothers tend to present a “my kids always sleep through the night and eat nutritious food and play independently and speak 4 foreign languages” facade to other mothers—leaving those of us who aren’t quite as together feeling even more inadequate than we are. And yet, at the same time, I also catch myself feeling smug when my child behaves better than another child at the playground or when I see older children walking around with pacifiers at the age of 5. The nastiness and comparisons that we make about ourselves and others is brutal! I wholeheartedly agree with Waldman: Let’s give each other and ourselves a break!
Thoughts On Breast-Feeding
Waldman writes extensively about her experiences and struggles with breast-feeding. Let me tell you, she went way above the call of duty (in my opinion) to breastfeed her children. I’ve personally found this to be one of those dividing issues among mothers. Quite frankly, some people are so gung-ho about breast-feeding that they can be very nasty and critical to those who either choose not to do it or cannot do it.
I had every intention of breast-feeding the Little One, but we had a ton of problems from the get go. Every feeding was a horror as I struggled to feed him. Each feeding felt like it took forever, and I was constantly trying new techniques and tools. As a team, we were awful. At six weeks, my husband was coming home every day to find me in tears and frustrated about how long it was taking to feed the baby. He finally ordered me to stop and start giving the Little One formula. I gave in but felt incredibly guilty—both at my immense relief and the fact that I didn’t tough it out longer. But it changed everything; feeding the baby now took 10 minutes instead of an hour. I was able to sleep a bit more. It turned everything around for us. But when I told the lactation consultant, I felt such a sense of judgment from her—almost as if I was choosing to hurt my child. I was so vulnerable at the time that it never occurred to me that perhaps this woman had her own agenda and that I didn’t need to take her criticism to heart. I know that since that experience, I go out of my way to encourage new mothers to be easy on themselves and consider formula if breast-feeding is difficult. I know I could have used a more understanding voice during that time. And, hey Ms. Judgemental Lactation Consultant, my Little One is turning out fine … even though he (gasp!) was fed formula!
My Final Recommendation
This is a thought-provoking and honest look at motherhood that will give readers lots to think about. Waldman doesn’t hold back anything, and I appreciated her candidness and openness. I’ve read a few books on motherhood, and I found this to be one of the most provocative. The writing is good (even if she does tend to meander a little bit), and she has a very conversational writing style. She is often funny and flippant, which balances out the more emotional moments. If this is a topic of interest to you, I would categorize it as a “must read.” However, Waldman’s views come from a more liberal, feminist angle so if this doesn’t mesh with your worldview, this book might not be the best choice for you. I’m giving it 4 stars.
The Whys and Wheres: Last year, I came across two reviews on the Book Lady’s Blog—one for this book and one for Michael Chabon’s Manhood for Amateurs. I decided I wanted to read both of them and then, lo and behold, one of the challenges I created featured this All in the Family angle. Coincidence or self-serving sneakiness on my part? I’ll never tell! I bought the book for my Kindle so no giveaway.
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