Thursday, March 4, 2010

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

I wanted to hate this book. To be honest, there has always been something about Ayelet Waldman that gets under my skin. It started with her essay, years ago, in the New York Times, that told of how, even after years of marriage, her sex life with her husband remains supercharged, and how she loves him more than her four children. Maybe my beef with Ms. Waldman, on behalf of the rest of us who are "married with children", with sex lives not quite as, um, robust as hers, is simply that I'm the teeniest bit jealous.

Ayelet Waldman is shocking. She is completely fearless. She speaks of losing her virginity at a young age and of all the sexual experiences that followed. She confesses to suffering from bipolar illness. We read of her agonizing decision to have an abortion in the face of an abnormal result on a prenatal genetic test. Ayelet Waldman dishes with an unapologetic assuredness.

Still, I have to hand it to her. There's much more than just salacious shock value in these pages. She can write and she can tell a great story and I found myself identifying with her as she shines the light on her failings as a mother. She begins with a broad brush, showing how becoming a mother changed her, as it does every woman, so fundamentally. She laments that we are so quick to rush to judgment, to give other women demerits on motherhood's scorecard. She perfectly captures the unwavering stridency found in some among us who cling to certain precepts of mothering, such as breastfeeding, or attachment parenting, with a religious fervor. She beautifully shows, through her own experience, how motherhood brings our own childhoods back to us, crashing down all around.

Other essays delve into narrower, more mundane topics, such as working mothers, and housecleaning duties, but are always told through the lens of her own experience, with humor and humility.

At the end, I guess my only real beef with Ayelet Waldman is that at times I found the attention to detail that makes her sentences so rich and her essays so thoughtful backfired. Although many of her "by the way" topics were relegated to footnote status, her rants on non-magnetic frig doors and the proper way to load a dishwasher sounded glib, and took away from the honest reflection of the rest of the material.

Overall, though, I have to admit I loved this book. Waldman may be the girl we resent because we wish we could be true to ourselves the way she is so true to herself. Maybe she shares too much, but I found her extreme brand of honesty refreshing. In being so unabashedly herself, she leveled the playing field, making it okay for the rest of us to do the same. The essays in Bad Mother brought to the forefront aspects of being female and this all-encompassing role of mother that I hadn't ever found words to describe, and for that I am grateful.

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