"Bad Mother: A chronicle of maternal crimes, minor calamities and occasional moments of grace" by Ayelet Waldman

Book review: Lots of honesty, little sympathy, from Mother Waldman

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The title of this book is an overstatement. Ayelet Waldman is not a bad mother by any meaningful definition.

She's a Harvard Law School graduate and former public defender who left her law career to raise her four children full time and to become a writer ("The Mommy Track" mystery series), like her husband, the Pulitzer-Prize winning novelist Michael Chabon.

But here's an understatement: There's no shortage of writing about motherhood these days.

"Bad Mother:
A chronicle of maternal crimes, minor calamities and occasional moments of grace"

By Ayelet Waldman
Doubleday ($24.95)

Witness the groaning board of the Mother's Day display table at your local bookstore, or Google "motherhood" and surf the thousands of new Web sites and blogs devoted to the world's oldest profession (depending on your take on Eve).

So it takes some chutzpah, some compelling literary mission (not to mention an arresting title), to chance chucking another book onto this maternal pile. Waldman, in this collection of 18 thoughtful essays, has all three.

Her title of "Bad Mother" is self-bestowed, reflecting the internalized criticism that seems to be the hallmark of our generation of mothers (and that has in large part created the market for all those books).

But Waldman has further claim. She became infamous for 15 minutes in 2005 when she dared to write in The New York Times that she loves her husband more than she loves her children.

Oprah and the blogosphere then held court. The final verdict was, as is common to the contemporary discussion of motherhood, ambivalent:

"Ayelet Waldman is not a Bad Mother, but, really, she shouldn't have said that in print."

And why not? In this, the Tell-All age, is truth-telling off limits to mothers? Is the mere act of writing honestly about one's children enough to put you in the Mommy slammer?

This is the question that compelled Waldman to explore other no-fly zones in the consideration of what it means to be a modern mother: What if breast isn't best?

Waldman writes about her decision to quit breastfeeding her last child, who was born with a malformed palate, and speculates on the meaning of the tremendous pressure she felt to continue.

What if my child isn't "gifted?" A brave essay in this book, called "The Life I Want for Them" addresses this twisted, unspoken parental anxiety. Waldman is honest but also careful as she considers the burden of high expectations (your mother went to Harvard; your father won a Pulitzer Prize) on her own kids, especially a son with mild learning difficulties.

What if my child is "gay"? Here, Waldman makes another outrageous statement: "I hope my son grows up to be gay."

Light and frank, this essay explores her lifelong affinity for gay men, admires her own husband's straight "sissiness," and fantasizes about having an adult son she can go shopping with. Many readers will wince at the public airing of such a private view, especially concerning a child. Is it politically correct?

Incorrect? I don't know. "Bracing" is the word that comes to mind.

The most courageous essay is "Rocketship," which outlines the process by which she and Chabon decided to terminate a four-month pregnancy.

Here is where her literary ambition, quite distinct from an ambition for fame, shines through. The essay is devastating in its emotional precision. In the true spirit of this literary form, it doesn't ask us to admire the author. Rather, it wants simply to be of use, perhaps to those facing a similar dilemma.

I suspect that much of what is written these days about being a mother is useful to the mothers who need to unload a lot of anxiety, but less so for the surfer in the information sea.

Contrarily, Waldman's essays in "Bad Mother" are tight, well-reasoned, self-deprecating, and most important, they feel true.

Good mother? Bad mother? That's a distracting question, when there's so much important work mothers have to do, developing the Earth's next generation. With her craft, courage, and wit, Ayelet Waldman asks us all to grow up.

Kristin Kovacic is the editor of "Birth: A Literary Companion" and teaches in the Literary Arts Department of the Pittsburgh High School for the Creative and Performing Arts.


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