This review was written by contributing writer Thuy Dinh, a practicing attorney and an editor of the webzine Da Mau. She is also a mother of three.
Ayelet Waldman, wife of Michael Chabon, is no stranger to controversy. She became notorious by publicly admitting that she loves her husband more than her kids and wishing that her son will turn out gay (he’s the same son who likes to give his mother long “movie kisses” and wishes to marry her when he grows up). Waldman’s new essay collection, Bad Mother: A Chronicle of Maternal Crimes, Minor Calamities, and Occasional Moments of Grace, is occasionally thoughtful but most of the time dull and relentless—not unlike Chinese water torture—no, worse, perhaps more like waterboarding.
Waldman, who compares her “unnaturalness” to Anna Karenina (but admits she lacks the impulse to fling herself under the wheels of a train), acknowledges that at times she puts her own “selfish” and “[not] insignificant needs” before her children’s needs. Indeed, this collection, like Waldman’s description of her bipolar disorder, reflects a “mixed-state” enterprise: It is neither literary memoir nor a consciousness-raising tract. Anticipating itself as a book club selection, the book helpfully includes a list of discussion questions at the back. The last question is, “Why do you think the author chose to write this book? Do you think it was successful in its aims?”
I was stumped when I got to that question. In an Amazon interview, Waldman said her purpose is to commiserate with other mothers who march to a different drummer and are crippled by guilt. She also said her “snarky” purpose for writing this book is to say “F**k you” to all those mothers who judge her. But this is disingenuous because her writing reeks of her desperately wanting to be liked.
It seems Waldman doesn’t truly believe she’s a bad mother, only a quirky one, as she spends over 200 pages trying to prove that she, despite her bottomless need for attention and affirmation, is aware, sincere and loving. One moment she hooks you with her astute analysis that a mother’s conflicted role comes from a lack of delegation and an ill-defined role for her husband, the next moment she drones on about the discomfort of using paid, Third-World domestic help to ease her burdens. There’s something faintly hypocritical about the need to disclose that she has to hire a second maid to clean after the first one because Waldman has neither the heart to fire the former nor the spine to show her how to clean house.
The only insight I seem to gain from the book is a negative one. Waldman mainly succeeds in proving to readers her manic compulsion. It dominates her core: her early promiscuity, her insecurity, her jealousy—of her future mother-in-law for having weekly lunches with Chabon during their courtship days, of her baby daughter for having quality time with her husband. Even if one manages to remain non-judgmental, how should one process Waldman’s revelations? What she probably intends as honest and complex just comes off chaotic and alienating. Granted, a writer is not expected to be perfect, but Waldman should at least show some groundedness in her writing to convince her readers of gutsier and truer ways to define motherhood.
The recent trend, when so-called “bad mothers” try to outdo each other in confessing war tales both true and tall from the domestic front, makes one almost long to be born into the age of Mad Men, when emotional repression—reflected in wonderful literary dialogues—seemed, well, glamorous, more interesting and less cruel than the relentless push for neurotic analysis and over-sharing.