Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Bad Mother

I was a third of the way through the ARC of Ayelet Waldman's memoir Bad Mother (courtesy of the Kenyon college bookstore) before I realized--because she says it--that she's married to Michael Chabon, author of Summerland and therefore one of my favorite writers. So I continued reading with heightened interest.

Not that I wasn't pretty much absorbed from the first page, when she reveals "I busted my first Bad Mother in the spring of 1994, on a Muni train in San Francisco." How many times have we all done that? I think I busted my first Bad Mother in the fall of 1993, at 9 pm on an ordinary Wednesday night in Wal-Mart. I was buying disposable diapers, my own new baby safely at home in her crib with her father in the next room. The toddler in the cart ahead of mine was clearly tired, wailing and being ignored by her harrassed young mother. I will never do that, I thought. And then, like all mothers, I proceeded from the disposable diapers to even bigger maternal sins. Let she who is without sin cast the first vote for Bad Mother of the Year. Ayelet Waldman has twice the opportunity for Bad Mothering that I do, because she has two more children. No matter how bad your life as a Mother may have gotten, I can almost guarantee that reading about Waldman's experiences will give you the company that misery loves, as it did for me.

My experience of reading Bad Mother was fascinatingly illuminated by my surroundings; I was accompanying my just-13-year-old son to his first big chess tournament. As I opened my book and began reading during the "Simul," in which chess masters and grand masters play up to twenty challengers at one time, a woman I'd nodded to earlier as our sons struck up an acquaintance came over to me and told me what lovely manners my son has. As I beamed, she asked "is he home schooled?" and when I said no, she looked surprised, saying something about how home schooled children tend to be more polite than others. Strike one for me at the Bad Mother competition, with consolation points for the compliment.

The tournament weekend provided the right context for me to read this book. My husband had to be in Chicago and my son was missing a soccer game. The three-hour car trip to the city where the tournament was held had to be coordinated with my daughter's play rehearsal and set building schedule, her overnight with a friend, and care of all our pets. All of our trips necessitated fast food meals--Bad Mother points. But Waldman reminds me that "jugglers invariably drop balls, and no matter the persistent criticism of the Bad Mother police, balls do bounce. When they fall, all you need to do is pick them up and throw them back up in the air."

And Waldman reassures me that I'm not the only mother to ever do specific bad things to my children. How? By telling about all the bad things she's done! And they're not all minor, I assure you. The chapter about Rocketship is particularly brave, as I know of few other mothers who can compete with her in that particular mode of Bad Motherhood. One part I found especially reassuring is when she says "The capacity for extravagant emotion that Michael finds so attractive in me can be exhausting, especially to a child. My moods are mercurial, and this can be terrifying. I know, because I was a daughter of a mother with a changeable temperament." So was I, Ayelet, and I know exactly what you mean. Also I know a number of mothers who have said almost exactly what you say when they found out what was causing some problem for their child: "I felt so ashamed of all the times I had berated him...."

The chapter about homework was balm to my soul on a busy April weekend: "apparently, by slaving over homework with my son, I am expressing to him how important school is. (Of course, this rationale assumes that I'm not also expressing audible rage at his teacher, or muttering curses about the authors of his math textbook.)" I also loved her separation of little girls' Halloween costumes into two main categories: "cereal box" or "ho." And I enjoyed her common sense: "Because while I fear that making promiscuity sound beguiling and chic will lead them astray, I also know that the best way to ensure that your children dispense with your advice is to exaggerate the damage of the activity you want them to avoid." Kind of like the Health Teacher in the movie Mean Girls ("Don't have sex. You'll die."), or the reaction to the anti-gay-marriage "Gathering Storm" video that was taken off YouTube because everyone laughed at it (see the parody, "Gaythering Storm" here).

Bad Mother is scheduled to go on sale May 5, 2009. If you've ever busted a Bad Mother, you want to read it... and you want to tell me about your Bad Mother busts! Because we're all in this together, even if some of us are more polite about it than others.


Claudiab said...

Oh, a definite "must read."

Karen said...

I haven't had opportunity for TOO many Bad Mother moments. I broadcast the first, best one on Facebook, though. "Karen [Myname] made ALL the babies cry." How? With my own special awesomeness. And my son's super-charisma that leads all other under-ones in a 25-foot radius to go bananas if he cries.

Alison said...

This one is now on my list of "books to read someday when I am allowed to read for fun again."

Florinda said...

I'm about two-thirds done with this ARC myself and enjoying it tremendously. Ayelet Waldman really gets it.

I've known who she's married to for a few years now...and I have to admit that part of my fascination with her and her writing (I've read her last two novels as well) stems from my long-standing literary crush on her husband :-). I'm sure that makes me a bad...something :-).

Great review!

Cschu said...

When my first child was about 5 months old, I decided to take her and the dog out for a walk. So I put the leash on the dog, picked up the baby, and headed outside. When I got to the door, I put the dog's leash in the same hand I was using to hold the baby and turned around to close the door with my other hand. What did the puppy do? He hightailed it out into the beautiful, spring day, pulling the un-wary hand holding the leash away from my body. The baby? Flat on her back from upright adult height. (Don't laugh, Jeanne, I really do qualify as adult height!) Then there was the 3 second pause. . . followed by the scream. You've all heard it, right? That moment where the baby can't breathe and then....BAD MOM!!!!

PAJ said...

It was Chicago in the winter; my daughter was 4 months old. I took her to the county health clinic for 4-month vaccinations (as instructed by our pediatrician, who said his office charged too much, and we ought to save our money for other things). I was the oldest mom there by several years and probably was feeling a bit superior about my wisdom and mothering skills. The shots were given, and I picked up my baby to go, at which time the nurse said, "Where's her coat?" Well, she wasn't wearing one because I hadn't put one on her. Instead, I had wrapped her in a baby blanket that was hand-knit by my aunt and perhaps the warmest blanket I have ever seen. But it was no use. I was busted as BAD MOM.

Jeanne said...

Florinda, I've been thinking about how to write about the literary crush--I was thinking of characters, but I know what you mean about authors. It's fun to tell them how much you like their books, and it's even more fun to get an answer--kind of like what Holden Caulfield wants at the end of Catcher in the Rye, to call the author up and talk to him.

Karen, Cschu and PAJ: Those are great bad mom stories. I just love hearing other peoples'--the ones we'll tell.

Teena said...

One of my friends is glad that most Americans don't speak Hungarian. Her 3 year old throws tempter tantrums in places like the grocery store and yells (in Hungarian) "You are such a BAD MOM" over and over.... She is at a loss since her first child is so polite and well mannered.

bermudaonion said...

This sounds like one I would enjoy! Great review.