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

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

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by Ayelet Waldman

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In our mothers’ day there were good mothers, indifferent mothers, and occasionally, great mothers. Today we have only Bad Mothers: If you work, you’re neglectful; if you stay home, you’re smothering. If you discipline, you’re buying them a spot on the shrink’s couch; if you let them run wild, they will be into drugs by seventh grade. Is…  See more details below


In our mothers’ day there were good mothers, indifferent mothers, and occasionally, great mothers. Today we have only Bad Mothers: If you work, you’re neglectful; if you stay home, you’re smothering. If you discipline, you’re buying them a spot on the shrink’s couch; if you let them run wild, they will be into drugs by seventh grade. Is it any wonder so many women refer to themselves at one time or another as a “bad mother”?
Writing with remarkable candor, and dispensing much hilarious and helpful advice along the way—Is breast best? What should you do when your daughter dresses up as a “ho” for Halloween?—Ayelet Waldman says it's time for women to get over it and get on with it in this wry, unflinchingly honest, and always insightful memoir on modern motherhood.

From the Trade Paperback edition.

Editorial Reviews

If you're a mom, you're almost certainly a bad mom. Contradictory demands make any choice controversial: If you work, you're neglecting your kids. If you don't, you're probably smothering them or sending them mixed messages. If you discipline, you're twisting them for life. If you don't, you're being irresponsible. Ayelet Waldman's Bad Mother grapples in hilarious ways with questions that most of our grandparents never pondered: Will Megan's play group help propel her toward the Ivies? How do I wean the kids from fast food to organic? What is the proper homework/organized activity ratio? Remedial humor.

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Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
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1. Bad Mother
I busted my first Bad Mother in the spring of 1994, on a Muni train in San Francisco. She was sitting on the edge of her seat, her young daughter standing between her knees. She had two barrettes clamped between her lips and a hair elastic stretched around the fingers of one hand. With her other hand she was brushing the little girl's long dark hair, trying to gather the slippery strands into a neat ponytail. It was not going well. She would smooth one side and then lose her grip on the other, or gather up the hair in the front only to watch the hairs at the nape of the girl's neck slide free. The ride was rough, the Muni car bucking and jerking along, causing the little girl periodically to lose her footing. When the driver took a turn too sharply, the little girl stumbled forward, her sudden motion causing her mother once again to lose hold of the ponytail. With a frustrated click of her tongue, the mother yanked a handful of the girl's hair, hard, and hissed, "Stand still!"

That's when, indignant, confident that someday, when it was my turn to brush my own daughter's hair, I would never be so abusive, I leaned forward in my seat, caught the woman's eye, and said, in a voice loud enough for everyone in the train car to hear, "Lady, we're all watching you."

We are always watching: the Bad Mother police force, in a perpetual state of alert-level orange. Sometimes the avatars of maternal evil that come to obsess us are grave and terrible, like Andrea Yates, who was found not guilty by reason of insanity for drowning her five children in the bathtub. Sometimes our fixation on a particular Bad Mother has to do with our own racism, as in the national obsession in the 1980s with the mythical welfare queen, described by Ronald Reagan as a woman with "80 names, 30 addresses, [and] 12 Social Security cards," or the current hysteria about undocumented women giving birth to "anchor" babies in order to immunize themselves from deportation. Sometimes the crime is so lunatic that it approaches a kind of horrible grandeur, like that of Wendy Cook, a prostitute in Saratoga Springs who snorted cocaine off her baby's stomach while she was breast-feeding. (And here I've always been proud of being able to nurse and read at the same time!)

As soon as one Bad Mother fades from view, another quickly takes her place in the dock of the court of public opinion. Not long ago, the dingbat pop starlet Britney Spears was hoisted up as the latest agent of villainy. Her Bad Mother rap sheet is long and varied. It includes being committed to a psychiatric facility, losing visitation rights after failing to submit to court-mandated drug testing, driving with her infant son on her lap, and running in her car over the feet of photographers and sheriff's deputies. And apart from her legal troubles, there are her miscellaneous crimes of lifestyle. Her constant partying, her spendthrift ways ($737,000 every month!), and, most notoriously perhaps, her inexplicable refusal to wear undergarments. We can all agree, can't we, that Britney Spears is at best an incompetent mother and at worst a neglectful one. She's far worse than my first collar, the Medea of Muni, who pulled her daughter's hair on the J Church line. So why, then, do I find myself feeling like she's gotten a bit of a rough deal?

Perhaps because in a smaller way, at the periphery of the public eye, I was myself made to do the Bad Mother perp walk. For a Warholian fifteen I became fodder for the morning talk shows and gossip blogs, held up to scorn and ridicule as an example of maternal perfidy. My crime? Confessing in the pages of the New York Times style section to loving my husband more than my children.
In that essay I wondered about why so many of the women I knew were not having sex with their husbands, while I still was, and I concluded that it might be because they, unlike me, had refocused their passion from their husbands or partners onto their children. I wrote, "Libido, as she once knew it, is gone, and in its place is all-consuming maternal desire." And then I spent some time worrying about what was wrong with me: Why hadn't I successfully "made the erotic transition a good mother is supposed to make"? I said that if a Good Mother was one who loved her children more than anyone in the world, more even than her husband, then I was a Bad Mother, because I loved my husband more than my children.

The Bad Mother police were swiftly on the scene. They speculated publicly, down in the toxic mud of the comment sections on blog pages, that I was crazy, evil, a menace, that my children should be taken away from me. They cross-examined me on the set of Oprah. And New York City's elite Bad Mother SWAT team, the warrior shrews of, sank their pointy little incisors into my metaphorical ankles.

I feel enough of Spears's pain to find myself wondering at the genesis of our current obsession with these varied archetypical manifestations of maternal evil. To a certain extent, of course, we've always been both terrified and titillated by the Bad Mother. Think Euripides' Medea and Agave, think Jocasta, think Joan Crawford. But I can't help but feel--and perhaps only because I've been tried and convicted of the crime--that there is something especially sharpened and hysterical about contemporary Bad Mother vitriol. The frequency with which a new Bad Mother is unmasked, and the extent of our interest in each one, are, I believe, more than merely symptoms of the contemporary general degeneration of civility. While, granted, the human dum-dum bullets of message boards like UrbanBaby hardly exemplify the attitudes of the civil and decent core of American society, they do seem to distill to a vile essence what is a widespread societal preoccupation with Bad Mothers.
There is an appealing sociopolitical rationale for our preoccupation with Bad Mothers, one articulated to me by the feminist scholar and advocate Lynn Paltrow, founder and executive director of National Advocates for Pregnant Women. Getting us to focus on Bad Mothers, she says, is part of a larger political agenda to keep our attention off the truth--that it is not our mothers but our government that has failed us. The patriarchy and its political, media, and profit-making machines encourage us to scapegoat and vilify one bogeymama after another, because worrying about egregious freak-show moms like Wendy Cook and Britney Spears distracts us from the fact that, for example, President George W. Bush cheerfully vetoed a law that would have provided health insurance to four million uninsured children.

As persuasive as I find Paltrow's argument, something in me rebels at the notion that we can attribute our communal obsession primarily to the patriarchy. I agree with her that we are just at the very beginning of accepting the notion of gender equality (it's only been, as she says, "a microsecond in the course of history"). Still, the blare of condemnation that drowns out so much of civil discourse on the subject of mothering and child rearing originates not from some patriarchal grand inquisitor's office but, in large part, from individual women. And while women have always, historically, been the enforcers of acceptable social conduct, even when it was to their detriment (remember Abigail Williams, the lead accuser in the Salem witch trials?), an hour or two surfing the myriad of mommy blogs provides compelling support for the notion that, in this area at least, we women are the primary authors of our own subjugation. The Bad Mother cops with the most aggressive arrest records are women.

And why? Because the Andrea Yateses and Susan Smiths, the "crack hos" and the welfare moms, provide us with a profound personal service. By defining for us the kinds of mothers we're not, they make it easier for us to stomach what we are.

When I polled an unscientific sampling of my friends and family, they had no trouble defining what it meant to be a Good Father. A Good Father is characterized quite simply by his presence. He shows up. In the delivery room, at dinnertime (when he can), to school recitals and ball games (whenever it's reasonably possible). He's a good provider who is not above changing a diaper or wearing a Baby Bjorn. He's a strong shoulder to cry on and, at the same time, a constant example of how to roll with the punches. This definition seems to accommodate, without contradiction, both an older, sentimentalized Father Knows Best version of a dad and our post-Free to Be You and Me assumptions.

However, my polling sample had a difficult time describing a Good Mother without resorting to hyperbole, beneath which it's possible to discern a hint of angry self-flagellation.
"Mary Poppins, but biologically related to you and she doesn't leave at the end of the movie."

"She lives only in the present and entirely for her kids."

"She has infinite patience."

"She remembers to serve fruit at breakfast, is always cheerful and never yells, manages not to project her own neuroses and inadequacies onto her children, is an active and beloved community volunteer; she remembers to make playdates, her children's clothes fit, and she does art projects with them and enjoys all their games. And she is never too tired for sex."

"She's everything that I'm not."

These responses might be colored by the fact that my polling sample, despite containing a moderate amount of racial, religious, and socioeconomic diversity, was composed of women of approximately the same age (mid-thirties to early forties) and the same level of education (which can be described, succinctly, as "more than they use"). Nonetheless, the common elements in the responses make a compelling statement both about the pervasive power of the antiquated June Cleaver vision of motherhood and about how badly we fall short.

The single defining characteristic of iconic Good Motherhood is self-abnegation. Her children's needs come first; their health and happiness are her primary concern. They occupy all her thoughts, her day is constructed around them, and anything and everything she does is for their sakes. Her own needs, ambitions, and desires are relevant only in relation to theirs. If a Good Mother takes care of herself, it is only to the extent that she doesn't hurt her children. As one of my polling samples put it, "She is able to figure out how to carve out time for herself without detriment to her children's feelings of self-worth." If a Good Mother works, she does so only if it doesn't harm her children, or if her failing to earn an income would make them worse off. More important, even the act of considering her own needs and desires is engaged in primarily to make her children into better people. As one woman told me, "A Good Mother is in shape and works outside of the home so she can be a good role model."

Being a Good Father is a reasonable, attainable goal; you need only be present and supportive. Being a Good Mother, as defined by mothers themselves, is impossible. When asked for an example of a Good Mother, the women I polled came up with June Cleaver and Marmee, from Little Women. Both of whom are by necessity, not coincidence, fictional characters. The Good Mother does not exist, and she has never existed, not even in those halcyon bygone days to which the arbiters of maternal conduct never tire of harking back. If the producers of Leave It to Beaver had really wanted to give us an accurate depiction of late-1950s and early-1960s motherhood, June would have had a lipstick-stained cigarette clamped between her teeth, a gin and tonic in her hand, and a copy of Peyton Place on her nightstand. But still, this creature of fantasy is whom the mothers in my sample measured themselves against, and their failure to live up to her made them feel like Bad Mothers.
It's as if the swimmer Tracy Caulkins, winner of three Olympic gold medals, setter of five world records, were to beat herself up for being slower than the Little Mermaid.

Without exception, the mothers I know feel like they have failed to measure up. As Judith Warner so eloquently wrote in her book Perfect Madness: Motherhood in the Age of Anxiety, "This widespread, choking cocktail of guilt and anxiety and resentment and regret . . . is poisoning motherhood."
I have been pondering the reasons for this maternal anxiety ever since I first found myself suffering from it, sitting in a playground, my briefcase traded in for a diaper bag, my focus narrowed to my baby and myself, my ambition curdling into something I thought was anger but I now realize was closer to despair. I had always been hard-driving and ambitious, myopically fixated on my career. But I was working long hours, and after a day taking care of desperately needy people who looked to me to keep them from spending years, decades, or even the rest of their lives in jail, I had nothing left for my baby. I was jealous of Michael, a work-at-home writer who got to spend long, languid hours with our daughter, dressing her up in her new outfits and shuttling her from Mommy & Me to the library. One day I simply packed up my desk, tossed my framed diplomas into the attic, and became a stay-at-home mom.

It was everything that I thought it would be. Mommy & Me, story time at the library, Gymboree, long stroller walks with my stay-at-home-mommy friends. And then the next day it was Mommy & Me, story time at the library, Gymboree, and long stroller walks with my stay-at-home-mommy friends. And the day after that, and the day after that, and the day after that.
Within a week I had gone mad.

I took a certain satisfaction in the fact that I was now the most important person in the day-to-day life of my child, but I was also bored and miserable. And the fact that I was bored and miserable terrified me. A Good Mother is never bored, is she? She is never miserable. A Good Mother doesn't resent looking up from her novel to examine a child's drawing. She doesn't stare at the clock in music class, willing it along with all the power of a fourth grader waiting for recess. She doesn't hide the finger paints because she can't stand the mess. A Good Mother not only puts her children's needs and interests above her own but enjoys doing it. If I wasn't enjoying myself, then I wasn't a Good Mother. On the contrary, I was a bad one.

From the Hardcover edition.

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Bad Mother: A Chronicle of Maternal Crimes, Minor Calamities, and Occasional Moments of Grace 3.4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 35 reviews.
BevE More than 1 year ago
This is the first time I have ever read a book by Ayelet Waldman. I was inspired by Ayelet's honesty and the huge helping of self that she squeezes into every sentence. The love that she has for her children is so raw, so honest that at times you almost feel that you are invading their privacy but it is because of this honesty that you begin to understand that for everything mothers do for their children they do it because of love. Right or wrong, there are really very few bad mothers, only mothers who try in their own way to be a 'good' mother. Ms Waldman holds nothing back as she shares her family's decision in favor of an abortion and also of the diagnosis of bipolar disease that runs in her family. This book opens the door to understanding more about ourselves as mothers, I learned a lot from it and want to thank Ayelet for having the courage to write it.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I thought this was such a wonderful book. Each of the 18 chapters is basically an essay on a mothering/parenting related issue. I found Ms. Waldman's writing to be honest, funny, and thought provoking. I enjoyed her candor. I laughed reading this book, I nodded in agreement, I cried. In some cases I didn't agree with her parenting style or choices (that rocketship chapter was a tough one for me), but I strongly agreed with what I felt to be her overall message - mothering is hard, there is no right way, and we make it harder on ourselves and others with our expectations, judgments, and lack of empathy, support and plain old kindness. I appreciated Ms. Waldman sharing her life and thoughts with us.
sandiek More than 1 year ago
In Bad Mother, Ayelet Waldman talks about how all mothers are made to feel like they are performing poorly as mothers, regardless of their choices. Waldman is married to the novelist, Michael Chabon, and together they have four children. She gives the reader an intimate view of the choices she has made as a mother, and the negative feedback she has gotten for some of her choices. The book is written in eighteen chapters, each discussing common parenting issues. The stay-at-home mom vs. the working mom is covered, and how each is criticized for what they choose for their family. The marriage partnership and how work is divided is a chapter. Chapters I found especially relevant was one about how they elected to abort a child identified with birth defects, and one that talked about how to discuss sex and the parents' sexual history with one's children. I also liked the chapter about the mother-in-law/daughter-in-law relationship which gave me new ways to look at this common issue through a new filter. The chapter about helping children with their social relationships and not dragging your own angst into the issue was timely, and I loved the chapter about hating homework. This book is recommended for all readers. Those who are parents will recognize themselves, or at least the issues that most parents face, while those who have remained childless will gain a better understanding of what family life is like.
thetabeta More than 1 year ago
After reading this book I felt so close to Ayelet Waldman I would swear we've been friends for years. Only the most successful memoirists can seduce you into that kind of relationship while confessing their greatest sins and fears. Even though she writes of some unsavory topics, her love and good intention shines through, and, as a reader, I just forgive and look forward to the next chapter. As a mother, I found so much humor and commiseration that I actually heaved a sigh of relief at one point. I loved this book and know that I will re-visit it.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I have no doubt Ayelet feels the way she does about Motherhood, I just don't share her points of view. I found some of her thoughts/opinions/actions offensive but the whole point of her book is for women to be tolerant of each other's decisions; as a new mother I can appreciate and respect that.
TaraVMurphy More than 1 year ago
I almost stopped reading in the beginning.  She was starting to lose me when describing how she was a defense attorney, determined to keep her career going, despite having a baby.  She was lucky enough to have a husband who could care for the baby all day and work at night.  She finally reeled me back in when she decided to quit and stay home, finally realizing that her mother and the feminist pursuit of career was just not realistic when having young children.  I can relate to this, having figured it out before having a baby.  I feel bad for the author to have a mother who pressured her to maintain a career while parenting.  It's not possible for women to do both (dedicate 100% to a career and children simultaneously).  The feminists sold us a bill of goods here.  Luckily, Waldman figured it out early on.   She talks of being bored as a stay at home mom.  I can relate to that, but when you have babies, it goes with the territory.  There's a lot of isolation and monotony that we have to accept and deal with.   I'm glad I stuck with the book mainly because of her chapter on her pregnancy termination for medical reasons.  I can also relate to this, personally.  This is a brave decision and a courageous thing to write about.  More women should come forward with their stories like this.  The abortion debate usually leaves these cases out, making it all about unwanted pregnancies.  This was a much wanted pregnancy where the baby had a chromosomal defect and she chose not to attempt to carry to term.  She talks of her grief, coming to terms with it and moving on for the sake of her living children.  Bravo. The other chapters were mainly about her family.  I can't relate to her politics, but her opinions are all over the place.  Maybe a little less of that and more about the kids.  She talks a LOT about her husband.  It's great that she has such a good marriage.  Many women aren't so lucky.  I cringed while reading about her parents, but she ended talking about her son's ADHD.  I can also relate similarly.  Overall, it was a good read from the digital library.  
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I only read the sample and thought it was just drivel. I couldn't figure out how famous people were supposed to be typical examples of motherhood. That is not in touch with reality at all. Bad mothers are people that treat their kids bad. You know who you are. You also know that if you're a good mom, you still have bad days. Working or not working doesn't make you good or bad. Child rearing is the most challenging thing you will ever do, if you're doing it right. It's also the most rewarding. I think this woman has a lot of gall trying to psychoanalyze the mother hood via news paper clippings...
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Elijian_11120707 More than 1 year ago
I bought this book as the title immediately grabbed my attenion and I thought the book would be entertaining. As I have children, one with special needs, I thought this book would give me a good laugh and a sense of relation. I understand what the whole objective of this book was, but made no connections to it. After I started reading the third chapter and Ayelet said "skip to the next chapter if you are not this person" I did skip ahead, but then I found myself skipping through the whole book not enjoying what I was reading. All mothers can tell funny stories, but the brutal honesty about some of the material in this book was not what I wanted to read (and definitely not for the faint of heart). This is the first book ever that I have not finished. I was colossally disappointed.
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Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I enjoyed reading this book during my dauther's first two years of life. It brought humor and light heartedness to the topic of being a mom and not being perfect. It was just what I needed!
ReaderontheLake More than 1 year ago
In Bad Mother: A Chronicle of Maternal Crimes, Minor Calamities, and Occasional Moments of Grace, Ayelet Waldman rails against the cult of the perfect mother that is given new life online now in certain mommy blogs. When we try and live up to unrealistic ideal of maternal conduct, "this creature of fantasy," she argues, "It's as if the swimmer Tracy Caulkins, winner of three Olympic gold medals, setter of five world records, were to beat herself up for being slower than the Little Mermaid." Waldman shares stories of her own good days and bad and reminds us "how profound a problem a young mother's loss of self can be."
Anonymous More than 1 year ago