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Archive for the ‘Ayelet Waldman’ Category

I have been trying to compose a response to Bad Mother by Ayelet Waldman, a book of essays on various aspects of motherhood and family life, since I finished it at the beginning of April.  Despite several attempts, my thoughts have not quite crystallized or synthesized or whatever-ized but let’s give it a shot anyways.  Why not?

I think Waldman is odd.  I certainly don’t understand her or, quite frankly agree with her.  Sometimes I don’t particularly like her.  But I really enjoyed reading this, loving her writing style, her energy, and, quite frankly, her much-adored family.  As much as this is a book about asserting your right to be whatever kind of parent you like to your children (Waldman memorably got in trouble with Good Mothers everywhere for having dared to say that she loved her husband more than she did her children), it is also Waldman’s defense that yes, she really does love/adore/worship her children like any Good Mother.  She just isn’t what she would call a Good Mother.  Given her terrifying description a Good Mother, I doubt anyone would choose to self identify as one:

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. (p. 10)

It has never been easy to be a woman and second-wave feminism certainly added more pressure.  Women finally gained the kind of recognition and respect needed to get them into professions in numbers large enough to make a difference but no one quite knew how to balance those exciting new careers with the biological and social responsibilities of raising a family.  From an early age, Waldman’s mother made it clear that her daughter’s purpose was to have it all: she was raised to assume a future with a fulfilling work and family life, but with no particular guide on how to go about balancing the two:

Before I had children, I knew exactly what kind of mother I would be: my mother had told me.  She was a feminist of the 1970s consciousness-raising, pro-choice-marching, self-speculum-wielding school, and she expected me to fulfill her own ambitions, which had been thwarted by a society that resisted viewing a woman in any sphere other than the domestic, and by an imprudent marriage.  My mission as her daughter was to realise the dream of complete equality that she and her fellow bra burners had worked so hard to attain.  (p. 21)

Happily, Waldman found the perfect mate to support this dream life: the writer Michael Chabon (whose own book of essays on his family, Manhood for Amateurs, delighted me last year).  She gushes about him with alarming frequency and it is all very endearing but also rather excessive.  My natural reserve had me squirming in my seat when she rhapsodized about Chabon’s appeal but this is not a book that keeps much secret or holds much back, certainly not when it comes to Waldman’s passion for her husband:

Here he was, the man I’d been looking for all along, the man my mother had sent me out in the world to track down and bring home.  Funny and smart, Jewish and successful.  And harbouring ambitions of being a househusband.  He would take care of my children while I worked.  He would be an equal parent and an equal partner.  He would make it easy for me to be the kind of woman my mother and I had planned for me to be.  Is it any wonder that I proposed to him three weeks after our first date?

Not only did her, dear reader, marry me, but he followed me first to San Francisco, where I had a clerkship with a judge, and then to Southern California, where I found my dream job, as a public defender, representing indigent defendants in federal court.  His career was portable, mine was not, and, more important, my ambitions were every bit as important as his.  To this day neither my mother nor I can believe our good luck.  (p. 30-31)

I was liking Waldman, not necessarily agreeing with her but liking her, up until the final few essays when she decided to address homosexuality and racism, and those short chapters may have ruined her for me.  I am still not entirely sure.  I don’t have sufficient words to describe all the things that irked me about Chapter 15 (“Darling, I Like You That Way”) in which Waldman explains her preference for gay male friends (game for anything, darling, and always up for a bit of antiquing) and defends an essay she wrote in 2005 saying she hoped her son would grow up to be gay, thereby supplying her with a permanent mama’s boy and shopping buddy, and eliminating the threat of a daughter-in-law.  She acknowledges that she is stereotyping gay men but she clearly believes what she’s saying.  The real kicker is at the end when she accuses her opponents of being hypocritical.  They’re busy criticizing her for her “unfairly imposed expectations” on her son while they’re off planning (or assuming) perfectly heterosexual futures for their own children.  The closed-minded bigots, how dare they!

The race thing was a more general annoyance.  I will never understandAmerica’s particular brand of racism nor the liberal white guilt that accompanies it.  But most of all I hate the description of her son’s best friend as “a kid whose parents between the two of them encompass four ethnic identities: Jewish, Greek, African American, and white” (p. 192).  What?  Seriously, what?  If we’re going for broad, meaningless classifications, are the majority of Jewish people and Greeks not white now?  What even falls under ‘white’ in terms of ethnicity?  Is a Spaniard classed with a Swede?  Too ridiculous and too frustrating.

Waldman’s basic premise that women expect too much of themselves when it comes to raising their children, to the extent that they turn on each other, singling out the Bad Mothers in order to confirm their own competence is too blatantly true to argue with.  My friends and I worked this out over recess breaks in elementary school, tried of watching our mothers turn into competitive, critical warriors at our after-school events (well, not my mom so much – she thankfully didn’t do a lot of after school pick ups, thereby making it easier for me to observe other parents without the shame of watching my own parent embarrass herself in pointless competition).  There is definitely a lot of guilt built into this Good Mother mentality and I think that may forever be my stumbling block in learning to understand it.  My family pretty much rejects the idea of guilt, dismissing it as a useless, pointless emotion but, as Waldman’s essay in The Jewish Girl’s Guide to Guilt, which I read just prior to starting this, happily confirmed, apparently it is impossible to be Jewish without wallowing in guilt (or, even better, guilting your children and relatives once you reach a suitable age).  The whole premise is strange to me.  There is no such thing as having it all, no person able to be everything to everyone.  You have limits, you are a finite resource.  If you try your best, if your kids aren’t dead or in jail, if they are, in fact, like Waldman’s children healthy, intelligent and friendly, what is the fuss about?  You will never be perfect but then, thankfully, neither will anyone else.

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