Monday, May 18, 2009

Review: Bad Mother by Ayelet Waldman

I'm not certain what exactly I thought this book was going to be when I heard the description but somehow it didn't enter my conciousness that it would be essays rather than a memoir or even fiction. Don't know why I didn't think of essays but because I didn't, it took me a bit of time to readjust my reading mindset. Even once readjusted, I didn't love this look at mothering, how we demonize or sanctify perfectly normal parenting acts, and some insight into Waldman's own life as a mother/wife/author (not necessarily in that order). It really left me feeling so-so despite me wanting to like it a whole lot.

Waldman addresses the need we seem to feel to point out the "bad mothers" who make the rest of us look like "good mothers." She uses examples from the media--and ironically I was reading this as it came out that Madlyn Primoff made her two bickering daughters get out of the car and then she drove off. Not only did this turn into a prime example of what Waldman was arguing about, it made me examine my own reactions to examples like this (and incidentally, I would totally have done that to my two older kids--also 10 and 12--if I'd thought of it so I'm clearly already the Bad Mother of the books' title). Now hypotheticals are not all Waldman writes about, sharing moments in her life (besides the famed loving her husband more than her kids moment) that might or might not qualify her as a bad mom, mostly not. Well, really, all it qualifies her as in my mind is a human mom. And perhaps that is my biggest trouble with this book. None of the things that Waldman has written about seem egregious to me. They seem average, the sorts of things I do on a daily basis and which, therefore, I don't really need to read about. But I suspect there are moms out there who need the reassurance that they aren't going to break their kids if life isn't one hundred percent perfect all the time.

There are some very moving essays in here, such as when Waldman discusses her decision to abort after discovering a terrible chromosomal abnormality. The pain she must have faced and the grace with which she writes about this experience is fantastic. However, this is just a glimmer of what the whole book could have been (although I do rather question including the recounting in a book called Bad Mother but I guess that's a personal choice) and wasn't. The book is also very loaded with current touchstones, which could make for a very dated book even two years down the line. In some ways that's good as it showcases how we don't even manage to retain the names of the demonized "bad mothers" for terribly long but in other ways it didn't work for me.

The writing is strong but sometimes the topics of the essays seem questionable in terms of the over-arching theme. This left me with rather mixed feelings and a vague disappointment over what could have been.


  1. This sounds like it has some echos of "The Mask of Motherhood" which we discussed on bookmums about ten years ago. That one was mostly about how mothering babies wasn't much like the way we've been told it was supposed to be. It sounds interesting, although I've already embraced the "good enough -- they are still breathing aren't they?" philosophy so it probably isn't aimed at me.

  2. Funny, I immediately thought of "The Mask of Motherhood" when I started reading Kristen's review, too!


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