Bad mother, good book
26 June 2009
‘If a good mother is one who loves her child more than anyone else in the world, I am not a good mother. I am in fact a bad mother. I love my husband more than I love my children.’
With these words, penned in the New York Times in 2005 (1), Ayelet Waldman launched herself from relative literary obscurity to become America’s most hated, doing battle with the mommy mob on Oprah and wading through the ‘shark-filled cesspit’ of the web. Four years on, she confesses to all her other sins in Bad Mother: A Chronicle of Maternal Crimes, Minor Calamities and Occasional Moments of Grace, a book that can only be described as extraordinary. Love it or hate it, you’ll come away feeling profoundly disturbed – and curiously enlightened.
Ayelet Waldman lives in Berkeley, California with her husband, the Pulitzer prize-winning novelist Michael Chabon, and their four children. The website Gawker has branded Waldman and Chabon the ‘third most annoying literary couple’, and whatever Bad Mother is, it is neither a personal account of typical mummy dilemmas nor a reasoned critique of contemporary parenting culture. As a wise editor once impressed upon me, you can never generalise anything from the experience of Berkeley, where the cultural absurdities of the modern world are taken to every extreme – and when the experience in question is that of a creative writer with manic depression (bipolar disorder), you know you’re not looking at any standard kind of whinge.
But God, how refreshing that is. I have been reviewing the new genre of ‘mummy lit’ since before my own children were a twinkle in my eye, and I have slated most of it (2). Whether the books are novels, personal confessionals or attempts at social or cultural critique, the trend for mothers of young children to write about their lives as though they are the first people ever to have had children – and thought about it at the same time – has resulted in the occasional insight, the odd humorous bout of fellow-feeling, the imposition of a deadening weight of negativity upon modern parenthood and a great deal of wasted paper. When I heard about yet another book by an out-and-proud ‘Bad Mother’, my response was an inward groan. But by the end of the first chapter, I was hooked.
It turns out that Waldman is a really good writer – with, equally unusually, a good editor (her husband, apparently). And by dragging us further into her own peculiar psyche than is either normal or comfortable, she manages to express more about the contradictions of modern motherhood than all those smugly miserable tell-it-like-it-is-ers put together.
The questions that mummy lit thinks it is addressing, but rarely actually does, are: what does it mean when one individual internalises today’s parenting culture, to the extent that your identity – how you live and how you feel – is directly related to the modes of behaviour you adopt in relation to your children? How does the individual product of therapy culture, who has been brought up to believe that the key issue in relation to the world is how she feels about herself, reconcile the conflicting pressures of the desire for meaningful work, the quest for romantic love, and the reality of bringing up children? When there is no social explanation provided that makes sense of mothers’ experiences, what other explanations are brought to bear – and how does this affect the kind of self that mothers both develop and aspire to develop?
Waldman does not answer these questions, or address most of them head on. But she does manage to shine some unexpected lights into the murky, unexplored recesses of how individuals might experience the modern pressure-cooker of parenting.
For example: the maternal crime of loving one’s husband more than one’s kids. The paragraphs of that article in which Waldman details how much great sex she has with her husband are just excruciating, while the idea of making a calculation about who you love most – let alone putting it into print – is quite bizarre. Love is not finite or divisible; it cannot be apportioned among family members like pieces of cake. But Waldman’s article was not controversial because she made that calculation – it was because she apparently came down on the wrong side of the equation.
How is saying that you love your husband more than your kids any more weird than the assertion, baldly stated in much existing mummy-lit as common sense, that you don’t know what love is until you have a child, or that once you have a baby you realise that your husband is no longer the primary object of your love and life? Yet the self-obsessed character of today’s parenting culture positively validates the narcissistic sentiment, masquerading as child-centredness, that once you have achieved ‘your’ baby you should downgrade your adult relationships – even those with the father of your child.
Of course it is possible to have a philosophical discussion about the meaning of love, and to examine such sentiments as ‘I love you more’ as part of a sober analysis of the confusion surrounding contemporary adult intimacy and the symbolic meaning of ‘the child’ within this context. Sociologists Ulrich Beck and Elisabeth Beck-Gernsheim did this over a decade ago in their insightful critique The Normal Chaos of Love. Ayelet Waldman is not providing an analysis of any sort: she is writing only about herself, and giving expression to this contradiction in the embarrassing and peculiar form of telling the world about how she has sex with her husband. But in doing so, she forces an emotional engagement with, and reaction to, something that might otherwise be shrugged off as an interesting but unimportant intellectual endeavour. The fact that this reaction, as she recounts, came in one of two forms – ‘Your kids should be taken away from you, you cretinous bitch’, and ‘Right on! That’s how we’ve managed to stay married for 50 years’ – says as much about the levels of public debate today as it does about the limitations of memoir-writing.
Much of the skill in Waldman’s writing comes with her ability to recount the most difficult moments of her life with a devastating combination of humour and honesty. In chapter four, titled ‘Breast is Best’, she tells how her fourth child was born with an undiagnosed palate abnormality that ‘made it impossible for him to suck properly from the breast’. Born ‘a nice, plump baby’, ‘he began losing weight, and by the time, 10 days later, the paediatrician finally made time to see him, he was dangerously thin’ – ‘in short, starving to death’. Telling the story, Waldman recalls:
‘When I couldn’t get an appointment with the paediatrician, I asked the local public health nurse to come by and weigh him. Unfortunately, and for reasons I never understood, she was far more interested in screening me for domestic violence than in evaluating the baby. “He’s fine”, she said absently, ticking off an item from her checklist. “Has your husband physically assaulted you in the past 30 days?”’
Thanks to a bottle of formula prescribed by the paediatrician just in time, baby Abraham rallied – but he still wouldn’t breastfeed. Waldman expressed her own milk into bottles, but remained so desperate to get the baby to nurse that she took him on a plane to the Lactation Institute in Los Angeles, which she had imagined as a medical clinic ‘staffed by white-coated experts spouting the latest in breastfeeding medical research’, but in fact ‘looked less like a doctor’s office than like the headquarters of a Marxist student newspaper circa 1971’. The wise counsellors at the Lactation Institute advised a complicated and time-consuming method of feeding the baby breastmilk through a syringe – a method that Waldman calculated would take 12 hours a day.
‘“But I have three other children!” I wailed … “When do I sleep?”
“Well”, the lactation consultant said, giving my shoulders a squeeze, “it’s really just a question of how committed you are.”’
Waldman returned home and tried to sell the method to her husband:
‘Michael had by now stopped looking at the baby and the syringe. Instead, he was staring at me, his mouth gaping. “Are you kidding me?” he said finally.
“I know it’s really time-consuming”, I said.
“You could say that”, he said.
“But it’s really just a question of how committed we are.”
“You know what?” Michael said. “It turns out we’re not that committed.” He threw the syringe and the pack of replacement silicone needles in the trash.’
Waldman’s ability to laugh at her own absurdities – while continuing to live them out – is not something that you often get in mummy lit, which tends to combine desperate self-justification with thinly veiled self-satisfaction. And while the trend of confessional writing is ubiquitous and deplorable, particularly when writing about oneself is used as a platform for broader statements about the right and wrong ways to ‘do parenting’, there has always been a role in literature for the well-written memoir. Confessional writing cannot provide an analysis of the world as it is, and it generally struggles to do more than tell the dull story of one individual’s life. But the literary memoir that focuses tightly on the extraordinary aspects of an individual’s life or personality can bring a new dimension to understanding the human experience. It can, to paraphrase that old Heineken advert, get to the parts that other academic, fictional or confessional accounts fail to reach.
In Waldman’s book, the chapter that most achieves this is titled ‘Rocketship’, where she tells how she had an abortion in the second trimester of her third pregnancy after discovering that the fetus had a genetic abnormality. The afternoon before a family holiday she rings her obstetrician for the results of her amniocentesis. When she receives the news:
‘In my memory I am hovering by the ceiling watching the scene unfold beneath me. I see myself collapse to the floor. I hear myself scream, my voice hoarse, my wails so loud it seems the windows might shatter. I watch my husband kneel down beside me and pry the telephone from my rigid clasp. I watch him cry.
‘And I think, “A person really does fall on to the ground screaming when she experiences a hideous, shocking pain. Remember that.” This, alas, is part of what it means to be a writer, someone whose job it is to observe closely enough to convincingly turn what she sees and feels into words. A writer stands at a distance and watches her heart break.’
What follows is a harrowing account of the agonising decision to abort the fetus (nicknamed ‘Rocketship’ by their young son), and the intensity of anger, grief and despair that came immediately afterwards, propelling Waldman and ‘a small group of like-minded, bitter women’ to form an online ‘Dead Baby Club’, in which ‘[w]e used to joke that we would take our lunch one day to the obstetrician’s office and tell our stories in the waiting room, just to teach the smug pregnant ladies a lesson. Yeah, maybe you’ll have a baby. And maybe you won’t.’ Then, ‘one by one’, most of the women became pregnant again, and passed through their grief.
Intellectually, you can understand that the experience of women having an abortion following the shock discovery of fetal abnormality can be different to that of women having an abortion because the pregnancy is unintended, or unwanted. You can understand that even for someone like Ayelet Waldman, who grew up committed to the pro-choice cause and, as a young woman, had an abortion because it was not the right time to have a baby – with no feelings of loss or regret – the personal experience of aborting a planned and wanted pregnancy because the baby may (or may not) turn out to have a severe (or less severe) disability is likely to be difficult and unpleasant. But understanding all this is different to gaining an insight into how a woman in this situation might feel: and this is where the distinction between good literature and confessional pap really comes into its own.
From mummy lit to the misery memoir, the cut-price paperbacks that litter bookshop shelves today are replete with discussions about bad things happening and how the author feels about them. When it comes to mummy lit, the self-consciously taboo-breaking phrases often seem to be cut-and-pasted from a central glossary: ‘I love my children so much but sometimes they make me really angry’, ‘I love my job but I cannot bear to leave my baby with someone else’, ‘I love being at home with my baby but sometimes I feel like I’m losing my Self’, ‘I love my husband but I don’t feel like having sex with him anymore’, ‘I love my friends but sometimes they don’t understand me’, ‘I love myself but sometimes I hate myself’, and so on into tedium.
All of this stuff is packaged in the form of emotional honesty, and no doubt many of its writers believe that emotional honesty is what they are doing. In fact, they are using the accepted cultural script of ‘personal feelings’ to recycle banal, commonly held observations about how individuals accommodate to life as it is today. Just as pulp fiction entertains whereas great literature provides insight into the human condition, the only achievement of confessional pap is to empathise with a reader’s sense of feeling a bit crap. It does not challenge any received wisdom, illuminate anything about life, or even tell us all that much about the individual who is telling us his or her ‘personal story’. At most, you gain a sense of how the writer rationalises his or her experiences – you don’t get to know what those experiences are.
Waldman understands this – and also, in a characteristic display of insecure arrogance, understands why her book is different. Reflecting on the well-acknowledged association of madness with creative genius, and that she has manic depression herself, she reasons:
‘Writers who lie, who try to put themselves in the best possible light, who shy away from the ugliest parts of the truth, don’t in the end teach us very much about anything other than their own narcissism. It’s only when you do the bipolar dance on the razor’s edge of brutal honesty, when you are willing to put yourself in danger, that you can move beyond self-absorption to some kind of universal honesty. And yet, at the same time, indulging one’s bipolar compulsion for self-revelation can all too often end up as solipsism. It’s a thin, thin line, one that I spend a lot of my time worrying about, or regretting having crossed.’
It may well be the case that, as Waldman writes, ‘the bipolar inability to resist the impulse to reveal inappropriately intimate details of one’s life is why there are so many bipolar memoirists’. But it may just be that she thought she had something different to say. Justifying her writing through reference to her condition reads to me like a disclaimer, an apology for stepping into what she acknowledges to be the questionable terrain of making public the most intimate details of one’s personal and family life, and daring to go further than other writers in making that mean something. Waldman didn’t write this book, with a skilfully constructed narrative and carefully edited prose, because she couldn’t help the desire to splurge. She wrote it because she thought it was important; and that should be enough.
Bad Mother is not the best book ever written. It is littered with clichés and cheap laughs, and Waldman does, on several occasions, cross the line from self-revelation into solipsism. When she deviates from personal experience to try to make broader comments about contemporary culture, or even when she attempts to judge her own behaviour as a parent, the book morphs from a page-turner into an object you want to throw at the wall. But the good bits are enough to distinguish it from its competitors; and while those are probably not worth reading, this one is. Even if you hate it.
Bad Mother: A Chronicle of Maternal Crimes, Minor Calamities, and Occasional Moments of Grace by Ayelet Gilbert Waldman is published by Doubleday Books. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).)
This article was first published on spiked.
(1) Truly, Madly, Guiltily, by Ayelet Waldman, New York Times, 27 March 2005
(2) See, for example, Playpen world. Jennie Bristow on the cult of mummy lit, New Statesman, 17 December 2001; Why I won’t be joining the ‘Bad Mothers Club’, spiked, 28 December 2006; After Chick Lit, welcome to ‘baby-sick lit’, spiked review of books, October 2007.