It seems like there's been an ongoing conversation about motherhood for at least the last fifty years or so, accompanying the discussion of feminism in general - doing it right, doing it wrong, what it all means. And recently - in a development that has included blogs in a big way - the discussion has been joined by many new voices, and they're emphasizing telling the "truth" about motherhood and getting beyond the popular images. The thing about this truth-telling is that it shapes a picture that makes many of us moms not look very good. Bad Mother is Ayelet Waldman's jump into the conversation, and she doesn't hold back. This is a long talk with your dear, painfully honest, over-sharing friend who is self-aware enough to know that she might be saying too much, but says it anyway, although she knows she's taking the risk that you might judge her unfavorably for it.
Waldman calls herself a Bad Mother chiefly because she falls short of the standard for the Good Mother, which is defined on the cover of the book. She knows that she doesn't measure up to it in the estimation of others - because they've frequently told her so - but she's far harder on herself, and she openly shares her failings here, starting with her own judgment of other Bad Mothers. There's a vogue for "mom confessions" about their "secret lives" lately, and although Waldman's contributions could be lumped in there, I hope they won't be.
The book is an interesting combination of memoir and essay; each of the eighteen pieces in it (there's a significance to that number which is explained in the Introduction) revolves around personal incidents which Waldman relates to her own reflections and opinions on parenting and society. Her opinions are strong and expressed with eloquence and passion, although she's not really attempting to persuade the reader to her way of thinking about anything. In that way, she's non-judgmental. Some of her experiences are familiar; raised with second-wave feminism's ambitions to "have it all," she was sure that her egalitarian marriage (to author Michael Chabon, who would work at home and was eager to be involved in child care and domestic matters) would make it possible to continue her full-time legal career after their first child was born. When it didn't, and she quit, stay-at-home mothering turned out not to be any easier to manage. Each of her four children has challenged her in different ways. However, Waldman has some confessions that are uniquely her own; while these are personal to her, they're part of her Bad Mother qualifications because of the ways they have - or will, or just might - affect her children.
The Good Mother that Waldman references is a pretty well-recognized and accepted construct in modern American society, but it's never been clear to me where it comes from, and I've yet to meet anyone who conforms to it completely. And yet it's rare to find a mother who hasn't felt judged against that standard. I'm not sure how much of that judgment really is coming from others and how much of it is self-inflicted, because this mysterious standard has been so internalized, but it's happening regardless. Bad Mother would be a great read for moms' book groups; it's certain to generate discussion on multiple levels about both Waldman's own stories and their relationship to bigger issues. I read it fairly quickly and found it thought-provoking and hard to put down, and I'm very interested in seeing other reactions to it.