Ayelet Waldman seems to have it all. Not only has she had two successful careers — first as a defence lawyer and now as an acclaimed writer — but she has also enjoyed a long and happy marriage to the Pulitzer prizewinning novelist Michael Chabon, with whom she has four beautiful children.
Yet, in Bad Mother, she sets out to describe her imperfections.
Now available in the UK for the first time, the book was prompted by an article Waldman wrote in 2005 for a little-known anthology on motherhood but which was picked up by the New York Times. Which is how millions of people learned that she loved her husband more than she loved her children. This unconventional viewpoint led to an appearance before a furious Oprah Winfrey audience, a deluge of online abuse and calls for her children to be removed by social services.
In a recent interview in the Guardian, Waldman said that maternal ambivalence has long loomed large in her writing and expressed her concerns about mothers who condemn other mothers — she calls them the “Motherhood Police”. On their watch, she says, “guilt and shame seems inevitable” adding a plaintive plea: “let’s give each other a break.”
In many ways, this is a very Jewish book. Not only is it divided into 18 chapters, based on the ancient Jewish system of numerical symbolism, gematria (18 stands for life), but Waldman, unfortunately, comes across at times as a Jewish mother stereotype. This is most pronounced when she reveals how competitive she felt at first with Chabon’s mother, and her almost Oedipal relationship with her son Zeke.
In a particularly painful chapter, she recalls her harrowing experience of abortion. This is courageous and frank writing but Bad Mother is more than a memoir. As well as her own story, topics aired range from breast-feeding to mothers-in-law in general, to teenage sex.
Most of the time, the book is intelligent, comforting and hugely entertaining. Unlike other parenting books, it gives mothers permission to make mistakes and be themselves. And, refreshingly, Waldman does not set herself up as a parenting expert, just a person with firm opinions. “Mothers should tell the truth,” she writes, “especially when the truth is difficult”.
By exposing her own shortcomings, she encourages others to do the same. However, reading Waldman can be exhausting, especially in her relentless efforts to convince the reader how much she loves her husband and children. At times, this feels a little like being force-fed a sickly dessert by a well-meaning aunt.