Life & Culture

Interview: Ayelet Waldman

The Jewish mother? It’s a damaging ideal


It feels as if mothers can never get it right. They are branded either over-protective or too liberal by online forums and mothering websites like mumsnet. They are criticised for allowing their babies to eat and sleep “on demand”, or for implementing too rigorous a schedule. They are considered monsters for advocating “controlled crying” or regarded as too lax for cuddling their baby the minute the little mite starts to whimper.

And that is not to mention the issue of going back to work after having children. Mothers are condemned for not being there for their offspring if they do, or considered work-shy or unambitious if they don’t.
The answer to these dilemmas, according to writer Ayelet Waldman, is that there are no answers. She says there is no such thing as the perfect mother and that most people just do the best they can, which should be fine. But…

“We feel so guilty all the time,” says the 44-year-old author, who has just written a book on motherhood. “We beat ourselves up for being bad mothers. Really, it’s just ridiculous. We’re not bad or good, we’re somewhere in between. Only by forgiving ourselves can being a mother be an enjoyable experience.”

And who does she blame for causing this general feeling of guilt? The Jewish mother, of course. “I have developed this theory recently — we have infected the entire world with our parodic Jewish mother,” says Waldman. “The guilt-tripping, the imposing, the hovering over our children — it’s like a virus without an inoculation, only I feel so tortured figuring out a way to get a way from it.”

Waldman, who was born in Israel and now lives in San Francisco with her husband, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author Michael Chabon, has recently written Bad Mother, A Chronicle Of Maternal Crimes, Minor Calamities And Occasional Moments Of Grace, about her own experiences bringing up her four children, Sophie 14; Zeke, 11; Rosie, seven; and Abe, six.

She bitterly observes that it is only ever women who criticise other women’s parenting techniques. “Women are horribly judgmental of each other,” she says. “We’re all fighting the same battle but we’re much more likely to be attacked anonymously on the web by a woman. My mothering has never been criticised by a man.”

Unsurprisingly, the reason for this vitriol lies in women’s anxieties about their own abilities. “We’re so completely tied in knots about how we treat our own children, when somebody does it differently we take it as an attack on our child-raising methods. If you say: ‘I’m going to bottle-feed’, it creates a profound defensiveness in others,” she says.

Bad Mother details how Waldman gave up her job as a lawyer after she could no longer bear being away from her children while her husband got to see them grow up. But after being a stay-at-home mum for a couple years, the daily monotony of swings, nappy-changing and nursery-school meetings began to drive her insane and she turned to writing as a way of continuing to work in a flexible way.

“It would never have occurred to me to write without his example,” says Waldman in reference to her husband, whom she calls “one of the finest writers in the English language today”. “I was looking desperately for something that wasn’t so all-consuming. He writes for six hours a day and the rest of the time he spends with the children. I thought: ‘I’ll do that.’ It’s only by luck that I was any good.”

Waldman certainly is not shy when it comes to baring all in her prose. “I never really thought of it as ‘coming out’. It’s only afterwards that I realised that really people don’t discuss these things,” she admits.

She came under fire for writing an essay in which she admitted she loved her husband more than her children — and that they are better off because of it. She wound up defending her position against an angry mob of mothers on The Oprah Winfrey show.

In the book, she writes about her son Zeke’s attention-deficit diagnosis, a decision which she now regrets, despite having asked her children to read and approve any chapters in which they appeared. “He’s begun to feel a lot more ambivalent about the diagnosis,” she says. “He feels like he doesn’t want people to know. I should have realised that he could change his mind about this.”

Waldman also writes about her controversial decision to terminate her 20-week foetus after a scan revealed it had a genetic abnormality. I was branded a lazy mother who uses abortion as birth control,” she says.

It was Waldman’s faith — she is a member of the kabbalah-inspired Jewish Renewal community — that helped her come to terms with her decision. “I talked to our rabbi — he went with us to the hospital and sat with Michael,” she says. “There is a thing in Jewish law that says a child is not fully born until eight days after birth. It did help me. We have so many problems in this religion but there’re also some good things. It seems unlike Christianity, there’s room for subtlety. That’s one of the reasons I’m still Jewish.”

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