Bad Mother by Ayelet Waldman is subtitled A Chronicle of Maternal Crimes, Minor Calamities, and Occasional Moments of Grace. It's a collection of essays about Waldman's experience of motherhood. More than that though, it's a collection of essays that make you feel so much better about your own Bad Mother credentials. Waldman talks openly and honestly about her life, her children's lives, her family; but she also questions the need to label each other as a bad mothers, the judgement that seems to just come with having a child these days.
I first heard of this book when I read an article in the Guardian. The article struck a chord with me, so I bought the book.
I am one of those people who owns hundreds of books, and has read the first page or so of most of them; books languish on my shelves, destined never to be read. People come around and ask, "is this one any good?" and I have to admit: "I've no idea; I've never read it."
I am also one of those people who will start a book, read most of it, but drop out before the end. I mostly read non-fiction, and in a lot of non-fiction books, the last chapter is a bit of a recap any way; I tend to lose interest before the end, and give up.
This book, though, was engaging from cover to cover. The essay entitled Breast is Best made me cry, as Waldman recounted the story of how her youngest child had almost starved to death. Unsurprisingly, Rocketship had me in floods of tears.
This passage from Breast is Best reminded me so vividly of S's first weeks:
I'd held him in my hands all night long, watching his emaciated chest rise and fall. During those long hours the membrane between life and death seemed so very thin. He was tiny, a weightless bundle of sticks wrapped in translucent skin. I felt his heart beating and the blood flowing through his thread-thin veins.
The final two essays of the book, entitled The Audacity of Hope and The Life I Want For Them really made me stop and think - about what I will teach S as she grows up, and what my hopes are for her.
Waldman is so incredibly honest in her writing. She's attracted much criticism before now for an article she wrote where she said that she loved her husband more than her children. In this book though, her love for her children shines through in every page. The way she speaks about her son's chubby baby arms, or the way she knows the ins and outs of what they have been doing at school, the lengths she has gone to, in order to get her son diagnosed with a disorder so that he can receive help rather than struggling with his school work. There is no question that this woman is just as devoted and obsessed by her children as the next woman. This level of honesty though, is not something you see from other parent writers.
Mothers writing about parenthood generally fall into two categories: those who present an edited Waltons-esque view of their life, brushing under the carpet any arguments or other issues that might dissuade us from that rose-tinted view; and a second group of women who seem to compete for who is the worst mother in a kind of backwards, begging for reassurance or disagreement sort of way. You know the ones: they write, "oh, I'm such a bad mother; Tarquin missed his piano lesson this afternoon because I took him swimming!" and you want to slap them. Waldman's writing stands out for me, because she openly admits that she forgot a tooth fairy visit for her daughter, and that she's that mother at pre-school whom none of the other parents ever meet; but she does so not to take part in that ridiculous game of one-upmanship (or should that be downmanship) where we try to out-do each other's parenting fails; rather, she's just telling a story.
When I'm reading a book, and a certain phrase or idea resonates with me, I turn up the bottom corner of the page. I do this so that I can easily go back and find what it was that I wanted to remember... with this book, I found that I had turned up so many corners that the book had become almost half as thick again! Waldman's writing just hits the nail on the head time and time again for me. She says so many things that make me stop and think, and question my own views.
I will leave you with a quote from Nigella Lawson, that was used on the back of the UK edition of the book:
I have often felt that it is impossible to be a mother without a profound, even corrosive, sense of failure, or at least that's how I feel about myself. To find a book that shares that anxiety, and an author who dissects this insecurity and self-doubt with wit, honesty and proper, enquiring intelligence, is like being grossly dehydrated and being presented with a vat of water to drink.