Ayelet Waldman, who famously wrote about loving her husband more than her kids, just published Bad Mother, a parenting memoir she describes as a "f&%k you to the insane Urban-Baby types."
Really, though, it's less "f&%k you" and more "go you," you being all the mothers out there who, like Waldman, aren't 100% perfect. Waldman (who, in case you didn't know, is married to novelist Michael Chabon) says herself that she's known for over-sharing — she once blogged about her risk of suicide, freaked out her son by discussing the blog post within his earshot, and then wrote a column about that experience. But in Bad Mother, with the exception of several digs at Gawker, she's on good behavior. "My children have given me permission to write this book," she writes — a relief to read, but also a kind of hedge. The book may be called Bad Mother, but Waldman really doesn't come off as all that bad.
The most interesting parts of the book are also the most heart-wrenching — Waldman's discussions of her bipolar disorder and of her abortion. She writes sensitively of her decision to continue taking antidepressants during her pregnancy with her youngest child, and of the difficulties other moms in her situation face:
It's hard enough to be pregnant or depressed, let alone both, without having to make sense of conflicting medical research and objectively evaluate the quality and seriousness of your own despair. Add to this the cacophony of condemnation from the Bad Mother police, damning you if you expose your baby to medication and if you don't, and the decision seems nearly overwhelming.
These nuanced words are a far cry from, say, the alarmist piece on antidepressants and pregnancy in last month's Vogue — or from the generally unhelpful public dialogue on the subject. Of her abortion — due to a fetal abnormality that could have caused physical problems or mental retardation — she writes that her "shame and anger" alienated the other members of her online support group. Called A Heartbreaking Choice, the group sometimes used the acronym AHC to denote the procedure that had ended their pregnancies. Waldman writes:
I made them uncomfortable — especially the many pro-life women among them — by insisting that we accept the term "abortion" for what we had done. There is no denying, I wrote in my posts, that this is what we did. We cannot hide from the fact that when Congress or the courts restrict abortion, we are the women they are talking about. [...] If we allow the language of the debate to encompass only the experience of those women who abort for what others like to call "convenience," and they themselves know as necessity, then we risk losing this precious right altogether.
Waldman is a conflicted mother, sometimes an exasperated mother, and, yes, a mother who happens to have mental illness. But the "maternal crimes" she mentions in the book's subtitle are all pretty small — she momentarily forgot her baby in an ice cream parlor, she sometimes argues with (and yes, fucks) her husband within earshot of her kids. When she took Celexa during her pregnancy, she was assured by a Swedish study that it was fine. The fact that she thinks these things warrant a visit from the Bad Mother police shows just how vigilant these police actually are — see for example the recent furor over Madlyn Primoff.
But the relative tameness of Waldman's anecdotes also shows that we may not be really ready for a truly honest mothering memoir. For one thing, confessing your darkest thoughts and feelings about motherhood — which Waldman doesn't actually seem to do in Bad Mother — can be harmful to your children. For another, the idea that mothers even have truly, deeply, dark and ambivalent feelings — or that mothers who are otherwise decent people may commit really upsetting lapses — is more than a lot of people can accept. It's still not particularly popular to admit that maternal behavior, like all human behavior, is more of a spectrum than a simple good-bad binary. In fact, one of the only places where it's easy to see this spectrum is the internet, where moms can remain nameless. On Bad Mothers Anonymous, one poster confessed this cute infraction:
My kids think their grandma is a witch. They were playing with her broom and I told them to stop. My son asked why? So I told him that was grandmas witch broom , and she rides it at night when everyone else is asleep.....Needless to say they never dis-obey her! LOLOLOLOL Grandma didn;t appreciate it much cause the kids still believe it..lol
Im just really mean to my kids cant stop yelling at them and i just dont know how to change i wanna be a good mom just dont know how to be I didnt have one.
When everything from innocent white lies to heart-wrenching family conflict makes you a Bad Mother, maybe it's time to retire the term — and to find a way to help moms and kids that doesn't involve so much value judgment.