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'Bad Mother's' Day
Ayelet Waldman Takes On the Cultural Disquiet Over Parenting

By Bob Thompson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, May 5, 2009

BERKELEY, Calif. -- The morning after Ayelet Waldman's infamous essay was published, she got a call from a friend who warned: Don't watch "The View."

Waldman never watched the ABC chatfest anyway. But so what? Why shouldn't she watch it now?

"Because Star Jones is ripping you to shreds," came the explanation.

Another friend called from Chicago.

"Ayelet, what the [expletive] have you done?" Waldman recalls her whispering. "I'm sitting at a Starbucks and the women at the next table are just tearing you to shreds."

Ripping, tearing, shredding: It seemed to be a trend. Time to fire up the computer and see what was going on.

"I've never seen so many e-mails in an inbox," she says.

And all because she'd admitted -- no, asserted! publicly! in the New York Times! -- that there was someone more important in her life than her four beloved kids.

"If a good mother is one who loves her child more than anyone else in the world, I am not a good mother," Waldman wrote in a March 27, 2005, Modern Love column. "I am in fact a bad mother. I love my husband more than I love my children."

The e-mail onslaught was scary.

"People were telling me that they were going to report me to the Department of Social Services, that my children should be taken away," Waldman says. Later she found a note on her gate expressing similar sentiments and adding, unnecessarily, "I know where you live."

Inevitably, she went on "The Oprah Winfrey Show." While getting made up, she heard "a kind of shrieking" in the background. "What is that?" she asked a producer. Turned out it was the studio audience awaiting its chance to rip, tear and shred.

"Most of them hate you," she recalls the producer telling her cheerfully, "but you were a criminal defense attorney, you're used to hostile juries, you'll be fine."

A couple of years later, Waldman still hadn't gotten over the fury she'd aroused. One day she was venting to her friend Daniel Handler, a.k.a. Lemony Snicket, when he said, "Why don't you just shut up and write a book?"

She'll be talking about it Thursday morning on "Today."

The book takes off from what Waldman calls the "Bad Mother perp walk" she let herself in for with her "I love my husband more" heresy. It moves on to explore the intense cultural anxiety on the subject of motherhood as well as Waldman's personal history, beginning with her mother's second-wave feminist expectations. (Although she certainly would have children, "my career was to be paramount.") In the process, it touches on topics ranging from ridiculous homework assignments for third-graders, to teen sex, to the way motherhood first turned Waldman into a writer then changed the nature of what she wrote.

It was always going to be called "Bad Mother," Waldman says, but Handler helpfully suggested a subtitle as well:

"Remember When Ayelet Waldman Went on Oprah and She Didn't Have a Book to Plug? Remember? Remember? Now She Does!"

* * *

As a parent, I am absolutely certain of only one thing: my own fallibility.

-- "Bad Mother"

The title "Bad Mother" carries a double meaning, at least when applied to Waldman. She intends "bad" to mean "incompetent" or "neglectful," though she doesn't really think she's either. But the definition "formidable, not to be messed with" fits as well.

Her husband, novelist Michael Chabon, tells a story that proves it.

One time when Waldman and Chabon were driving in Los Angeles, they saw a man who seemed to be threatening a woman by the side of the road. "Ayelet shouted, 'Stop the car!' " Chabon recalls, which he did, though he worried they'd get shot for interfering. Then he watched his wife jump out, yell "Get your hands off her!" and offer the grateful woman a ride.

The scene gains drama if you know that Waldman is 5 feet tall.

Right now she's perched on a chair in the couple's sunny Berkeley kitchen, talking about "Bad Mother" and the novel she's just finished, "Red Hook Road," which is scheduled to be published next year. The kids -- ages 14, 11, 7 and 6 -- are all at school, and the house is unusually quiet.

Except, suddenly, it's not.

"Omigod! You forgot Ida-Rose!" Waldman yells to Chabon, who's just back from running an errand.

"Yes, I forgot Rosie," he says calmly, and heads back out to retrieve the 7-year-old from a reading program that has messed up the household routine. This leaves Waldman to address a visitor with another worry:

"Omigod! You're going to write what horrible parents we are!"

Well, no. Let he who is without sin . . .

Besides, wasn't this dad's mistake? Why hasn't Waldman -- or anyone else, for that matter -- written a book called "Bad Father"? Why don't more men join the multitudes of women who agonize about parenting issues?

Because there's a double standard, of course.

"The bar is so low for men," Waldman explains, that all they have to do is "show up" and Good Father medals will be pinned on their chests. "Therein lies the failure of the feminist movement my mother and her friends began."

She's a feminist herself, but she doesn't blame individual men: It's hard for them to buck the system alone, and the price of trying to balance work and parenthood remains unfortunately high. And she certainly doesn't blame Chabon, who told her within an hour of meeting her that "because he was a writer and worked at night, he intended to spend his days taking care of his children, so that his wife could pursue her career."

And hey, that's only part of the reason she proposed to him three weeks later.

Waldman, who's 44, grew up in New Jersey, went to college at Wesleyan and got a law degree at Harvard, where she had a classmate who would go on to bigger things. ("I always say that I'm the only person in the class of '91 who wasn't Barack Obama's best friend.") She met Chabon while she was working at a New York law firm, but by the time their daughter Sophie was born, she was immersed in a job as a federal public defender in L.A.

Then she quit.

Never mind that she loved her work or that she had found the perfect husband to support it. She was jealous of the time he got to spend with Sophie, and of the time Sophie got to spend with him.

Waldman's mother was appalled. A would-be art historian, she had given up that career option when she chose to marry, at 23, a man with four children from an earlier marriage. She had come to look back on this decision with frustration and anger, Waldman says, and had raised her daughter not to make a similar mistake.

Meanwhile, Waldman was having doubts of her own.

She hadn't prepared herself to be a full-time mother, and she found that, along with its joys, the job came with huge helpings of anxiety and boredom. "It was not a good time," she says. "I would just sit there at the playground pushing the kid on the swing and every once in a while I would say to one of these moms, 'Omigod, isn't this the worst thing you've ever done?' And they'd be like: 'What? What? I love making homemade Play-Doh.' "

What could she do that would keep her sane and still let her make her children her priority? For a while, she thought teaching law was the answer, but she kept forgetting the topic of the legal article she was supposed to be writing.

One day, she started writing something else.

"I was looking around and I look at my husband, who's got this great life, right?" Waldman says. As she describes it, the best-selling, literarily acclaimed author of "The Mysteries of Pittsburgh," "Wonder Boys," "The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay" and "The Yiddish Policemen's Union" wakes up at 11 and "plays with the baby all day. Then he goes into his office, works for four hours and has this amazing, successful career.

"And I'm, like, well, I can't do what he does. But I can write a murder mystery."

She kept her effort secret at first, Chabon recalls, but 50 or 60 pages in, she showed him what she had. "The one thing you can't really teach someone is to have a voice," he says. "I thought, wow, this is funny and charming -- go for it."

And if it hadn't been?

"I would have just told her. There's no need to tiptoe with Ayelet."

In 2000, she published the first of her series of "Mommy-Track Mysteries." The protagonist is a fast-talking, 5-foot-tall former public defender who has quit her job to stay home with her children but is -- surprise, surprise -- "awash in ambivalence" about the move.

"What do you want me to say, Al? That I'm playing private eye because I'm bored with the daily grind of motherhood?" Juliet Applebaum snaps to a former colleague in "Nursery Crimes."

"Well, are you?" he asks.

"Probably. Is there anything wrong with that?"

* * *

I believe that mothers should tell the truth, even -- no, especially -- when the truth is difficult.

-- "Bad Mother"

There came a time, however, when writing lighthearted whodunits about a stay-at-home mom -- or, more accurately, a "stay-in-minivan" mom -- wasn't something Waldman could face.

In Chapter 11 of "Bad Mother," she explains.

She had two children and she was pregnant again. She and Chabon had taken to calling their future baby "Rocketship," a placeholder for whatever the child's real name would turn out to be. She had reached the age where testing for genetic abnormalities was recommended, so at four months, she had an amniocentesis.

The news was bad.

Rocketship had a trisomy, "a triple chromosome where there should have been only two." The most common trisomy is Down syndrome, but this was a rare type about which little was known.

"What you decide to do depends on how lucky you feel," a genetic counselor told them.

To summarize Waldman's chapter on the decision she and Chabon made would be to do them an injustice. She tells the story in detail, avoiding euphemistic language, holding little if anything back. An emotional climax came when she tracked down one of the authors of the only major study on Rocketship's particular defect, then phoned the doctor at home.

There was no research beyond what had been published, this "impossibly kind" woman told Waldman, but she could speak as a parent. She had a mentally retarded teenage son herself and she loved him "desperately."

But if she had it to do again, he wouldn't be here.

Waldman mostly uses the term "Bad Mother" ironically. Not this time. Choosing an abortion was the right decision, she says -- she has had two children since -- but it still made her feel like "the worst mother who had ever been born."

It also changed the kind of writer she could be.

Unable to go back to her "silly little mysteries," she found herself writing a more serious novel called "Daughter's Keeper." Intended to distract her, it was supposed to focus on the unjust enforcement of drug laws.

Which it did. But it was also about a pregnant woman and the fate of her child.

Next, she says, came a ghost story written for an anthology Chabon was putting together. It was about a woman "haunted by the ghost of her dead baby, who actually breast-feeds her dead baby."

It was as if she were writing in concentric circles, each closer to "the heart of what happened." Her 2006 novel "Love and Other Impossible Pursuits," about a mother whose day-old daughter dies of sudden infant death syndrome, brought her closer still.

The novel poured out of Waldman as if a psychic dam had been breached. She finished a draft in two weeks.

"I just tell her, 'You're lucky that happened to you once,' " Chabon says, because it's not the way writing normally works.

No, it's not, and Waldman proceeded to prove it by writing two novels in succession that didn't work. It wasn't till she'd thrown them out in favor of "Red Hook Road" that she figured out why.

"They were both about mothers of small children," she says.

It was time to move on.

"Red Hook Road," as readers will discover next spring, is set in the kind of coastal New England town where summer people and locals coexist and sometimes even intermarry. Yes, parenthood and grief are themes. But the novel is also full of "boxing and Emily Dickinson and music and Maine and wooden boat building," Waldman says. "I mean, boxing is as important as motherhood in this book."

This might be a slight exaggeration. But it seems clear that Ayelet Waldman's mommy track is approaching its end.

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