The Sins of the Mothers

Reviewed by Annys Shin
Sunday, May 10, 2009


And Other Things She Taught Me Along the Way

By Ruth Reichl | Penguin Press. 112 pp. $19.95


A Chronicle of Maternal Crimes, Minor Calamities, and Occasional Moments of Grace

By Ayelet Waldman | Doubleday. 213 pp. $24.95

Ruth Reichl opened her first memoir, "Tender at the Bone," with a story about her late mother serving moldy food to guests at her brother's engagement party, a move that sent a couple dozen people to the hospital. Similar tales of her bipolar mother's bizarre forays animate Reichl's two other memoirs, "Comfort Me With Apples" (2001) and "Garlic and Sapphires" (2005). Miriam Reichl emerges from these pages as a chaotic, somewhat irritating and often comical counterpoint to her daughter, who became a restaurant critic for the New York Times and editor of Gourmet magazine. Ruth Reichl, however, has never gotten over the feeling she's betrayed her mother and, in her latest book, has decided to make it up to her by telling the woman's life story.

Rather than rely on her own memories, Reichl mines her mother's letters and diaries. Unfortunately, the result is a thin volume that, while moving, feels incomplete in a way that Reichl's books about herself did not. She never quite seems comfortable inhabiting her mother's skin. Her mother, after all, was exactly what she never wanted to be: an unhappy housewife. Reichl casts her as a kind of feminist martyr: born too late and too well off to be content solely with the roles of wife and mother but too early to have developed the sense of empowerment made possible by the pill, Title IX and Oprah. Miriam's dream of becoming a doctor like her father was crushed by her parents, who told her she would ruin her chances of landing a husband -- a prospect already jeopardized by her homeliness.

Miriam instead earned a doctorate in musicology and opened a bookstore, a venture that allowed her to befriend literary luminaries such as novelist Christopher Morley. But she felt pressure to marry and rushed into an unhappy union with a man who walked out on her. After a few years on her own, Miriam met the kind-hearted Ernest Reichl at a party. Though Ernest was a far better match for her, Miriam resumed the role of unhappy housewife. She despaired at her inability to keep a neat house. Then there was her cooking. It seems Miriam Reichl had a knack for concocting treats out of spoiled food: Recalling a delicacy her mother made for her Brownie troupe, Ruth Reichl writes: "As I watch, Mom mixes the jam into the not very moldy chocolate pudding and adds the prunes."

Reichl doesn't mention her mother's bipolar diagnosis as early or often as she has in previous books, perhaps to avoid undermining what might be the moral of Miriam's story: that a career is a prerequisite for happiness. It's a lesson that seems out of place in the era of the opt-out revolution. If women have learned anything in the last 30 years, it's that having it all isn't what it is cracked up to be. That sense of bitterness and disappointment, especially among highly educated professional women, has spawned its own subgenre, starting with the 2002 anthology "The Bitch in the House." Novelist and mommy-war veteran Ayelet Waldman fits into that genre with her new book, "Bad Mother."

The title refers to the bogey mama all other moms love to revile. (Think Octomom or Britney driving with her kid on her lap.) It's a role Waldman took on herself after she wrote an essay confessing that she loved her husband more than their four children. Waldman hates to hold back, and that trait serves her well in "Bad Mother," a collection of 18 essays, many of which have been published previously. She covers a lot of the terrain of modern motherhood as experienced by a privileged subset of women -- feeling hounded by the breastfeeding police, being ambushed virtually on mommy listservs and discovering that marching in a Take Back the Night rally in college does not guarantee that a man will do an equal share of housework.

Waldman managed to find a wannabe house husband, novelist Michael Chabon. But after becoming a mother, Waldman, who is also an attorney, felt betrayed by her feminist forebears as she tried writing briefs and handling jailhouse phone calls from clients while tethered to a breast pump. She decided to quit her job and become a full-time stay-at-home mom, which sparked another identity crisis. She resolved it by turning it into a career, starting with her novel "Nursery Crimes," about a stay-at-home mother who is so bored she starts to solve mysteries.

Waldman has covered much of this ground in other pieces, including her decision to have an abortion after learning the baby she was carrying had a genetic defect. She also talks about being bipolar and her decision to remain on her medication while pregnant, which led to a similar scare.

After reading these stories, plenty of parents will fault Waldman for something or other. Plenty more will be able to relate.

Annys Shin is a financial writer for the Washington Post.

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