In Bad Mother, Ayelet Waldman asks whether it is possible in contemporary society to be a good mother. The women’s movement of the twentieth century promised women emancipation from the traditional monochromic roles of secretary, teacher, nurse, wife, mother, and grandmother. It promised the freedom to succeed both in marriage and in business, achieving results on a par with one’s partner and one’s professional peers. Sharing in the tasks of taking out the garbage or screwing in a Molly bolt, as well as in the accomplishments and rewards of the workplace, has become an expected norm for married couples. Such multitasking for success takes its toll, however. Motherhood is still an idealized role that is likely to make every actual mother feel guilty for not living up to its image. Young professional mothers exhaust themselves in simultaneous pursuit of perfection in career and caregiving. Waldman, a former public defender and workplace mom, addresses this issue with humor, pain, and good sense.
Waldman observes that visions of the ideal mother generally begin in the starry-eyed hopes of the mother’s mother, who passes on her own model of motherhoodone that she herself could not matchto her daughters. The author speaks of her own mother, a member of the women’s movement, who advocated and instilled values of freedom and self-determination in her daughter. As she notes, “My mission as her daughter was to realize the dream of complete equality that she and her fellow bra burners had worked so hard to attain.” There was no other narrative available to Waldman. Just as abused children become abusive adults, girls take on the models of how to be a wife and mother from their own mothers’ values and actions.
In addition to all the feminist goals presented to the author, her good Jewish mother predictably expected grandchildrenbut not too many. She embraced her daughter’s career and her maternity, at least until Ayelet became pregnant with her fourth child. Her mother’s reaction was not positive, demonstrating the extent to which mixed signals can complicate the mother-daughter relationship.
Waldman also describes her relationship with her mother-in-law, a relationship she believes fits a universal template. One reads with understanding and empathy as the author describes her tussles with the mother of her novelist husband, Michael Chabon. When Chabon takes his mother to lunch each week, Waldman resents the time he spends with her. When they dine together as a threesome, she continually and triumphantly reminds the older woman that Chabon is now connected more closely to his wife than to his mother. The “couple” is the hegemonic unit, and Waldman describes a universal competition between two women for the same man, “the stuff of sitcom jokes and Greek tragedy.” She recognizes that the future holds a reprise of this war for her, when her son finds his own wife and she becomes the mother-in-law.
Waldman grew up in an era shaped by Free to BeYou and Me (1972), a record album that challenged the gender stereotypes used to educate children. The recording and the 1974 television special it inspired helped motivate her and many others to share homemaking responsibilities and to put the husband-wife relationship first. Public owning of this position has brought the author many negative comments from women who angrily suggest that her children should be taken away from her (because good mothers put their children first), as well as inquiries from men seeking advice on how to improve their own wives by purchasing lingerie. Waldman’s response to the latter is to suggest that a turn at emptying the dishwasher will do more for a couple’s sex life than changing their underwear.
Waldman emphasizes that equal involvement in marital tasks and parenting is not a matter of the man helping out the womanstill seen as the sole primary caregiverbut of owning the equality of responsibility. Even married couples of a former era, those old...
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