Yesterday I found myself with an hour and a half between when a meeting ended and when I needed to pick up Cora. Not quite long enough to go home and accomplish anything before having to be right back in the same part of town. My meeting had been at a coffeeshop, so the last thing I needed to do was to go somewhere and have another cup of coffee. So, of course, I ended up in a bookstore. I can always kill some time in a bookstore, though there is the substantial risk of purchasing something.
Needless to say, I succumbed. I walked out of the store with a copy of Ayelet Waldman’s Bad Mother, a nonfiction book. I’ve read most Waldman’s other books, the MommyTrack mysteries and also the novels, and I remember when she was branded a “bad mother”. It is always nice (if you ask me) to see good work come out of something like that, and Bad Mother is definitely good work.
The book caught my eye because this very subject has weighed on my mind quite a bit in the last year or so. One of the questions Waldman asks in the first chapter is “Is there really no other way to be a mother in contemporary American society than to be locked into the cultural zero-sum game of ‘I’m Okay, You Suck’?” (19). She looks at those tropes of society, the Good Mother and the Bad Mother (and wonders why the bar is set so low for Good Fathers: “a reasonable, attainable goal; you need only be present and supportive” (11)). She looks at judgment, the judgments we pass on ourselves as mothers and on each other.
I’ve only read through the first chapter, but I am hooked. I knew I would like Waldman’s voice, but I also like the way she lays out the playing field, the way she ropes in modern references (Andrea Yates, Brittany Spears) and literary ones (Anna Karenina, late-Victorian poster girl for Bad Mothers, and Medea). I like the way she is both very funny and very serious – that this is serious business is never obscured.
While I’ve never been held up for public excoriation, as Waldman has, I know that I have felt the weight of judgment from other mothers. And I know that even though my mantra with Cora is “different families have different rules” (different needs, different challenges, different ideals), I do sometimes wonder if in some cases different actually is wrong.
Of course, there are different rules which are wrong – abuse is wrong, I think we can all agree on. Shame is wrong, many would agree on. And so on. But between the clearly wrong and the lofty ideal, there is a lot of open space. There is a lot of room for difference, for comparison, for jockeying for position to be closest to Good.
I’m looking forward to the rest of the book; I may come back to talk more about it (fair warning!)