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Still Juggling

Do they worry this much about fatherhood?

Bad Mother: A Chronicle of Maternal Crimes, Minor Calamities, and Occasional Moments of Grace, by Ayelet Waldman (Doubleday, $24.95) is an honest and humorous memoir of the author’s motherhood journey.

When asked in an interview why she wrote her new book, Ayelet Waldman responds with a question: “Do you want the snarky answer or the real one?” The real answer is that so many mothers are suffering. The snarky one is that she wrote the book as a personal vendetta against those moms who sent her hate mail and accosted her on Oprah after she published a piece in the New York Times on loving her husband more than her kids.

There are indeed two books intertwined in “Bad Mother” — a real one, exceptionally honest and personal, revealing, through the soul-bearing of one mother, the shadowed, unspoken worlds of mothers everywhere, and a snarky one, in which the self-revelation feels more like self-celebration.

Waldman humorously and elegantly weaves her personal history into the book; in doing so she creates a resonant context for a particular generation of women, raised on Free to be You and Me. “That I was to have children,” she writes, “was a given… but my career was to be paramount.” Her frustrations, anxieties, and failures, spoken unapologetically, resonate, for she speaks truth to power. Ironically, that power is her mother’s generation of feminists, whose daughters, now mothers, are “making serious professional compromises in order to be more available to [their] children or feeling like terrible mothers for having failed to make those sacrifices.”

The snarky book rears its head when Waldman gets so caught up in her own life that she becomes a superficial observer. It is most evident in the chapter on marital relations, in which she attempts to tie bedroom bliss to the equal sharing of housework. Here, her brave and looming presence prevents her from addressing real issues. Feeling like a Bad Mother is terrible. Feeling, on top of that, like a Bad Wife tilts the scale toward despair. It is not only the men who want to “get laid,” and the “beleaguered and frustrated” women will not jump gleefully into the sack at the sight of their husbands putting in a load of laundry. Relationships, and healthy sex lives, are dependent upon two fulfilled and confident, not to mention un-exhausted and financially stable, individuals. Sharing domestic responsibilities is a band-aid solution to the overarching paradox — successful mother, underachieving individual, or successful individual, absent mother — in which many modern mothers find themselves. By remaining so focused on her own experience, and failing to explore its underlying causes, Waldman sometimes misses the bigger picture.

This book could have been called “Confessions of a Bad Mother.” It is a personal work that touches on the profound rather than a profound work that manipulates the personal. Waldman crowns herself Queen Bad Mother while trying simultaneously to annihilate the category and expose the term as fraud. It’s hard to take her seriously, though. There she is, publishing another book, raising four beautiful kids, having great sex with her husband, exchanging novels with her mother-in-law, going to yoga classes, and vacationing in Hawaii. That’s a Good Mother if I ever saw one.

Maya Bernstein, Director of Education and Leadership Initiatives for UpStart Bay Area, writes about good and bad motherhood on Lilith’s blog.