- The Washington Times - Sunday, June 14, 2009

BAD MOTHER
By Ayelet Waldman
Doubleday, $24.95, 213 pages
REVIEWED BY MARTIN RUBIN

Ayelet Waldman’s requisite 15 minutes in the spotlight of fame — or notoriety — came when she wrote an article that proclaimed, in the bland formulation she puts near the beginning of this book, that “I loved my husband more than my children.” Well, one of the reasons that her utterance made the splash that it did was that there was a little more to it than that. What really shocked people was her going on to say that while she could live with the dreadful possibility of one of her children dying, contemplation of her husband’s death was so horrible to her as to be totally catastrophic. Now we have a 200-page book that is, in ways both intended and not, an amplification of this vexed pronouncement. In all sorts of respects, it puts the comment into perspective, allowing us to understand it — and the person who felt that she had to make it — much better.

Once you have read this book, you can have little doubt that Ms. Waldman loves her four children deeply. It is clear, that as with every other sphere of her life — education, career, political engagement, marriage — she has embraced motherhood in all its aspects with determination, gusto and enthusiasm. She is profoundly involved with every detail of her children’s lives, it seems at times to the point of obsession. You will not find a more concerned parent.

One of the more attractive characteristics that Ms. Waldman demonstrates in these pages is a refreshing honesty, an unwillingness, perhaps even an inability, to filter out thoughts that others would never give voice or consign to writing. This is a partial explanation of that original effusion that got her into so much trouble: She is not in fact the first parent ever to think what she did, even if it is hard to imagine anyone else foolhardy enough to express it in so public a forum. Ms. Waldman is open about her bipolar condition and concedes her compulsiveness, examples of which abound in the book.

But she is an intelligent, discriminating mother who clearly devotes far more time and attention to her offspring than do most of her peers, including those that, unlike her, do not claim to love their spouse or partner that much more. And, considering just how much she loves those kids, boy must she love her husband, writer Michael Chabon. There’s a lot about that here too, too much information for many, I’d bet, including the children you’d think and him as well. There’s something so shrill, so desperate, in her avowal of love for Mr. Chabon that it comes across as much more problematic and ineffably harder to believe in than that “lesser” parental love, particularly when confronted with her obviously genuine anguish in talking about the child she chose to abort because of the possibility of chromosomal abnormality. No one could be harder on Ms. Waldman than she is on herself about making this heartbreaking decision, or more staunch in accepting the responsibility for making it.

The best thing about “Bad Mother” is the fleshed-out portrait of the caricature woman who made that shocking statement relative to husband and children. You see that she’s the kind of person who always feels compelled to push the envelope, to take things another step further, and another, and sometimes yet another ad infinitum. It’s integral to her very nature to do so. Unfortunately for Ms. Waldman, not all the traits that emerge from her accounts are as palatable or as admirable as her honesty.

She is undoubtedly bright, certainly intelligent but she lacks the higher forms of profound cleverness, let alone wisdom. Hers is fundamentally a coarse sensibility and this is partially responsible for leading her onto paths better avoided. Her strident advocacy of what she sees as the characteristics of the gay men so congenial to her that she has wished that her sons be one of them is so crude that her some of her homosexual acolytes have (quite correctly) accused her of perpetuating stereotypes. The book is peppered with her political opinions, offered up with a complacent sureness that they are correct, in every sense of the term. The woman (and the writer) who can be so devastating about very similar attitudes in her own mother (and even about herself at earlier stages in her life) seems incapable of perspective about her current enthusiasms.

Barack Obama was a classmate of Ms. Waldman’s at Harvard Law School and she has been and continues to be one of his most vocal and enthusiastic supporters. She betrays — perhaps unwittingly — the intensity of this — and its ripple effect on her children — in an anecdote:

“At the height of the 2008 Democratic primary, six year old Rosie [her younger daughter] awoke in the middle of the night wailing, ‘I can’t get the voice out of my head!’

‘What voice?’ I said panicking. ‘What is the voice telling you to do?’ Immediately, I saw the rest of our lives. My beautiful fairy daughter, the sparkle in her eyes dimmed by Thorazine, struggling against the straps of her straitjacket, while I stood helplessly by, unable to save her.

Rosie clutched her skull with both hands and whipped her head back and forth. ‘It’s Hillary Clinton!’ she wailed. ‘Health care, health care, health care, she just won’t shut up!’”

This incident is so telling about the maelstrom of life with Ms. Waldman — the labile emotions, the volatility that makes yesterday’s icon today’s bogeyman (or, more correctly, bogeyperson), the pressure-cooker environment. Ms. Waldman and her family live in Berkeley, Calif., and she writes about much of the rest of blue- state, not to mention red-state, America as one might about a different universe. The trouble with Ms. Waldman is not that she doesn’t give her all to her children, rather it is just what that which she gives them entails: the baggage — political, sociological, psychological — and the effect that it will have on them. Not to mention the continuing saga of a mother who just can’t help doing … well, who knows what next?

Martin Rubin is a writer and critic in Pasadena, Calif.

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