Archive for Sunday, May 10, 2009

‘Bad Mother’s’ day: Waldman revels in parenting controversy

Author Ayelet Waldman courted controversy when she admitted in The New York Times that she loved her husband more than her children. Her response was to write “Bad Mother.”

Author Ayelet Waldman courted controversy when she admitted in The New York Times that she loved her husband more than her children. Her response was to write “Bad Mother.”

May 10, 2009

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— The morning after Ayelet Waldman’s infamous essay was published, she got a call from a friend who warned: Don’t watch “The View.”

Waldman never watched the ABC chatfest anyway. But so what? Why shouldn’t she watch it now?

“Because Star Jones is ripping you to shreds.”

Another friend called from Chicago.

“Ayelet, what the (expletive) have you done?” Waldman recalls her whispering. “I’m sitting at a Starbucks, and the women at the next table are just tearing you to shreds.”

Ripping, tearing, shredding: Time to fire up the computer and see what was going on.

“I’ve never seen so many e-mails in an inbox,” she says.

And all because she’d admitted — no, asserted! publicly! in The New York Times! — that there was someone more important in her life than her four beloved kids.

“If a good mother is one who loves her child more than anyone else in the world, I am not a good mother,” Waldman wrote in a March 27, 2005, Modern Love column. “I am in fact a bad mother. I love my husband more than I love my children.”

The e-mail onslaught was scary.

“People were telling me that they were going to report me to the Department of Social Services, that my children should be taken away,” Waldman says.

Inevitably, she went on “The Oprah Winfrey Show.” While getting made up, she heard “a kind of shrieking” in the background. “What is that?” she asked. Turned out it was the studio audience.

“Most of them hate you,” she recalls the producer telling her cheerfully, “but you were a criminal defense attorney, you’re used to hostile juries, you’ll be fine.”

A couple of years later, Waldman still hadn’t gotten over the fury she’d aroused. One day she was venting to her friend Daniel Handler, a.k.a. Lemony Snicket, when he said, “Why don’t you just shut up and write a book?”

Higher standards

The title “Bad Mother” carries a double meaning, at least when applied to Waldman. She intends “bad” to mean “incompetent” or “neglectful,” though she doesn’t really think she’s either. But the definition “formidable, not to be messed with” fits as well.

Her husband, novelist Michael Chabon, tells a story that proves it.

One time when Waldman and Chabon were driving in Los Angeles, they saw a man who seemed to be threatening a woman by the side of the road. “Ayelet shouted, ‘Stop the car!’” Chabon recalls, which he did, though he worried they’d get shot for interfering. Then he watched his wife jump out, yell “Get your hands off her!” and offer the grateful woman a ride.

The scene gains drama if you know that Waldman is 5 feet tall.

Right now Waldman is in the couple’s sunny Berkeley kitchen, talking about “Bad Mother” and her novel “Red Hook Road,” scheduled to be published next year. The kids — ages 6, 7, 11 and 14 — are at school, and the house is unusually quiet.

Except, suddenly, it’s not.

“Omigod! You forgot Ida-Rose!” Waldman yells to Chabon, who’s just back from running an errand.

“Yes, I forgot Rosie,” he says calmly, and heads back out to retrieve the 7-year-old from a reading program that has messed up the household routine. This leaves Waldman with another worry:

“Omigod! You’re going to write what horrible parents we are!”

Well, no. Besides, wasn’t this dad’s mistake? Why hasn’t anyone written a book called “Bad Father”? Why don’t more men join the multitudes of women who agonize about parenting issues?

Because there’s a double standard, of course.

“The bar is so low for men,” Waldman explains, that all they have to do is “show up,” and Good Father medals will be pinned on their chests. “Therein lies the failure of the feminist movement my mother and her friends began.”

She’s a feminist herself but doesn’t blame individual men. And she certainly doesn’t blame Chabon, who told her within an hour of meeting her that “because he was a writer and worked at night, he intended to spend his days taking care of his children, so that his wife could pursue her career.”

She proposed to him three weeks later.

Compelled to write

Waldman, 44, grew up in New Jersey and studied law at Harvard, where she had a classmate who would go on to bigger things. (“I always say that I’m the only person in the class of ’91 who wasn’t Barack Obama’s best friend.”) She met Chabon while working at a New York law firm. By the time their daughter Sophie was born, she was a federal public defender in Los Angeles.

Then she quit.

Never mind that she loved her work and had the perfect husband to support it. She was jealous of the time he and Sophie got to spend together.

Waldman’s mother was appalled. She’d given up dreams of being an art historian to marry a man with four children. She came to look back on her decision with frustration and anger, Waldman says, and raised her daughter not to make a similar mistake.

Waldman herself found that full-time motherhood came with huge helpings of anxiety and boredom. “I would just sit there at the playground pushing the kid on the swing and every once in a while I would say to one of these moms, ‘Omigod, isn’t this the worst thing you’ve ever done?’ And they’d be like: ‘What? What? I love making homemade Play-Doh.’ ”

One day, she started writing.

“I was looking around and I look at my husband, who’s got this great life, right?” Waldman says. As she describes it, the best-selling, literarily acclaimed author of “The Mysteries of Pittsburgh,” “Wonder Boys,” “The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay” and “The Yiddish Policemen’s Union” wakes at 11 and “plays with the baby all day. Then he goes into his office, works for four hours and has this amazing, successful career.”

“And I’m, like, well, I can’t do what he does. But I can write a murder mystery.”

In 2000, she published the first of her series of “Mommy-Track Mysteries.” The protagonist is a fast-talking former public defender who quits to stay home with her children but is — surprise — “awash in ambivalence” about the move.

There came a time, however, when Waldman couldn’t face writing lighthearted whodunits about a stay-at-home mom. In Chapter 11 of “Bad Mother,” she explains.

Then a mother of two and pregnant again, Waldman had an amniocentesis that showed the baby had a trisomy, “a triple chromosome where there should have been only two.” The most common trisomy is Down syndrome, but this was a rare type about which little was known.

“What you decide to do depends on how lucky you feel,” a genetic counselor told them.

An emotional climax came when Waldman phoned one of the authors of the only major study on this particular defect. There was no research beyond what had been published, this “impossibly kind” woman told Waldman, but she could speak as a parent: She had a mentally retarded teenage son herself whom she loved “desperately.”

But if she had it to do again, he wouldn’t be here.

Moving on

Waldman mostly uses the term “Bad Mother” ironically. Not this time. Choosing an abortion was the right decision, she says — she has had two children since — but it still made her feel like “the worst mother who had ever been born.”

It also changed the kind of writer she could be.

Unable to go back to her “silly little mysteries,” she found herself writing a more serious novel called “Daughter’s Keeper,” intended to focus on the unjust enforcement of drug laws. But it was also about a pregnant woman and the fate of her child.

Next, she says, came a ghost story written for an anthology Chabon was compiling about a woman “haunted by the ghost of her dead baby, who actually breast-feeds her dead baby.”

It was as if she were writing in concentric circles, each closer to “the heart of what happened.” Her 2006 novel “Love and Other Impossible Pursuits,” about a mother whose day-old daughter dies of sudden infant death syndrome, brought her closer still.

Then she wrote two novels that didn’t work. It wasn’t till she’d thrown them out in favor of “Red Hook Road” that she figured out why.

“They were both about mothers of small children,” she says.

It was time to move on.

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