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'Bad Mother' searches for a prescription for success for her children

| Sunday, May 10, 2009

Ayelet Waldman admits she was bored after leaving her job as a public defender to raise her first child

In her new book, "Bad Mother," she writes that "the sheer monotony of caring for a baby was killing me." It wasn't until she found an outlet -- writing -- that allowed her to stay at home and challenge herself that she found some measure of sanity.

"I needed to carve out a part of the day that was for me," Waldman says. "There was this feeling that everything I did revolved around my kids. I had no conversations. My conversations were about homemade baby-food recipes and the relative merits of Huggies and Pampers, I needed desperately to find a way out of that. That's when I started writing."

Waldman thus launched a career that enabled her to balance the needs of her family with her own need for intellectual stimulation. No matter what she did, there were critics. Some thought she sacrificed her career goals in order to take care of her family. Others thought her children deserved her undivided attention, 24/7. What she calls the "Bad Mother Police Force" was quick to critique her every public utterance after she wrote an essay about how she loved her husband more than her children.

Never mind that Waldman, in the same essay, also wrote about her love for her four children. That if she lost one of them, she would be "consumed, destroyed by the pain." But what she could not imagine was "a future beyond my husband's death."

"I have been trying to figure out the absolute prescription for success, in terms of what we pass on to our daughters," says Waldman, who is married to writer Michael Chabon. "I actually do feel there is a way to make a life that balances all of this. It demands an incredible amount of luck and an incredible amount of creativity. I could never have had the balance I needed as a lawyer, but I can have it as a writer."

Waldman is quick to admit she has an almost ideal situation. She's comfortable financially, and has a husband who is more than willing to share housework and parenting duties, and also encouraged her to write

"Emotionally, for me, it was a dangerous thing to do because of the context of my marriage with Michael," she says, noting her husband's first marriage to another writer. "But he was a complete mensch about it."

Waldman divides her book into 18 chapters (the Jewish number for life) and discourses on Halloween costumes for children ("Sexy Witches and Cereal Boxes"), the desire for another child ("Baby Lust") and her son Zeke's learning disability ("Drawing a Line").

She also writes about her own expectations for her children, and how she expected the offspring of a Harvard graduate and a gifted writer to be geniuses. When they turned out to be average kids -- smart but not off-the-charts smart -- Waldman was forced to admit she, like so many other parents, had unreasonable expectations.

"The greatest lesson is, they are who they are," Waldman says of her children. "You can't force them to be anything else. I always say, 'They hatch, and they hatch complete.' You think you're going to have this affect on who they are and what they do and how they think. ... But really, they are formed and have these finalities. I remember looking at my first daughter (Sophie) within a couple of hours after I gave birth to her, and I had this incredibly strange experience, which was: I just gave birth to a person. Not a baby, but this is a person and she's got an opinion and a point of view, and already we disagree."

Waldman admits she's gone through different ideas of what a mother should be. She recalls telling a friend that she'd rather have a smart kid than a happy child. A few years later, she recanted that statement, apologizing to her friend who has a child with a mild case of autism.

"We all expect our children to be gifted," she says, "but they're not most of the time. What they are is wonderful. You lose sight in worrying if they're smart enough about how magical they are. ... Who was I when I was making that comment• Where was I• The only thing in the world that matters is that your kid (is) -- and I'm not even going for happy, I'm going for at ease, contentment. My one hope for them is they find something that makes them satisfied, and they find someone who loves them, and they live their lives with that person doing that thing. That's the dream."

Additional Information:

Capsule Review

It's not that 'Bad Mother: A Chronicle of Maternal Crimes, Minor Calamaties, and Occasional Moments of Grace' should be a must-read for mothers. They will know the territory, the joys and the pitfalls of motherhood, that Ayelet Waldman writes about so well. It's fathers who should be required to read this wise, intelligent and often humorous reflection on what it means to be a mother, and the benefits of being a good father.

• Rege Behe

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