On Being a Bad Mother

True confessions

The dust jacket of Ayelet Waldman’s book Bad Mother is crumpled and coffee-ringed from sliding around the cluttered floor of my Volvo wagon these past few weeks. I slipped the too-conspicuous BAD MOTHER cover off the hardback that lives on my dashboard because my car already reveals too much about me. In some ways, sure, my Volvo is a typical messy mom-mobile with the usual flotsam and jetsam: the Beast Quest and Junie B. Jones books, spines splayed; kids’ sneakers; pink socks; a nest of deflated Wild Cherry Capri Suns; a brand-new yellow boogie board (see how ambitious we are with our fun?). But squint farther back through the grimy windows and you might wonder: What’s with the brown-paper grocery bag stuffed with circa-1986 dress pumps, the electric toothbrush and hair dryer with cords trailing? Why the capsized Hewlett Packard printer drifting in a sea of copy paper, the plastic dry-cleaning sack stuffed with family snapshots? Who drives around with an Alpine-white $700 Miele vacuum cleaner pressing its nozzles and hose against the windows like a trapped octopus?

Is this actually the car of a homeless person? Sort of—but let’s get back to the book. I confess that I’ve sat a few afternoons in this Volvo reading Bad Mother (my girls and I being the sort of people who sometimes enjoy pulling over to the side of the road to read), and in the end, I am disappointed. I rush to assure you, though, that it is not the author who is to blame. I’m a fan of Waldman’s—I found her novel Love and Other Impossible Pursuits (in which the protagonist’s two-day-old baby dies of SIDS—take that, feel-good mommy-book market!) daring, and brilliantly rendered. Here Waldman is equally fearless in baring her own warts, from her manic depression to her brutally frank redubbing of a support group she joined after the anguished termination of a pregnancy (no gauzy pro-choice language for her) “The Dead Baby Club.”

On the evidence of this book, however, Waldman is simply not bad enough to be our modern-day bad mother torchbearer. Oh, I don’t insist she be like Susan Smith, who drove her two sons into the lake, or Andrea Yates, who drowned her five kids in the bathtub, or Britney Spears, who drove with Baby On Board In Lap, or even Paula Poundstone, who not only got a DUI while driving her kids but got charged with committing a lewd act with a girl under the age of 14 (the charge was later dropped). And yet why do I still find Poundstone so likable? So what if Waldman confessed, in her infamous New York Times essay, that she loves her husband more than her children: to wit, she said that if any of her children died, she would be devastated, but if her husband died, she would be incapacitated. Then again, Waldman does have four children, and she is married to the preternaturally handsome and talented author (and superdad) Michael Chabon. And for God’s sake, Waldman need not leave her children to be with the man she loves, since he is their biological father. In fact, from a cheerful magazine profile I perused (also while hunched in the Volvo), it appears that Waldman, Chabon, and children all live happily together in the same house (I recall an inviting Berkeley Arts and Crafts home with sunlit porch, burnished dark wood, and family dog). Jeez—four children from the same marriage, no chain-smoking maladjusted exes, no surly teen stepkids, in-love literary-superstar parents—this is badness?

Then again, Ayelet Waldman is “worse” than what’s described in another book in my Borgesian mobile library, The Imperfect Mom, an anthology edited by Therese Borchard. (For reference, Borchard’s other books include I Like Being Catholic and I Love Being a Mom.) In her introduction, Borchard cites her own watershed Imperfect Mom incident: rather than staying home and letting her two children and a friend’s boy, whom she was babysitting, watch cartoons, Borchard naively took the boy along with her own toddler and baby to the city dock to feed the ducks. Too late did Borchard realize three small children were two too many. Her son playfully pushed her friend’s kid into the drink, and a former lifeguard nearby jumped in and rescued him. The boy was fine and the mom was forgiving, but Borchard was hysterical, and her retelling of the tale—particularly as regards her own guilt over it—was so memorable that an editor persuaded her to turn it into a magazine article, and subsequently into this book. So what is perfection, anyway? she now asks herself.

I’d been mulling this concept over for a while, when in yoga class one day my teacher suggested we each try for a perfect pose. She’s not a yogi who pushes and demands. She surely knew that none of us could achieve, on this day, perfection of any kind. But still she said, “Try.” As we moved into a cobra pose, she instructed us, “Relax into it. Lead with your heart.” That day, I held my cobra a fraction longer, a trifle higher, and much more joyfully. And I thought about mothering.

Well, okay.

Certainly being a “perfect” mother is unachievable. And yet, at first Borchard isn’t satisfied to be her less-than-inspiring compatriot, the “good enough” mother described by the British psychoanalyst D. W. Winnicott in the 1950s. When she reads Winnicott, however, Borchard decides that the approach to mothering he characterizes as good enough is actually pretty close to perfect:

He didn’t talk about starting a three-year-old with Suzuki violin lessons, ensuring that my eight-year-old never ever has to wear a dirty soccer uniform to a game, or buying your teen the designer clothing and big-screen TV everyone else has. Winnicott’s prescription was devotion—abiding, affectionate attention. Lead with your heart … And soI’ve stopped asking myself, “Do I do enough?” I ask instead, “Do I lead with my heart?” Each of my days with my children embodies my dedication when I am open to them. Sitting around our kitchen table over dinner—whether it’s packaged mac and cheese or roast beef with all the fixings—we are giving thanks, talking to each other, laughing, and I am demonstrating the dedicated care Winnicott spoke of. Are we mothers merely “good enough” who sacrifice, console, cajole, nourish, sustain, cherish, guide, shelter, and love, year after year? No. We are perfect enough.

I must tell you that from where I sit, which admittedly is in a dust-grimed Volvo, not only am I not perfect enough, I’m not even always particularly open. (Will I buy another 100 Pokemon cards for my wheedling daughters today at Target? No. Case—and heart—closed!) Then again, my view is biased, as I myself am not just an imperfect mother, I am a bad mother. I am bad not in that fluttery, anxious, 21st-century way educated middle-class mothers consider themselves “failures” because they snap when they are tired, because they occasionally feed their kids McNuggets, because as they journal they soulfully question whether they’re mindfully attaining a proper daily work/life balance. No, I am bad because after a domestic partnership of 20 years, when my kids were still elementary-school-age, I fell in love, had an affair, admitted it, and quite deservedly got tossed out of the house on my ass. Currently between homes (my earthly belongings reside in a 10-by-10-foot windowless U-Haul storage unit whilst I alternately house-sit, pool-sit, and cat-sit), I furtively park at the curb of my former home for an extra few minutes after dropping my kids off and, with my laptop, I steal wireless. Approaching 50, I am living a life that is less sunlit Waldman/Chabon than tattered Charles Bukowski.

In short, I am truly bad, in a 1970s way—that decade when women really were bad! My novelist friend Janet Fitch (White Oleander, Paint It Black), herself a literary explicator and connoisseur of female “badness,” was inspired to invoke those bad old days the other evening. I was cooking her dinner at the villa where I was cat-sitting while my girls were in Texas with an aunt (apparently roundly enjoying Bible camp). We had begun by talking about my brother in crime Mark Sanford, in particular about his Argentinian e-mails, à la: “We are in a hopelessly … impossible situation of love.” A whole nation recoiled, yet I thought he expressed the “love” problem very well. When you look at Sanford’s own trudge along the Appalachian Trail—the 20-year marriage, the political career, the grimly lean investment-banker-turned-campaign-manager wife, the four children—well, as Tina Turner would say, what’s love got to do with it? The very success of the modern American family—where kids get punctually to SAT-tutoring classes, the mortgage gets paid, the second-story remodel stays on budget—surely depends on spouses’ not being in love. In Against Love, Laura Kipnis makes the memorable argument that erotic bliss subverts production: lovers hungry for their next “fix” work less; they steal their temps perdu moments with each other from their bosses’ punch clocks. But never mind work—what time clock requires more constant smacking than the one in the middle-class-children-making factory known as the modern family? Surely no child in such a family has ever flatly declared: “Why did we miss soccer practice Saturday morning? Mom and Dad weren’t able to roll out of bed before noon—they literally can’t keep their hands off each other.” When is there time to compare tan lines on the Appalachian Trail?

Presented by

Sandra Tsing Loh is the author, most recently, of Mother on Fire.

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