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?

Unlike Sanford, though, I wasn’t clinging to my governor’s mansion. Unlike some Republican heads of the Christian right, I wasn’t aiming to both confess my affair and appeal to Jesus’ mercy in order to somehow remain, weirdly, a head of the Christian right. So my two-career companionate marriage—of traveling tag-team parents—was ending. Now we civilly hand off our children much as we’ve always done (my ex is on the road 20 weeks a year). Because our gypsy children seem okay, because I’d been honest about my shortcomings as a wife and mother, because we are more than 40 years after Betty Friedan’s Feminine Mystique, I’d thought mine was a sad but not atypical tale to cite in The Atlantic as a jumping-off point for a discussion about the state of modern American marriage, but No!!! Oh, the shock, the outrage, the vitriol, the tying to the bumpers of and being dragged behind blogs large and small all across our fair nation! Oh, the plasterings with a scarlet A, the media stonings. I fielded so many horrified condolence calls after one particularly savage L.A. Times profile of me that I found myself plaintively asking a friend, “Don’t you think the word crucifixion is overused nowadays? Do we have to keep using the word crucifixion?” But what particularly surprised me was the ire of some of my own sisters in the chattering class—college-educated, affluent NPR listeners/New York Times readers. In the old days, for better or worse, members of this privileged demographic would have been on female liberation’s front lines. Now they were among the most censorious. “YOU MUST GO BACK HOME!” one girlfriend of mine (56, married, Boomer professional, no kids) typed in block letters. “THINK OF THE CHILDREN!”

“It feels like we’re living in the ’50s,” said Janet. At which point she downed her prosecco and exclaimed: “For God’s sake! When did people get so timid? In the ’70s people wouldn’t give a damn! Doesn’t anyone read Germaine Greer any more?”

I had not—but clearly now was the time. Few books today are truly helpful regarding the dilemma of modern women. On the one hand, there are the “anxious mother” books, for the inadequacy of which, see above, while on the other hand, there is Eat, Pray, Love, which will get you only so far if you’re not a footloose world traveler (and now even Elizabeth Gilbert is married—married!). Yes, surely now was the time to drag my giant, sparking scarlet A down into the crypt and blow dust off some Old Guard feminist texts. I admit that, except for that Gloria Steinem T-shirt (woman/man/fish/bicycle) (and even Gloria Steinem got married—married!), unlike Janet, I was unfamiliar with 1970s feminist arguments. Born in 1962, I’m of the bland generation ’tween Baby Boom and Gen X whose college required-reading lists did not include such Difficult Women’s Material.

I locate Greer’s The Female Eunuch at the public library, and discover that Jennifer Baumgardner’s 2001 intro is both welcoming and forgiving. Baumgardner begins by allowing that second-wave feminist texts can literally be hard to find (she found 16 editions of The Communist Manifesto listed on Amazon.com, but no editions of either Greer’s Eunuch or Shulamith Firestone’s TheDialectic of Sex). She allows that Greer’s stances have flip-flopped over the course of her career; after proudly embracing the ways of a rock-and-roll “star-fucker” and “super-groupie” in her youth, “she later dropped her call to have a ton of sex and began chiming on about the pleasures of celibacy and fine food.” But I admit, when suburban-raised girls like me begin to review the bios of 1970s feminists, theirs are Gitane-scented footsteps in which we’d think twice about treading. (Although I probably shouldn’t talk, given that at age 47, I myself am living out of my car. Then again, it is a Volvo—safety first!)

Baumgardner also allows that Greer’s books may have self-contradictory elements, and I must admit that as a 21st-century reader, I’ve found that they can be choppy and manifesto-like, with off-putting wild generalizations and quasi-magical terminology. (Of course, this can also be said of third-wave feminists’ writings, e.g., Naomi Wolf’s.) Shulamith Firestone deems motherhood “a condition of terminal psychological and social decay, total self-abnegation and physical deterioration.” And Greer veers off in some directions that left me nonplussed (the taste of the menstrual blood of myself or others is something I’m happy to leave to the imagination). But then I turned to her chapter called “Family,” in which she argues that “stem”—or extended, multigenerational—households are inordinately stable; as opposed to today’s two-parent nuclear families, stem homes can never be “broken,” as their success does not “rest on the frail shoulders of two bewildered individuals trying to apply a contradictory blueprint.

Bingo. What better phrase to describe marriage among those of my own bewildered demographic slice—parents of the Creative Class? We start with the best of intentions. In her 20s, the Creative Class female carves out a cool Creative Class career, like Writer. She meets a man with an equally cool Creative Class job—say, Devoted Documentary Filmmaker of the Obama 10-Year African Kiva Water Project. In their 30s, the baby comes: the Creative Class mom is pitched into hormonal bliss (at least at first); the very same week—argh, the timing!—Gates Foundation money suddenly comes through for the Obama-kiva-water-project documentary. Clinking champagne glasses, both spouses agree that Dad must fly to Africa for two months to finish filming while Mom cares for the baby. (The last thing she wants is be a 1950s nag—and how rarely does Gates money come through, how important is drinking water for Africa?)

After kissing her husband goodbye, the Creative Class mother now begins to care for their baby, alone, in New York, or Los Angeles, or whatever cool city they’ve moved to. She’s isolated from her stem family—the grandma, aunts, and in-laws (who all love children!) have long been left behind in notoriously un-Creative Lompoc, Fort Lauderdale, or Ohio. She can barely maneuver the stroller down the four flights of stairs to get to Gymboree ($20 for 45 minutes, and you have to actually stay with your nine-month-old and drum). Result: the 21st-century Creative Class mom’s life is actually far worse than that of her 1950s counterpart. Her husband works as many hours (and travels more), but life is uncomfortable on his salary alone, and the isolated mom has no bingo-playing moms’ group to ease the unnatural, teeth-chattering stress of one-on-one care of her child.

Greer argues that what the shift from stem to nuclear family primarily serves is capitalism, as single-family units represent, first and foremost, a “controllable pattern of consumption.” How much would industries suffer, she argues, if three families shared a washing machine? But of course, today’s hip, educated middle-class mother requires much more than a washing machine. A starter list would include:

• lactation consultant, and lactation gear (in the absence of the knowledgeable grandmother);
• all-weather shock-absorbent stroller;
• stylish post-pregnancy recovery wear;
• Gymboree/toddler classes;
• $150 therapy appointments for redrawing work/self/family boundaries;
• $25 hardbacks on finding a woman’s work/life balance;
• Mini Dove Bars (only 60 calories apiece) to absorb the stress of being wait-listed at the expensive developmental preschool

Because what my class of mothers consumes most is education. We know how precarious our world is, and how easily our children can fall out of it. We see the invisible line down the middle of the street that separates the good school district from the bad. We see the line that separates our Prius, hovering silently at the crosswalk, from the corner, where 50 lower-middle-class children wait for the bus. We see, at our Creative meetings, the line that separates state-college folk from Ivy alums. Clearly, the solutions for overwhelmed working mothers include either moving in with some kid-loving older relatives (but they’re Republicans! from Ohio!) or kicking it 1950s style by just letting their kids play with the other kids on the block. In my part of Los Angeles, this means going over to the Mexican-gardener neighbor’s house and jumping on an illegal trampoline with 11 children, five chihuahuas, and three chickens, as we did often enough when my kids were toddlers. But the gardener’s children were English learners, who would gradually (I was told) leach the vocabulary from my English-speaking childrenand then my daughters would never test gifted, never have academically motivated peers, never get into the good college-prep classes

So, like other Creative Class mothers in big cities, we band together with our fragile tribe of geographically remote, like-minded mothers (who, while friends, are also competitors for community resources—the last magnet application, spot No. 102 on the charter-school waiting list—resources of a dire, frightening scarcity never dreamed of in the 1950s). Weekends are a manic whirl of Kids’ Science Museums, Baby Mozart concerts, and laboriously educational “craft” days when, instead of dumping kids and going off for a 1950s-style hairdressing-and-martini break, mothers are expected to sit down and glue things with their children for seven and a half hours. (I remember decorating Easter eggs with the help of art-history books depicting glamorous Fabergé eggs. The refreshments, though, were still depressingly kid-focused—Domino’s pizza and juice boxes.) Today’s Professional Class mothers are expected to have, above all, the personalities—and the creative aspirations—of elementary-school teachers. But if you’re like me, you can’t compete with those seasoned professionals for whom child education is an enthusiastic vocation. My daughter Suzy’s kindergarten teacher, Lori, was the type all children fall desperately in love with. We are talking the high flutey voice, fluffy cotton-candy-like blond hair, pink glasses on a chain, hugs, rabbits, treats, prizes, songs, games, fun. (For God’s sake, I want a Lori!) Suzy devotedly made Lori love cards throughout the year (even for Mother’s Day), although truth be told, the next year, Suzy’s new mission was winning a sleepover with (and then leaving our family and simply moving in with) her first-grade teacher, Heather. And—yikes—it makes sense that kids bond so tightly with their teachers, as these are the women they spend their quality time with. I pick them up after four, when they’re collapsing into crankiness, and ferry them home—because what mothers do nowadays, most of all, is drive their children.

And for what? Why do we agonize? David Sedaris is one of the most successful writers of his generation, and his chain-smoking mother is known for drinking herself into a glaze and locking her five children out of the house on a snow day.

Which causes me to wonder gloomily: except as consumers and chauffeurs and anxious guardians of the middle class, why are mothers, today, needed at all?

It’s an honest question in light of my own tale of chthonic terror, the very opposite of Borchard’s happy-ending-ed duck-pond jaunt:

My 38-year-old sister-in-law, Judy, was a stay-at-home mom of a particularly imaginative nature. A former teacher, she built her three children a fantastical wooden playhouse; she hand-painted Beatrix Potter figures on their walls; for her eldest’s fifth birthday, she staged a pirate-themed birthday party, complete with a dragon that, when his mouth opened, shot talcum powder. Then one Saturday, around nine in the morning, while folding laundry in the playroom in front of her children, ages 6, 5, and 2, Judy turned blue and fell forward into the laundry basket. My brother sprinted up the stairs while dialing 911. Within minutes, the paramedics arrived, cleared the room of the curious youngsters, and administered shocks to their mother’s chest. But those few minutes that Judy’s brain had been without oxygen had been too much. In barely the blink of an eye, the perfectly healthy Judy entered a permanent vegetative state. The person my niece and nephews had known as their mother was transformed into a wide-eyed, slack-jawed thing that did not recognize them.

I moved myself and my own two girls, then 2 and 1, up north to my brother’s house (my husband was on the road) and ensconced myself as the den mother of five children. As horrified as you may feel at hearing of this cataclysm, know that those of us at ground zero felt much worse. I could not stop crying (like Judy, I was still nursing). What haunted me was the idea that one moment you’re gazing at your 2-year-old in her playroom and the next, you, the mother, have been whisked off into the ether forever. You will never again sit on the bed holding the snuggly weight of that 2-year-old; you will never see her turn 3, 4, 5; you will never see her blossom into a teen; you will never have the traditional stilted late-night bicoastal phone conversation with her about her challenging new job when she is 26, living alone for the first time and feeling lonely in a strange L-shaped apartment in Boston that smells of curry from the downstairs family. No, that narrative of possibility has been abruptly cut short. Worse than death, though, is living on, which, due to legal complications, Judy would do for many years. The last convalescent hospital she was housed in—kicking, in adult diapers—was 10 minutes away from my brother’s house. If one waited until one felt the urge to go, one never would—so my brother and I essentially decided to go every day and make it part of our routines. Since I had the care of the kids, I brought them along—but to stack the deck, I filled Judy’s nightstand there with an astonishing array of kiddie treats. There were new surprises every visit—fresh 48-packs of colored markers, $2 games from Costco (including a pen containing a tiny version of the entire game of Operation—think a very little man, with very little organsin a pen), and snacks. Not just snacks: here, Illegal Sugary Snack Christmas came every single day. There were juice boxes in fabulously artificial flavors (with names like OrangeSplosion and FutureBerry), Kellogg’s chocolate-chip cereal snack bars, elaborate Fruit Roll-Ups (the type with tie-dye tattoos that come off on the tongue). It got so the children would actually jump out of the minivan and sprint to their mother’s hospital room.

Now, the interesting thing is that, as you know by now, I loathe crafting, which we’d do for hours and hours in Judy’s room while playing our Nutcracker CD. I also hate convalescent homes, and I am not a particularly nurturing person. All that drove me was the idea that 20 years into the future, the saddest story my brother’s kids could possibly hear would be that their mother had been housed 10 minutes away and no one visited her. What impelled me, a particularly self-involved Creative type, to care for these children the way I did was less maternal instinct (at least as conventionally understood) and more the power of narrative.

And I find as I age that my narrative-making muscle works so much overtime that I am beginning to remember things that never happened. How crystal-clearly I can recall that stilted late-night bicoastal phone conversation with my mom about my challenging new job, when I was 26, living alone for the first time and feeling lonely in a strange L-shaped apartment in Boston that smells of curry from the downstairs family. But no, by the time I was 26, my mother had years before disappeared into early-onset Alzheimer’s: we were destined to have no adult conversations. Taking the place of my mother was my older sister, a fearsomely strong figure, who, if I were left for dead in a pile of leaves at the bottom of a 15-foot hole, would be the first to run to the edge and fashion a rope of her own hair to haul me out. (As a philosophical midlife exercise, you should make your own list of rescuers—that list may surprise or depress you. During my marriage I had come to feel, rightly or wrongly, that if I were left for dead in that 15-foot pit, my husband, being out of town, would not be able to come himself but, very responsibly, would hire someone to rush over.)

To illustrate my sister’s style of mothering, I employ my life’s most recent example, my collapse over my affair. Like Ayelet Waldman, I too experienced the dizzying uplift of feeling: I loved a man more than I loved my certainly well-loved children. How could I not, if I were willing to jeopardize so much? Unfortunately, my Michael Chabon wasn’t my kids’ father; my Chabon and I separated, and I became incapacitated. I fell into such a deep depression that I took the wrong sleeping medication and my right side actually went dead. I couldn’t move my right arm! (Oh, the metaphorical richness of not being able to sign one’s own checks!) At the nadir of my incapacitation, I decided that for 72 hours I was going to turn off my cell phone (the one He would call and text to!) and wrap it with its charger in plastic and bury it at the bottom of the trunk of my Volvo. I feel compelled to mention that I had my children with me at the time, so I wouldn’t need to answer phone calls were they to be in some emergency (here in SoCal, anytime you’re not with your kids you fear the Big One will strike). In fact, my children were very sweet. I didn’t relay any messy Anna Karenina details; I just said, after turning off my phone: “Your mother has kind of a headache this morning, so she is going to lie down for a bit. You are welcome to lie down with me if you want, but quietly.” And my girls dutifully did this for a while, then got bored and went off to snuggle with something more amusing, like the cats. I feel this is an improvement over 1960s depressed mothers like my mom, who, when experiencing fits of gloom, would lock themselves into their bedrooms, curtains drawn, for hours (even days!). By contrast, look at what we have today: Depressed Mother Lite! (I drive a Volvo—safety first!)

Before I turned off my cell phone, though, I left this message on my sister’s machine: “You keep asking me if I’m okay. Well, instead of saying ‘Fine’ as I always do, I’m going to have to be honest and say I am totally not fine. But rest assured I am not putting my head in the oven. I simply acknowledge I’m a wreck and, for various reasons of emotional copage, will be turning my phone off for 72 hours.”

When I resurfaced within the stated window, my sister was the first phone call in, of course, charging me with: “You leave a message saying you’re putting your head in the ovenand then you turn off your cell phone! What am I supposed to do with that?”

And I said, “No—I said that while I’m ‘not fine,’ I am not going to put my head in the oven—”

And she retorted, “No, you specifically said you were going to put your head in the oven—”

And then, with my right side still dead, and the phone cradled under my chin, I said, “I am sorry. Perhaps I am wrong. I don’t recall saying I was going to put my head in the oven. I meant to say the opposite. If for some Verizon Wireless–connection reason it sounded like I said I was going to put my head in the oven, or even if for some reason I actually misspoke, please forgive me!!!

Wailed my sister, almost vengefully: “You said you were going to put your head in the oven, you hung up, turned off your cell phone (Beat.) “I’m getting in my car right now and driving to L.A.!”

Fuck, no!, I thought.

My sister is not my mother, but more than anyone else, she fills that role for me now—like it or not. And indeed all women I know play that role for somebody—like it or not. They herd and feed and remind and buck up and do their best to stuff the nightstand with treats against life’s inevitable horrors and generally expend a great deal of time and energy tending to many different people in many different contexts. The idea of Mother is like an epic, flaming Venus of Willendorf figure, an image of nurturing made up of many parts. Many women accept this role unconsciously or even unwillingly, but it seems someone’s got to do it. To be a mother—even simply to be a woman—in today’s world is to be made exhausted and resentful by a role or set of roles that we don’t recall deliberately choosing.

Even being a temporary mother to a couple of cats (thanks to one of my many recent house-sitting arrangements) is complicated! Where is the line between allowing them a little freedom and offering them up as coyote fast food? How careful must I be with the litter box, given that I’m working for free? How irritated should I be with the hair balls, given that I’m homeless? And then there is that other mother I have, my therapist, who hectors me for not coming in, because of her deep concern and worry for me, but who will still never give me a price break. And yet I feel guilty about not calling her back—guilty!

I find that, for now, my relationship with my own girls is wonderfully simple. Recently they said: “We want you to act more like a real mom. We want you to get a real mom’s job.” “What’s that?,” I asked. “A job like working at Target, or Subway, where they have that great bakery—then you can earn enough money to buy a clean car,” was their answer. In the end, we compromised by having a fab lunch at Sizzler and then afterward, with milk shakes, we read—in the car—as usual. Yes, their mother’s world is mobile, but for now, anyway, my girls are content. If in the 21st century, “a good mother is she who does not put her head in the oven,” then for today, this family is doing okay.

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