Are You a Bad Mother?

Ayelet Waldman looks at how the label is choking American moms

By Peggy Spear

About this Award-Winning Article

Originally published in the Bay Area Parent magazine this article received a Gold Award from Parenting Publications of America.

This is what the judges said:

“Ayelet Waldman had the audacity to suggest that a mother might have interests beyond her children, and the Bay Area Parent had the audacity to give her a voice. Using a simple book review as a hook, the magazine conveys the fascinating perspective of a good mother unafraid to challenge stereotypes.”

A few years ago, writer Ayelet Waldman became the poster child for the words Bad Mother. She didn’t commit murder, lose her kids at an airport or embezzle thousands of dollars from the PTA, but she did something way worse. She admitted she loved her husband more than her children.

The “confession,” which appeared in an essay in the New York Times style section, was meant to shed light on the fact that so many mothers of her era refocused the passion of their marriages into the raising of their children. She and her husband still enjoyed a passionate relationship in addition to raising their four young kids.

Still, the damage was done, and her words made her the subject of many mommy blogs and landed her on Oprah, the target of what she calls the Bad Mother police. She was called evil, crazy, a menace. Some even urged that her children be taken away from her.

The incident didn’t raise the national consciousness about the importance of keeping a marriage healthy while raising children;- it instead illuminated America’s obsession with what Waldman calls “these varied archetypical manifestations of maternal evil.” Our culture, it seems, loves a Bad Mother story. (Case in point: Britney Spears.) It gives the rest of us the opportunity to feel a little bit better about trying to do the impossible job of being a perfect mother.

Waldman, a mother of four, embraces her imperfections in her book, Bad Mother: A Chronicle of Maternal Crimes, Minor Calamities and Occasional Moments of Grace. (Broadway Books, May 2009). The collection of essays is her first non-fiction book, but she has published nine other novels - including Daughter’s Keeper, Love and Other Impossible Pursuits and the Mommy Track Mystery series,- as well as many essays and short stories.

Her new book is, she writes, “about the perils and joys of trying to be a decent mother in a world intent on making you feel like a bad one.”

Using her own parenting journey, Waldman exposes and dissects the hypocrisy in which people judge women as mothers. The result is a funny, poignant, sometimes eyebrow-raising look in the mirror for many of us. No, we don’t make homemade baked goods for our kids’ school; yes, we let them eat less-than-nourishing things for breakfast; no, we don’t breastfeed long enough – or at all; and yes, we project our own inadequacies onto our children.

But that doesn’t mean we don’t love them.

The book is not a primer on how to be either a good, or bad, mother. If anything, the essays in the book take those labels and throw them underneath the wheels of a speeding baby jogger.

Waldman, who is at different times in the book self-deprecating, humorous and righteously indignant, has often been called outrageous because of her honesty in her writing. This book is no exception, as she revisits decisions she made on a very personal level. The most gut-wrenching chapter is “Rocketship,” in which she chronicles the anger and despair she felt after she and her husband decided to terminate a pregnancy at 20 weeks, when they found abnormalities with the fetus. “I felt like that epitome of evil: a mother who has killed her child,” she writes.

Yet, she also chronicles less painful decisions, like how she learned to let go when her children decided they enjoyed a sports game she loathed; or how she fought for easier homework for one of her sons; and how she dealt with her child’s ADHD.

It’s normal stuff on which we mothers judge ourselves on a daily basis. And it’s Waldman’s hope that we – along with the rest of society – go a little bit easy on ourselves.

Waldman and her husband, Pulitzer Prize-winning author Michael Chabon, live in Berkeley with their four children, Sophie, 14, Zeke 12, Rosie, 8, and Abraham, 5. Bay Area Parent caught up with her recently between carpools to talk about Bad Mother.

Are you a bad mother?

Of course I am! I don’t volunteer enough at my kids’ schools, I don’t make homemade treats, I don’t play with them enough…

Aren’t we all guilty of that?

Yes, and that’s why I wrote the book. I want people to understand how hard it is to live up to the unreasonable expectations we have of ourselves.

Why are we so hard on ourselves?

We’re actually victims of our own success. Today’s mothers are the first generation brought up by the feminist movement. We were told we could do anything, including compete with men in the workplace. But we let our professions identify us. We wanted to bring that same level of success to parenting. It isn’t acceptable to be adequate; we have to be the best.

What is "being the best"?

That’s the problem. There isn’t an easy “best.” Some of today’s mothers attack parenthood as they would a career, with easily identifiable goals. Well, being a good parent isn’t that cut and dried. What happened is that many women brought all their ambitions home, and set unrealistically high goals for themselves and others.
For instance, it isn’t enough to bring a snack to a preschool class party. At my son’s school, I got an email from a parent asking everyone to bring home-baked goods, not store bought. And they had to be healthy. It’s like we have to be Martha Stewart! That’s what we’re forced to aspire to.

So then, are you a good mother?

I have great kids. But I don’t allow myself to take the credit, or the blame. I just do the best I can.

Frequently in the book, you talk about how helpful your husband is. Doesn’t that make a difference in your own parenting?

Michael is amazing. His mother definitely did something right. We have always approached this job as a team. Both of our mothers raised us with expectations of equality in a marriage, and we try to have that in everything we do – especially raising kids. I even used to get a little bit jealous because my youngest was always more enamored with Daddy than with me, because when Abraham was a baby, Michael spent more time with him. He is extremely patient, and that’s a wonderful quality in a person.

What advice would you give your daughters about juggling career and motherhood?

My advice for them – and my sons as well – is to try and find something they really love, something that makes them happy, and go for it. If it’s full-time motherhood, great; if it’s a full-time career, great. If it’s a little of both, great. Just know what they all entail, and know that’s okay if you’re not perfect. 

What is your goal, as a parent?

It’s very simple. - I want to raise children – both my daughters and my sons – who value the importance of family and home.

For more information about Bad Mother, or to read Waldman’s blog, visit