Transcript for Ayelet Waldman on Trying to Be a Decent Mother

Jim Fleming: Writer, Ayelet Waldman, knows all about the trouble you can get into writing about mother issues.  In 2005 she wrote an essay for The New York Times’ Modern Love column where she confessed to loving her husband more than her children.  She was, she said then, a bad mother.  Now, in her book titled “Bad Mother,” Waldman recounts many stories about what she calls the perils and joys of trying to be a decent mother in a world intent on making you feel like a bad one, and she told Anne Strainchamps that modern love controversy was a perfect example.

Ayelet Waldman: What I was responding to was really this phenomenon of all these women I knew, none of whom were having sex at all.  Their relationships were simply devoid of being intimate with their husbands, but they had these incredibly intense, impassioned, passionate bonds, and I don’t mean sexual at all, bonds with their children.  I felt like these two things were connected and I started looking around, ‘why is it that I’m one of the only people I know who still is having an intimate relationship with my husband after, you know, four children in all this time,’ and why aren’t my friends?  I realized that the difference between them and me was that they were all very good mothers.  They were mothers who put their children before everything else at the heart of their lives, who focused all of their passion and ardor and devotion on their children, and that I had somehow managed to miss that boat.  You know, I mean I still loved my children, absolutely, but they weren’t the center of all of my attention and all of my passion, the way they were for many of my friends.

Anne Strainchamps: So are you saying you felt like you were a good wife, but a bad mother?

Waldman: That sort of project of motherhood is one that fills me with both joy and anguish all the time, but what I, I would hear this kind of language, like I’m so in love with my children, I’m so in love with the baby, and that’s never how I felt.  I mean when I think about being in love, I think of being in love with my husband.  He’s the person who’s the object of that kind of intensity of passion.  You know, when I first wrote that article, everybody was talking about it.  It was sort of the Amy Chua, Tiger Mother, of that moment.

Strainchamps: And you wound up invited on Oprah.  Weren’t you sort of trotted out in front of a roomful of hostile mothers?

Waldman: Well, it was pretty amazing, you know.  They called me from Oprah and they said come on the show because Oprah agrees with you and I was only too happy to go on the show.  I had these visions of, you know, selling “Jonathan’s Friends” and like quantities of my books.  What I didn’t realize was they collected this audience full of women who hated me and it was this amazing phenomenon because, I mean really, one, as I was walking on the stage, they had selected one woman to come up from the audience and she kind of leapt out of her chair, shrieking, ‘let me at her,’ and I really thought, ‘oh my God, this is Jerry Springer, I’m about to be on Jerry Springer.’

Strainchamps: Listening to this, don’t you have to wonder why do we care?  Why do people care what kind of mother you are?

Waldman: You know, I asked this question of Lisa Belkin who writes for The New York Times Magazine and she’s experienced the same kind of vitriolic reaction.  I mean she wrote an article many years ago that was a cover piece in the New York Times Magazine, that was about women with law degrees and business school degrees who had chosen to leave professional life and be stay at home mothers, these kind of uber successful stay at home mothers, and she suffered this unbelievable backlash for that.  I asked her, you know, when I was sort of crying in my tea about the people leaving notes on my gates saying that they know where I live and my children should be taken from me which, like the implication being what, that they’re going to do the taking?  I called her up, sobbing about that and she said, ‘you know what, when you write about women like us, primarily white although not exclusively, primarily middle class although not exclusively, you are not so much writing as essay, as you’re writing a Rorschach Blot and people read the Rorschach Blot, bringing all of their own psychodrama to it,’ so all of their own anxieties, all of their own fears, all of their own feelings of deep ambivalence, and it’s all this sort of comparison that we engage in, in order to make ourselves feel better. 

Strainchamps: One of the things that seems to be like such a tragedy really, about where so many women are today, is that despite however many decades of the women’s movement, women today seem to have more ways than ever to feel that they are failures, you know...

Waldman: Exactly.

Strainchamps: ...a failure because you are staying home with your child and you’ve eschewed having a career, or you’re a failure because you’re going to work and not staying home with your child, and we’ve had two decades of this and we’re still not over it. 

Waldman: Right, exactly, and here’s why, here’s why, because you know what, the feminists were right and the way they were the most right was when they said the personal is political, because we have taken it and we have done all these changes in our ambitions and aspirations, and everything remains personal, so if you have trouble juggling work and home, a phrase I hate to use, but you know, for lack of a better one, then that failure is your personal failure, so if you feel ambivalent, like you’re stretched too thin at work, you’re stretched too thin at home, that’s your personal failure.  If you pack it in and decide to stay home, that’s your failure.  If you farm your kid out to a nanny and go to work, that’s your failure.  What we missed in this conversation was the sense that, it wasn’t just the women who needed to change.  The men needed to change too and though society needed to change, what troubles me most is this strange coincidence and how it sort of..., the professional life and many, many different sort of jobs has completely changed, so just when women entered the workforce in great numbers, the workplace became a place that it was virtually impossible to both excel and maintain a reasonable amount of sort of actual face time with your kids, and then that’s when we started to do things, I talk about quality time and, you know, nobody really wants quality time.  What people really usually want is quantity time, they just can’t have it, so they try to make the best of what they have.

Strainchamps: We should play out some of what you’re saying in terms of some specific stories from your own experience raising your kids.  For instance, a lot of women feel like particular failures around things like breast feeding. 

Waldman: It was my fourth baby.  I should have been a natural at it.  Not only was I not a natural, but the baby nearly died in his first two weeks of life because he wasn’t getting any nutrition.  By the time anybody figured out he was, you know, he had no latch, he was horribly dehydrated, had probably not consumed more than an ounce a day for two weeks.  It was a complete disaster or catastrophe, and then I went through this thing where I was pumping every two hours for six months, round the clock.  I almost never spent time with my actual baby because I was always hooked up to this pump, and this idea came at this moment where I was standing in a cafe©.  I was feeding the baby from, he was in like a sling or a baby [inaudible] and I was feeding him from a bottle, and the milk and the bottle was vaguely purple because I had horrible thrush and it was died from the Gentian Violet homeopathic remedy I was using, because God forbid, I would take any actual, you know, whatever that would kill the thrush, and I had pumped at about 4:00 in the morning and I was standing there, bleary-eyed, giving him this purple milk, and this woman taps me on the shoulder and she says, ‘you know, breast is best.’  I had four kids.  I should have known that what was really important in that first six months of my baby’s life was that I not freak out and that if he had formula and a mother who was sane, that was probably going to be a lot better for both his life and my life, than if he was drinking pumped breast milk and had a mother whose entire life was falling apart.

Strainchamps: It’s so interesting that some of the most difficult areas for mothers, the areas in which we feel the most pressure, have to do with feeding our children, you know, from breast feeding to fast forward to the years when there’s so much pressure on parents of young children to feed them correctly.

Waldman: Absolutely, and my kids go to the most adorable, wonderful school.  I love my kids’ school.  It’s supposed to be waste-free lunch, so everything must be packed in reusable containers, so no Ziploc bags, and it’s all supposed to be healthy and there’s not supposed to be any sugar.  Well, at some point I just realized, ‘you know what I should do, I should just send plastic food.’  You know that kind you buy like in Japanese restaurants where they show you, it’s like the sushi models, because my kids are not eating this pristine, incredibly laboriously created, sugar-free, nutritious food that’s carefully packed in bento boxes because God forbid, there should be a Ziploc bag.  No, what they’re doing is I’m sending it and it’s coming back uneaten, so I’m just going to send them like little bags full of plastic food and then when they come home, I’ll give them Cheetos, organic Cheetos.  Come on, I’m not a bad mother.

Strainchamps: Cheetos, another thing that makes a lot of us feel like a bad mother is talking to kids about issues that we don’t really want to discuss from our own pasts.  You wrote openly about you had been what you would call a slutty teenager. 

Waldman: Yes, I was a slutty teenager, but you know, I came into my experience without having a teenage girl, having a teenage daughter, thinking two things.  One, I wanted to save her from all the pain that I went through because I was certainly too young when I started having sex, and my experiences were not all or even mostly positive, my early sexual experiences, so there was that impulse to protect her and there was also the impulse to make her strong and powerful and both own her sexuality and be able to enjoy it, and then there was this incredible sense of embarrassment, like if she asked me how old I was when I lost my virginity, what was I going to say, oh my God, so you know...

Strainchamps: Because really, you were 14.

Waldman: I was 14, yeah, [inaudible], and I did, like I talked about in the book, I received as a sort of giveaway, this package of candy colored condoms which, excuse me, are never going to be part of my life.  I don’t know what the market is for like lollipop condoms, but whatever.  I have this package and I was about to throw it away, and then I thought to myself, no, I know what I’m going to do with these and I went and I put them in my kid’s bathroom, put them on the top shelf of the cupboard and I actually even opened the bag so there was no like closed bag, just open bag.  So I put this in their bathroom and then like six months passed, something like that, and then one night, one evening, I hear this sort of howling shriek from there and I run to the bathroom, and my son and my daughter are standing looking at this, and they look at me and they say, ‘what are these,’ and I said, ‘well what do you think they are,’ and they said, ‘condoms,’ and my daughter says, ‘you are just so disgusting,’ and I launched into my whole [inaudible] about how you have to be safe, and they’re just like no, no, no, no, no, and they walk out of the bathroom leaving me with this bag of condoms, which I put back and now it’s all notes for the memoir, the memoir about daughter of bad mother, forthcoming in 2021.

Strainchamps: That’s the one she’ll write.

Waldman: Yes, it’s her memoir, exactly.

Fleming: Ayelet Waldman is a novelist and essayist.  Her published works include several mommy-track mysteries like “Death Gets a Time Out” and “The Big Nap” and the book “Love and Other Impossible Pursuits.”  She spoke with Anne Strainchamps about her book “Bad Mother.”


Comments for this interview

Bad Mother - Ayelet Waldman (Marilyn Adams, 04/18/2012 - 4:50pm)

Thank you! I found myself listening to this brief few minutes on the radio while driving to pick up my child from school (late again) after slipping out the back door at work (hoping I wouldn't be missed) to rush her to an appt.. Ayelet Waldman summed up what I (and likely many mothers) face on a daily basis of feeling like a failure as a mother. This one interview knocked me off the fence about whether to renew my membership to public radio - check is in the mail. Thank you!