Ayelet Waldman: Bad Mother

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Stephanie Rausser

Ayelet Waldman

"I love my husband more than I love my children," wrote Ayelet Waldman in the New York Times in 2005. The response was immediate and not kind. It didn't help that her husband was novelist Michael Chabon — beloved, actually, by many. She was branded a Bad Mother. Four years later, Waldman has written a book with that title. And no, she's not apologizing. (See Seven iPhone Apps for New Moms.)

Were you surprised at the response to your column?
At first I was crushed. I couldn't believe how many people hated me. I couldn't believe Star Jones was criticizing my marriage on national television. But I'm such an obstinate person that part of me said "You thought I was a bad mother then? Well wait for the book, baby."

Why are mothers so judgmental of one another?
Because they feel so stressed out about how they're doing. You take the time to lose your mind completely only if what that person says attacks some sort of core about yourself. If you live your life one way, and I live my life another, that's fine. But if the differences are how we're raising our children, and if you're right and I'm wrong, then I could be screwing up the most important thing in my life. (See TIME's 100 most influential people.)

How has motherhood changed now that women have more skills and education and opportunity than ever, but it's all spent on choosing the right brand of apple juice?
All the ambition gets channeled into the nursery school committee. And sometimes that's great. But it is not really sufficiently fulfilling. So you end up having this kind of toxic stew where your actual activity doesn't match your ambition. And there's all this sort of intense pressure on the children because you've made some huge professional sacrifice. The people for whom you've made this sacrifice — well they goddamn better be worth it.

One of the other reasons you say you're a bad mother is that you aborted a son who may or may not have had serious health issues. Are you nervous about how that's going to be received?
He had a genetic abnormality, and that abnormality could have resulted in mental retardation and it also — the chances were more likely that you wouldn't have necessarily known anything was wrong. I expect that people who are pro-life will respond negatively, and, in fact, I'd sort of be disappointed if they didn't. But when I went through this experience, it was so ... to use the word 'helpful' is ridiculous. It saved my life to know other women who had gone through it. If there's ever a point to the memoir, which is necessarily a narcissistic endeavor, it's to give people a sense that they're not alone.

Another failing you cite is that you lost your virginity at 14 and you kind of regret it.
Oh no, I don't 'kind of' regret that, I regret that absolutely.

So what is your approach to teaching your kids about sex?
Sarah Palin has pretty much proved that you can wish for abstinence all you want, but kids are still going to be boning each other in the backseat of the car. So I feel like I have prepare them for it; I have to teach them how to be responsible and respectful, and also prepare them for the idea that it's a wonderful thing, if done in the right way. So that's why I put condoms in the bathroom.

And of course your kids were delighted.
They were so horrified, they couldn't believe it. You would have thought I put rat entrails in their bathroom cabinet.

Another reason you're a bad mother...
So many.

You have a campaign where you don't necessarily make your children do all their homework. How is that going?
I hate homework. In lower school, when you say to the teacher, this is all we're going to do, it's amazing how they will agree. I think teachers know what a colossal waste of time homework is. It changes in middle school, and I do make my daughter do all her homework. But I really feel strongly that our kids do way too much homework. The research is on my side. It's easy to make a fuss when you're right. That can be the tagline of my life: "It's Easy To Make A Fuss When You're Right."

Then there's the bipolar thing. How does that affect the way you mother?
That is my biggest challenge. Because of my bipolar disorder, I tend to these mixed states, which are depressed but loud and agitated. So I can be terribly irritable. I go to cognitive behavioral therapy in order not to yell at my children.

Do you hold the opinion that none of us should be shouting at our children?
In a perfect world, probably we'd never yell, we'd just be firm and dispassionate. But of course, everyone yells at their children.

What do you think of spanking?
I think I wish I had never spanked my children, but I have. And they remember every instance like they tattooed it on their palms. I think it's a terrible lesson, to use physical punishment to make a point about not behaving, not being kind to their siblings, to other people. I mean that's just absurd. But I've lost it, I understand it. I can completely sympathize with someone who has spanked a kid.

In your book you attribute your healthy sex life as a mother of four to the fact that your husband helps a lot around the home. Can you elaborate?
I think it's astonishing to women how little housework the men who were at the Take Back the Night marches are doing, you know? There they were, in their pro-choice t-shirts, and now they're behaving just like their fathers. Taking care of a home is tedious, wearing, and it never ends, and when you are solely responsible for that, it can piss you off. So any husband, who legitimately feels like he's toiling away all day, comes home and says, "I just need an hour to decompress," — well, welcome to never getting laid again.

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