Perhaps she was looking for attention. Married to famed novelist Michael Chabon, Ayelet Waldman went out looking for the glare of the spotlight. What could be more titillating, she must have told herself, than to proclaim herself the archetypical Bad Mother?
Writing in The Daily Mail several years ago, Waldman laid out the case for bad mothering. It lacked intellectual coherence but it grabbed your attention:
Firstly, that - unique to our generation - we are gripped by the terror that we're not Good Mothers.
Secondly, it struck me that so-called Good Mothers can be downright bad for their children. Over-anxious and over-ambitious for their offspring, they risk making them feel like failures.
Good Mothers don't just want the best for their children: in their minds, if their sons and daughters are not super-brains with armfuls of certificates, then what have all their maternal sacrifices been for?
The third horrifying truth is that, far from supporting each other, we mothers are always trying to find fault with each other.
We openly police each other - desperate to find a mother who's not as good as us, so we won't feel so bad.
One is tempted to reply: Speak for yourself, Ayelet. Or better, speak for your comrades in Berkeley, CA. The truth is that most mothers are conscientious and caring. They take their job—if you must call it that—very seriously indeed. I cannot imagine why she takes it on herself to demean and defame mothers. Just to make herself feel better. Hers is an ignoble enterprise.
Strangely—and this is why her story is interesting-- Waldman blames it on feminism. Who knew? She explains that her feminist mother brought her up to believe that she could have it all. This was before Anne-Marie Slaughter famously proclaimed that women could not have it all. Feminists hated Slaughter because they believed that setting up an unrealistic goal was bad for feminism. They did not mention that Slaughter did not invent this all herself. It had been injected into the culture a long time before.
So, let’s be clear. Waldman is talking about women who were brought up by a certain kind of feminist mother. To generalize from this to all American mothers or to all feminist mothers strikes me as one leap too many.
Anyway, she described her mother’s teaching:
Soon after I was born, in 1964, my mother discovered feminism. As a child, one of my earliest memories is of sitting on the stairs and listening open-mouthed as she and her friends - including my schoolteacher - bitched about men in their 'consciousness-raising group'.
Deprived of a career herself because she was at home with the children, my mother raised me to believe that I would be able to work full-time as well as being a mother.
After all those marches and all that bra-burning, my mother and her generation were convinced they had sorted everything out for their daughters. We would have it easy. Our male bosses, all raised by feminist mothers, too, would surely be supportive and sympathetic to working mothers.
Of course, it was all a lie. And it was a lie even when women like Waldman had husbands who worked at home and shouldered many of the childrearing responsibilities.
So, Waldman returned to work after giving birth to her first child and discovered—to her dismay-- that she wanted to be home with her baby. Were it not for the power of indoctrination no one would have found this surprising. Thanks to indoctrination women have been shocked to discover that they have a maternal instinct. And that they are not entirely comfortable leaving neonates to the tender mercies of human beings who lack said instinct. Having denied the reality of their own biology—to say nothing of their moral responsibility— daughters of feminist mothers were dismayed to discover that they had been lied to. And not by the patriarchy.
What happened then? Glad you asked. Waldman quit her job and became a stay-at-home mother. She hated it:
I felt I'd betrayed my mother, feminism and myself. My mother's generation had sacrificed so much to give me opportunities they never had, and I'd thrown them back in their faces. My mother made no secret of the fact that she couldn't understand my decision. She still can't.
But, most unexpected of all, I found being a full-time mother hideously boring. And I realised that one of the darkest, deepest shames so many of us mothers feel nowadays is our fear that we are Bad Mothers, that we are failing our children and falling far short of some indefinable ideal.
A Good Mother is never bored, is she? She is never miserable. A Good Mother doesn't resent looking up from her novel to examine a child's drawing.
Did she hate it because motherhood is such a bad deal for women? Or did she hate it because she felt that she had betrayed feminism? These are not the same. I will opt for the latter. You may draw your own conclusions.
As it happened Waldman had also written in the New York Times in 2005 that even if she did not much like being a mother, she was still madly in love with her husband. And, by the by, they still had great sex. In fact, her husband could not get enough sex. Precisely why we needed to know this, I cannot imagine. So, we witness an independent liberated woman writing her own manifesto, explaining that her husband is her life. That does not sound very liberated to me, but, what do I know?
But my imagination simply fails me when I try to picture a future beyond my husband’s death. Of course, I would have to live. I have four children, a mortgage, work to do. But I can imagine no joy without my husband.
Do you want to draw a conclusion about the state of her marriage? Of course, you do not. It would not be polite. I would merely note that Waldman seems to be suggesting that a woman who makes her children the center of her universe will be neglecting her husband and will end up not getting any sex. Whether this applies to her Berkeley friends at Gymboree or to all women, I would not venture to guess.
Waldman insisted that she loved her husband more than her children and that this made her a bad mother. Only a warped mind could draw such a conclusion. Must we note that these are not the same kind of love. Different loves apply to different relationships. One senses an absurd confusion, engendered by an ideology.
Interesting point, Waldman’s husband is a perfect househusband. He is a very successful writer but he also shares in all the chores. If you are collecting royalty checks you have the liberty to do the laundry and to change the diapers. One notes that her husband has admitted publicly to having fallen love with men and to having had sex with a man, but one imagines that that is not a salient detail.
Anyway, Waldman is anguished because sometime she does not feel in the mood:
Can my bad motherhood be my husband's fault? Perhaps he just inspires more complete adoration than other husbands. He cooks, cleans, cares for the children at least 50 percent of the time.
If the most erotic form of foreplay to a mother of a small child is, as I've heard some women claim, loading the dishwasher or sweeping the floor, then he's a master of titillation.
He's handsome, brilliant and successful. But he can also be scatterbrained, antisocial and arrogant. He is a bad dancer, and he knows far too much about Klingon politics and the lyrics to Yes songs. All in all, he's not that much better than other men. The fault must be my own.
Her husband is what feminists wanted men to become. Perhaps Waldman feels that she must love him for fulfilling an ideal. Perhaps she does not respect him for as much. Who knows?
Now, as though we did not know about Waldman’s marriage and private life, she has written a new memoir, one which reveals her to be a basket of bad behaviors, a case study in applied psychiatry and an insufferable human being. It makes her husband look like a saint. A little less honesty would do us all very well.
Amy Anderson summarizes Waldman’s book in Acculturated. Thereby she saves us the trouble of having to read it. We are grateful. If you thought that Waldman was merely a housewife and mother reflecting about her condition, you would have been wrong.
Waldman’s afflictions are numerous. They include, she says, Bipolar II, PMS, PMDD, PME, insomnia, irritability, and a nasty case of frozen shoulder. She picks horrendous fights with her husband, including when he buys her a couch as a surprise gift—he wanted her to be comfortable in their shared workspace—without consulting her first on the style. She yells at her kids and flips out at her dry cleaner. She has a notorious temper tantrum on Twitter after her latest novel fails to make the New York Times list of notable books for 2014. “I’ve spent the morning on my couch, sobbing about not being included in the NYT Notable Book List! I mean What The FUCK? I know this book is good!” Her days are filled with rage and despair.
Waldman has been prescribed a dizzying array of medication for her volcanic moods, she tells us: Celexa, Lexapro, Prozac, Zoloft, Cymbalta, Effexor, Effexor XR, Wellbutrin, Lamictal, Topomax, Adderall, Adderall XR, Ritalin, Concerta, Strattera, Xanax, Valium, Ativan, Seroquel, Ambien, and Lunesta. “I’m sure I’m forgetting some,” she writes. “That can happen when you take a shit-ton of drugs.” But the drugs that seem to have done the trick for Waldman and kept her from destroying her life and marriage were not in the SSRI family but were instead illegal and psychedelic: LSD, which she takes in micro-doses, and the party drug MDMA, or Molly, as the club kids call it, which she and Chabon take together when they feel the need to “recharge” their marriage.
Everyone is talking about the fact that Waldman is using low doses of LSD and MDMA. As for the notion that her husband is lusting after her all the time, the need for MDMA suggests that things are not always as she makes them appear.
Anyway, her case seems to belong in the annals of psychiatry. If it doesn’t, then today’s psychiatrists are perhaps not quite as competent as they are made out to be.
Anderson concludes by emphasizing the most salient point, namely that Waldman consistently fails to take responsibility for her behavior. She suffers from an apparent character flaw and she is trying to medicate it, thus to numb herself to the moral consequences of her own bad behavior.
She is a partisan of the very modern, materialist my-chemistry-is-to-blame-for-my-bad-behavior worldview, at least when she’s not taking aim at her upbringing, in which case “self-blame” is at the root of her relationship woes. “The problem with self-blame,” she says, “is that it launches a vicious cycle. It makes me despondent, and when I’m despondent, I lash out at my husband. Which makes me feel worse.” Whether chemistry or self-blame is at fault for Waldman’s rages, though, moral agency and personal responsibility have little role. Waldman bears no blame for her actions; her character isn’t the result of her choices, her decisions. So much easier to drop acid and get out of the blame business altogether. This is an impoverished understanding of what it means to be human.