Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Bad Mother: an interview with Ayelet Waldman

Mama, Redux is certainly no Fresh Air or Today Show, but we all have something in common: we scored interviews with Ayelet Waldman!

I've known Ayelet for around six years; we met at Readerville, a lively (and at times life saving) online forum for readers and writers, and became friends sharing stories about thrush and purple nipples. The first time I went to her house, she was tethered to a breast pump--a pretty much constant state of being for her those days, as her baby Abe was having trouble nursing due to a malformed palate. Ayelet chronicles this trying period of her mothering life and explores everything from girls' Halloween costumes (sexy witch or cereal box?) to her painful decision to terminate a pregnancy after learning the baby had a rare chromosomal abnormality, in her kick ass new book, Bad Mother.

Bad Mother: A Chronicle of Maternal Crimes, Minor Calamities,and Occasional Moments of Grace, is a swift, nourishing read--funny, honest, moving, galvanizing. Using the controversy involving her infamous New York Times essay about loving her husband, author Michael Chabon, more than her children, as a launching pad, Ayelet delves into why we as mothers can be both so hard on ourselves and hard on each other (when Ayelet was on Oprah, a woman even lunged at her, saying "Let me at her!" Toward the end of the show, though, Ayelet had opened most of the audience's eyes to the true heart of her essay: children will eventually grow up and leave the home, but the relationship with one's partner will ideally last a lifetime and needs to be made a priority). The book raises important issues about feminism and motherhood and ultimately makes it clear that we as mothers need to give ourselves and each other a break.

I'm so thrilled that Ayelet was able to take a moment in her crazy schedule and answer a few questions, especially for a blog with an audience of dozens instead of the millions she's become accustomed to of late. :)

G: It’s been quite a month for you…Fresh Air! Jamming at the White House! I've been so excited to see the attention you and your book have been getting. How are you and your family holding up? What have been the highlights (and lowlights, if any) of the last couple of weeks? And did you get to talk mothering with Michelle Obama?

A: Alas, I got to say about a word and a half to Michelle. Most of which consisted of me blathering on with tears in my eyes about how proud I was to have them in the White House. Very original. She's never heard that before. Oh the Power of Words.

My kids are just about sick to death of me traveling, freaking out about getting my picture taken, etc. My baby (six now) wants me to stop getting my hair blown out, but how the hell am I supposed to trust my curls to behave? Can't frizz out in the East Room.

G: Why do you think mothers can be so hard on ourselves and each other? What do you think it will take for our culture to shift toward being more supportive of mothers, in general?

A: It will take a monstrous change in society. Women are anxious because of the way our society is structured. For things to change we need to basically become Sweden with 16 months paid maternity leave, reliable and inexpensive child care, less of an emphasis on excessive accumulation of wealth. Work needs to be a place you can leave at 5:00 without sacrificing your ambitions. And men need to shoulder half the responsibilities of home life.

Don't hold your breath.

G: I’m curious to know whether you see any parallels between writing and mothering. I know I often feel as if I’m not doing enough in either sphere. As a writer, have you experienced any of the same feelings of guilt, unreasonable expectations, etc., (not to mention outside judgment) that you have as a mother? If so, how do you work through that (and how do you suggest other writers deal with similar feelings?)

A: Wow, I've never thought of that, but it's so true! I beat myself up about my work almost as much as I beat myself up about my mothering! I have no good advice. I NEED good advice.

G: You do a beautiful job of infusing politics into your writing, both your novels and your non-fiction. I’d love to hear your thoughts about how writing and politics (and mothering) intersect in your life.

A: Politics pervade who I am and what I do. I really do believe in that old saw "the personal is political." Who our president is changes my experience of the world, it shapes the lives of my children. How we treat one another in society is reflected in how we treat one another in our families. It's everything and everywhere.

Plus, I have a really really big mouth and I like to air my point of view as loudly as possible.

G: I so admire your honesty in this book. Is there anything that you find yourself shying away from in your work, or have you given yourself total free reign as a writer?

A: I would never say anything ugly about my husband or my children. I've read essays in which the authors blast away at their spouses. I'd never do that.

G: Any final words of advice for mothers out there (especially mothers who write)?

A: Make the time for your work. Even if it's only an hour a day. Carve out a space, force your partner to help you, and if you don't have a partner, beg, borrow or steal the money to pay for a sitter. The biggest threat to a writer's work is her life. Life sucks up all the air and unless you force yourself to find a tiny bit of breathing room, you'll never get anything done.

* * *

Thank you, Ayelet, for your generosity and humor and insight. I know that your book is going to help mothers (and mother writers) relax, to let go of ridiculous expectations we carry around for ourselves and one another so we can remember to take a deep breath and appreciate this wild journey. Enjoy the rest of your own adventure as your book zooms around the world!


  1. I remember the furor over her article--in fact, I remember thinking "How could she feel that? How could she say that?!"

    But that was because I was in a miserable marriage. Now that I am about to marry the man I have waited for my whole life, I know exactly what she meant...

    Thanks for this wonderful glimpse of a thoughtful and provocative writer. I can't wait to read the book!

  2. Way to interview, Gayle! Totally delightful and thought-provoking discussion, particularly on issues of juggling creative and personal parts of our lives. Thanks for writing this. Pat

  3. Thank you for this interview. I'm putting the book at the top of my reading list. Ayelet is right, we do need to "become Sweden" and also make time for our work. We can't have it all (at the same time), but we can make the time in bits and pieces. - LT

  4. This is a wonderful interview, Gayle. I'm so glad to have found you. Thanks for linking to my blog. I'll do the same!


  5. great questions and thoughtful answers. wish it could have gone on and on. must get her book. must carve out a space to write. thank you for this interview. ...and thank you so much for the link!

  6. Thanks so much, everyone (and mazel tov on your wedding, Doxy-how exciting!)

  7. looking forward to reading her book!