By Danielle Cantor
Photo: Stephanie Rausser
As a public defender, Ayelet Waldman was no stranger to professional conflict. But only after the Harvard-educated lawyer left her job to be with her family and published her first six novels (a mystery series starring a crime-solving ex-public defender turned stay-at-home mom) did the controversy truly hit the fan. In her 2005 essay “Truly, Madly, Guiltily,” published in The New York Times, Waldman criticized modern mothers for over-parenting at the expense of their marriages – and declared that she loves her husband (novelist Michael Chabon) more than her (now four) children. The fallout was nuclear. Women everywhere vilified Waldman and each other, prompting the author to write Bad Mother: A Chronicle of Maternal Crimes, Minor Calamities, and Occasional Moments of Grace (Doubleday), a book of essays that candidly examines and redefines ‘maternal grace’ as the earnest, sometimes stumbling, always loving labor that rings true to all mothers – whether they’ll admit it or not. Waldman is also the author of Daughter's Keeper and Love and Other Impossible Pursuits (soon to be a feature film), and has written for The New York Times, Salon, Vogue and other publications.
Do you ever feel professionally competitive with your husband?
My husband is one of the best writers in the English language. He’ll be read in 500 years. I’ll be lucky if someone desperate for a topic writes a dissertation on the totally minor 21st Century novelist and essayist Ayelet Waldman. It’s ludicrous to think we could compete – we do totally different things. I’m a craftsman, he’s an artist. I have my readers and he has his readers; sometimes they overlap and sometimes they don’t.
Do you miss anonymity?
Lack of anonymity means that I’m successful. The last thing I want to be is a writer struggling to get published – that’s a miserable existence. Most writers I know don’t get nearly the respect they deserve from the publishing industry. And it helps to have some familiarity with my previous work before you approach my writing – so you can decide right off the bat if you hate me or not! But when I’m yelling at my kids in the supermarket, then sure, I wish nobody knew who I was.
Are you able to accept public judgment as par for the course of your career?
I don’t read people’s opinions of me. I’m very careful not to – that is a zero-sum game. I read all my fan mail, and when a reader has a legitimate criticism of a book and wants to engage over that, I’m happy to do so. But I’m not going to become a better writer by lapping up the venom spewed by people sitting alone in their underwear at their computers.
You appeared on Oprah during the firestorm ignited by your controversial 2005 essay. How did you feel when you sat down in the hot-seat?
I was terrified, because I hadn’t realized there would be all these women there hating on me. When they were selecting people from the audience to sit around the stage, one woman was so excited to be picked she lunged forward, saying, “Lemme at ‘er!” Then I did something smart – I told the audience, “I’ve been watching a lot of Oprah lately and I’ve noticed that the camera picks up the bottom of your shoes, so make sure you don’t have any price tags stuck to the soles.” And then they relaxed and said, “Hey, you’re not evil after all.”
Motherhood: How does it compare to the way you imagined it?
Motherhood has been a total surprise: I had no idea what I was getting into. I was always a really good babysitter, so I thought I’d be one of those moms who’d love playing with her kids and would be so much fun everyone would want to hang out at our house. And it turns out I hate playing. I don’t mind playing board games or cards, but just sitting on the ground playing Legos is awful to me. It’s especially bad because we don’t have video games at our house; my son is campaigning for a Wii because he says we’re ruining his reputation.
Is marriage as you imagined it would be?
My marriage is just like I imagined marriage could be; what I hoped for myself. We have plenty of issues and arguments – marriage is work, not to change the other person but to change yourself. For example, I am by nature a contemptuous person, forever rolling my eyes at humanity. But contempt is such a toxic emotion. I don’t think marriage can survive it. So I’m careful never to roll my eyes at my husband – or my children, for that matter.
Do you think the stereotypes of Jewish motherhood are true?
I think that Jewish motherhood is like a virus that’s spread. We’ve sent our neuroses out into the western world and now it’s filled with Jewish mothers. The helicopter mom – that’s a Jewish mother in shiksa’s clothing. And I do think that kind of over-involved parent is a part of me, but that’s a part of most mothers. Certainly all of them, now. That said, I think one of the hallmarks of Jewish motherhood is putting your children at the center of your life. And while my family is the center of my life, I do make an effort to prioritize my marriage.
In setting forth the expectation that you would be both a Good Mother and – quoting you – “a successful professional who just happened to have children,” do you think that your mother (and the feminists of her generation) inadvertently set you up to fail?
In a way, yes. Inadvertently. But what else could they have done? They changed their daughters before the world changed. Would I have wanted anything else? For her to tell me I wouldn’t be able to hack it? I wouldn’t have wanted her to be any other way than she was or is. On the other hand, I think if I had had more realistic expectations I might have saved myself a couple years of misery. It used to be that you could be just about any kind of professional and be home in time to have dinner with your family. The six o’clock train used to come into the station in New Jersey and all the daddies would get off, and now that’s not the case. Just after women started entering the workforce, it became impossible to leave work until eight o’clock, ten o’clock…
Aside from day-to-day parenting logistics, do feel any insecurity about the larger life messages you send to your kids as they grow toward adulthood?
Only about 85 percent of the time.
What's your position on mommyblogging?
Complicated. Here’s all this amazing energy being devoted to mommyblogging, and it’d be better if they used that talent in ways that make money. Because there is some loss of power when you don’t earn money in a relationship. Even a small income is better than none. At the same time I think it’s incredibly important that women who are stuck at home with kids have a creative outlet and some way to channel their frustrations. Participating in the online universe is great, but I do think we have to be aware of the toxic stew in the Mommyblogging universe, particularly in the [blog] comments. The “Bad Mother Police” can be such a danger. It’s particularly women who fall victim to this – they’re treated much more harshly on the Internet than men are.
What’s your relationship with Judaism– as daughter, parent, wife?
My parents are both committed Atheists, yet for a family that didn’t believe in God we were very Jewish. Israel was a big part of our lives – we were always about to go back there so as a kid I never thought we would be here for long. It made me feel a little like a tourist in the United States. Now, I raise my kids with more of a sense of Yiddishkeit; we talk a lot about tikkun olam and we celebrate Shabbat… I have some warring thoughts about them: On one hand I’d be thrilled if they ended up with Jewish partners, but I also think we need some genetic diversity. Part of me wants to send my kids to various parts of the world – like the Rothschilds – so they can inject some genetic diversity into the Jewish people.
Who inspires you – as a mother; as a writer?
My mother inspires me as a mother, and my mother-in-law. I have friends who seem to parent… if not effortlessly, then with a certain sense of humor. My friends who can laugh at all their mistakes inspire me. As a writer, my husband is a source of inspiration. My entire work ethic comes from him. Lorrie Moore is someone whose writing I love – I read her short stories before I start work in the morning – and Tobias Wolff and Eudora Welty. Thank God for them.
How and why did you make the transition from lawyer to writer?
Because I can write for five hours a day and I had to be a lawyer between 8:00 a.m. and midnight. I quit because I wanted to be home with my husband and kids. I thought I was just taking a break, but almost immediately I started looking for something to keep me entertained. The first creative writing I ever did was a murder mystery – Nursery Crimes.
Does your experience as a lawyer inform your relationship with your husband or your kids?
My husband, only because I cross examine him. The things I’ve learned definitely inform the way I approach parenting. As a public defender my clients were the ones with the least power; it was my job to give them a voice. That’s kind of the way I’m raising my kids. They’re so fortunate to have so much. I think it’s our responsibility to give other people a chance to enjoy our privilege.
After your devastating abortion, you read a letter to the baby on Yom Kippur, in front of your entire congregation. Was this public confession the only conceivable means of atonement, or did you have to push yourself in the interest of setting a good example for your children – in support of your philosophy that secrets serve to weaken us?
I needed it. It wasn’t enough to say it to myself. I felt like I needed to stand up in front of my religious community, in the context of Yom Kippur, to accept responsibility for what we had done. It certainly made me appreciate Judaism; it was such an important part of my healing process. Which is ironic because I never used to go to shul. My father may have taken me to high holiday services once, because he wanted to schmooze, and I spent the whole time in the bathroom with the other girls.
Did the sentiment expressed in your infamous essay – that you could imagine life going on after losing a child but not after losing your husband – stem from surviving the abortion?
I wrote that essay after having undergone the abortion and then written Love and Other Impossible Pursuits, which is about a woman who loses a child. So I had lived through it personally and creatively and I knew what that was like. But I had never forced myself to imagine Michael’s death, or when I tried to I failed miserably. I couldn’t write a novel about a widow the way I could about a mother who loses her children.
You speak openly about your bipolar disorder – is this because of your belief in the corrosive nature of secrets?
I was diagnosed right before I got pregnant with Abe, about seven years ago. I knew since my father was diagnosed that I was suffering from something similar. I’m lucky I have a very mild form of the disease; other members of my family are not so fortunate. The Jewish stigma around mental illness is one of the reasons I’m so open about it. Jews have a lot of schizophrenia and other mental illnesses in our genes, so I feel like one of the best things I can do as a writer is talk publicly about it. I get letters from people who thank me for that. It’s just like diabetes: You take your medication and keep it at bay.