Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Book Review: Bad Mother

Bad Mother by Ayelet Waldman: I have mixed feelings about this book. Intelligently written and brutally honest, I delved into the book, reading with gusto as the author attacked the ridiculous and impossible ideal of motherhood that we modern, western mothers inflict upon ourselves and each other. I almost felt like I was being given permission to let go of some of the guilt for being so far from the perfect mother - whatever that is. (I say "almost" because, really, what is motherhood without guilt?)
However, I find myself deeply troubled by the author's hypocrisy. Throughout the book she talks about acceptance and how socially and politically liberal she and her husband are, and how they appreciate and embrace diversity among people and are disturbed and ashamed of the prejudice that still goes on in this country towards minorities like gays and Blacks. She talks a lot about how they are instilling in their children acceptance and embracement of differences among people. Here are a few passages:
"How many twin studies have to be done before people understand that homosexuality is innate? It has nothing to do with choice or a mother's smothering nature. People are gay because of genetics or fetal hormonal exposure or some other random physical and chemical spin of the wheel. Every time we have a child, we spin that wheel. . . . Bless mutation and complication and all that gives us such magnificent diversity."
"We have a tendency to value idealization over our own experience with messy reality. We fail to recognize that reality is actually wonderful, but for reasons that have absolutely nothing to do with the ideal."
"The point of a life, any life, is to figure out what you are good at, and what makes you happy, and, if you are very fortunate, spend your life doing those things."
"The worst thing about being so devoted to your expectations is that it blinds you to the wonders of the children you have."
And yet . . . she devotes an entire chapter to recounting how she chose to terminate a pregnancy because she found out via amniocenticis that the baby she was carrying (her third pregnancy) had a chromosomal abnormality which was not fatal and which may not have manifested in any noticeable or tangible way, but may have manifested with physical and/or mental impairment. It was the possibility of mental retardation that she could not live with - that, apparently, was the deciding factor in her choosing to have an abortion almost midway through the pregnancy, even in the face of already feeling the baby moving and kicking inside her.
Not only that, but with her two subsequent pregnacies, she chose to undergo CVS (chorionic villus sampling), which also screens for Italicgenetic abnormalities in a fetus, but much earlier than amnio. One can only assume that she did this to ensure that she could abort sooner if either of her subsequent babies was found to have an abnormality.
Obviously, as a mother of a child with a chromosomal abnormality (Down syndrome), and presumably some degree of mental retardation (although I haven't seen it manifested in Finn yet, but all the books and experts tell me that he is mentally retarded), this evoked a pretty emotional response from me. For a mother reading the book who does not share my particular circumstances, objectivity may be more possible. For me, however, it made me see the author as hypocritical: she embraces diversity and teaches her children to do the same, but she draws the line at disability? She believes in equality for all people, but doesn't think a baby with possible mental retardation has a life worthy of living? That was very difficult for me to swallow, and unfortunately colored my feelings about the author through the rest of the book.
Still, it's a book worth reading, and I do recommend it to any mother who has lived with guilt for not being a so-called "Good Mother," who has felt her mothering judged by her peers and society, and/or who has passed judgment on other mothers.
The book has some discussion questions in the back which I may try to tackle here over the next few days.


heather said...

Oh...you are good! You seriously should be an author of something great. Your writing and ability to put into words all the details of your thoughts and feelings is amazing. I wish the author could read your feelings and take on her book. I think she would be surprised to see the hypocrisy of her words and actions.

Chrystal said...

You make a fantastic point here.