By Ayelet Waldman
Paperback, 224 pages
List Price: $14.95
The morning after my wedding, my husband, Michael, and I were lying on a vast expanse of white linen in the bridal suite of Berkeley's oldest hotel, engaging in a romantic tradition of newlyweds the world over: counting our loot. Sifting through the checks, I said, "What's with the multiples of eighteen? Fifty-four dollars, ninety. Wow, here's one for one eighty."
"Life," my new husband said.
"You know, chai. Didn't your grandmothers always give you checks in multiples of eighteen for your birthday?"
One of my grandmothers, I recalled, always sent a crisp five-dollar bill tucked into a birthday card. The other had presented me for most of the previous twenty-seven years with one of a series of Jewish-themed necklaces that, after the thirteenth or so, would go right into my underwear drawer, never to emerge again.
He explained, "It's gematria. The ancient Jewish system of numerical symbolism. Each Hebrew letter has a number value. You spell the Hebrew word for life, chai, with the letter chet, which equals eight, and the letter yud, which equals ten. Chet, yud, eight and ten. Eighteen stands for life."
Among the constellation of Stars of David twinkling in my underwear drawer lay tangled a number of gold and silver chais, neck-laces bearing that two-letter word. One, with letters close to two inches high, had adorned the yoke of my forest green acrylic cowlnecked sweater in my eighth-grade yearbook picture; the silver was the precise shade of my braces. While I'd always known that chai, life, was a symbol of good luck, I had never been taught the significance of the number eighteen.
Since that morning fifteen years ago, I have received more checks in multiples of eighteen, as have my children on the occasions of their births and birthdays. Symbolic representations of life and luck, even if luck is understood to mean readily transferable into Spider-Man Legos, Polly Pockets, and handfuls of candy.
Once you have children, eighteen becomes a number with a certain magical weight. Eighteen is the age of majority. It's the age when they can vote (although not drink), when they graduate from high school and go off to college. Eighteen-year-olds are legally adults, I remember reminding my own mother when I was that age; you can't tell them what to do. And after your children turn eighteen, you are no longer responsible for them in the eyes of the law.
Except, of course, the law of the land is irrelevant; it's the law of your heart that matters. The law might think differently, but your children are yours forever, your responsibility until, at last, you are theirs.
This book is about the perils and joys of trying to be a decent mother in a world intent on making you feel like a bad one. Because it is about me, and my experience of motherhood, it is necessarily about the luckiest things that have ever happened to me-my four children and my husband-and thus it seems only fitting that I tell the story in eighteen chapters. It also seems fitting that I hesitate a moment before telling my story-our story- to consider the question of whether it is appropriate to write about my children at all. Would a Good Mother keep her own counsel, button her lip? Does writing about my children make me a Bad Mother?
My children have given me their permission to write this book. I always share what I'm writing with them; I check in to make sure they're not uncomfortable and don't feel exposed. And there have been many times when I have decided, because of their trepidation or my own concern, not to tell a story or dwell on a topic. I am confident that I have not betrayed my children anywhere in these eighteen chapters. Still, they are under eighteen, and one of them can't even read. Their permission alone cannot justify the project.
The justification lies in the fact that the very writing of this book embodies my approach to motherhood, even, dare I say it, my philosophy. I believe that mothers should tell the truth, even-no, especially-when the truth is difficult. It's always easier, and in the short term can even feel right, to pretend everything is okay, and to encourage your children to do the same. But concealment leads to shame, and of all hurts shame is the most painful. Only if you name a problem, confront it head-on, drag it into the light, does it become surmountable. I always tell my kids that as soon as you have a secret, something about you that you are ashamed to have others find out, you have given other people the power to hurt you by exposing you.
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 our own ideals. In these eighteen chapters I explore that fear. I turn over those rocks and expose the spidery places beneath. By presenting a faithful and honest record of my experience as a mother, I hope to show both my readers and my children how truth can redeem even what you fear might be the gravest of sins.
As I write this, Sophie is thirteen years old, Zeke just turned eleven, Rosie is seven, and Abraham, whom we most often call Abie, is just five. Thirty-six altogether. A multiple of eighteen.
My luck, my loves, my chai.