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TERRY GROSS, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Like many mothers, my guest, Ayelet Waldman, has suffered from what she calls bad mother anxiety. That's why her new memoir is called "Bad Mother: A Chronicle of Maternal Crimes, Minor Calamities, and Occasional Moments of Grace."

Waldman is the mother of four and is best known as the author of the Mommy-Track novels, a series about a public defender turned stay-at-home-mom who grows frustrated at home, and ends up becoming a part-time detective.

Waldman didn't become a writer until after becoming a mother. Like the character in her series, she was a public defender and really liked the work. When she was pregnant with her first child, she worked until the last minute. And when she returned to her job, her husband, the well-known writer Michael Chabon, stayed home with the baby.

There were times Waldman was in the office with her breast pump whirring while she was on the speaker phone with a client. Then she'd get a call from her husband about how he and their daughter, Sophie, went to the pool and story time at the library, and how he saw her take her first steps, and Waldman started to feel like she was really missing out.

So one day, she packed up her office to become a stay-at-home mom. Was staying at home and taking her daughter to the pool and to the library, as wonderful as she thought it would be?

Ms. AYELET WALDMAN (Author, "Bad Mother: A Chronicle of Maternal Crimes, Minor Calamities, and Occasional Moments of Grace"): Well, absolutely. It was lovely. It was, you know, the baby pool and Mommy and Me, and story time at the library, and that whole first day that I was back, it was awesome. And then the second day it was story time at the library, and the baby pool, and Mommy and Me; and then the third day and the fourth day and the fifth day. And really, within a week, I had started to completely lose my mind.

But I am incredibly stubborn, and I had good reasons for going back. So I decided that I was going to stick with it, and I was going to stay home, and I was going to do this thing, and I wasn't going to give up and go back to work.

GROSS: Now, you write in your memoir that once you made that decision to stay home, and then you realized you were losing your mind, that you went on a rant -that we daughters of feminists had essentially been lied to. What was the lie?

Ms. WALDMAN: Well, you know, I was raised by a 1970s feminist. My mom had a consciousness-raising group. I used to sit at the top of the stairs and listen to them. I mean, they went - you know, they did the whole thing. I'm not sure if they ever actually got the speculum out, but I wouldn't be surprised if they did.

And my mom and her friends had these incredibly frustrated professional lives, and what they raised us to do, what she raised me to do, is to live out the kind of professional experience in life that she had never managed to have.

And they never said how hard it was going to be. You know, they never - my mother never made it clear that this was going to pull me in as many directions as it was, because I don't think she even thought so. I mean, she thought that if I had the kind of professional life that she had always longed for, then everything else would fall into place.

So I'm 44 years old, and I think I'm part of the first generation of women raised by these feminist mothers. And when I first was feeling so frustrated and depressed and angry about being stuck at home, I really kind of turned on that message, and I said, you know, this was a lie. This whole thing was a lie. We can't have it all. And at first I was angry, but I think what ended up happening is that I have - it's not so much that I've mellowed but that I've developed some perspective.

GROSS: How would you compare your idea of what it means to be a feminist with your mother's?

Ms. WALDMAN: Well you know, at a very basic level, we have the same idea of what it means to be a feminist. I mean, I absolutely call myself a feminist. And by that, I mean a woman who believes that your opportunities should not be constrained by your gender, that women should be entitled to the same opportunities as men - and my mother feels that way, too.

I think the difference is, in - between women of my generation and my mother's generation, and between my mother and me, is a kind of gradations and shades of gray. And you know, in one area that is really obvious, it's in abortion.

So for women of my mother's generation, who struggled so hard to get the right to abortion, what they needed to do in order to achieve that right and to maintain it was to describe what they were doing in a certain way. So I - you know, when they were describing the process of having an abortion, language was really important to them.

So they never called the baby a baby. It was a fetus. It was an embryo at best, you know. It was - and this is a quote - a clump of cells. But to women like me, who've grown up in the age of the ultrasound, we now have three-dimensional ultrasounds of our babies from the very beginning, you know, when we can actually see their features, recognizable features, and we can see them suck their thumbs. And for us, abortion - even though I think I am absolutely as committed to choice as my mother is - the idea of abortion and the fact of abortion has become something very different. And I think women of my mother's generation are very uncomfortable with how we talk about abortion.

GROSS: If you don't mind, I'd like to talk with you about a very difficult decision you had to make. When you were about 35, you were carrying your third child, and because of your age and the risks associated with pregnancy at that age, you decided to have amniocentesis, and tell us what you found.

Ms. WALDMAN: I had just turned 35. So it was sort of up in the air whether I would have an amnio at all, but I am by nature very pessimistic. So I decided that I had to have one.

And the ultrasound at the amnio was very, very normal. We saw the baby. I remember we - they gave us a photograph of his feet, just sort of like, almost like footprints. And then we came home. And about 10 days later, we were leaving for a family vacation in Hawaii, and I decided I was just going to call my obstetrician to find out, you know, get the kind of clear, go-ahead, the clean bill of health, just so that I wouldn't have any worries when we were, you know, floating in the ocean.

And I called her - and this experience is so, it's so clear in my mind in such a strange way. I called her and she said, are you sitting down? And at that moment, I kind of felt myself lift out of my body, and I almost felt like I was watching what was happening in this very detached way, almost like hovering up on the ceiling.

I remember having this thought - oh, wow, when something terrible happens, people really do fall on the ground and scream. And I had fallen on the ground, and I was holding the phone and just wailing. And my husband, Michael, took the phone out of my hand and talked to the doctor. And then we embarked on this - that was a Friday - and we embarked on these three days of just misery.

We went to the genetic counselor, and we found out that the baby had a genetic abnormality that's rare. It's a trisomy, a triple chromosome, but not Trisomy 21, which is Down's Syndrome, which is the most common trisomy, but a different one and a much more ambiguous defect.

On the one hand, there was a decent chance that the baby would have this genetic defect but would be unaffected, that you would never know, that he would lead - and it was a boy - that he would lead a very normal life, that you wouldn't be able to tell. And there, on the other hand, there were chances that he would be mentally retarded or be predisposed to cancers of the kidney, things like that.

GROSS: So you know, when you have amniocentesis, you usually have it with the idea that if it came back with bad news, you'd have an abortion. Otherwise, why bother to go through with the amnio, in a way. Maybe that's faulty logic?

Ms. WALDMAN: Absolutely. No, I think that's definitely true.

GROSS: But when you were slapped in the face by this really bad news, was the decision obvious to you about what to do?

Ms. WALDMAN: You know, in one way the decision was really, really obvious to me. I mean, I knew as soon as I heard the news what I wanted to do, what I was going to do. But the decision was - you know, there's your decision, and then your decision as a couple, as a family. And my husband is as much of an optimist as I am a pessimist, and he heard the statistics, and he thought all right, we're good. We're safe.

And so we spent three days kind of trying to come together as a couple. We weren't arguing at all. It was almost the most intimate experience of our marriage. But at the end, I remember we were sitting at the kitchen table and crying.

We'd been crying pretty much for three days. And he said, you know, if I - if you are wrong, and there's nothing wrong with the baby, and we have this abortion, I will always love you, and our relationship will continue unaffected. But if I'm wrong, and we have this baby and he is, in fact, mentally retarded, I don't know if we make it.

And it was this, you know, moment of terrible honesty, and we both just cried, and then the next day we went, and we had - these abortions take a number of days - and we had sort of the first step of that two-day abortion.

GROSS: Can I stop you? When your husband said, if I'm wrong, and the baby is born mentally retarded, I don't know if we make it, what did that mean?

Ms. WALDMAN: I think he meant, I mean I think he meant two things. I think he meant that our family would be forever changed. But I think he also meant - and I know he meant this, and I think he meant that he didn't know if I would be able to forgive him. And you know, in a way, that was a very harsh thing to say, but he was right.

I mean, he knows me more than anybody, better than anybody else in the world knows me, and at that moment, he was saying, you know, I know you, and I love you, and you know, I want to make sure that this doesn't happen. And it took - you know, I had to look in the mirror at that moment and look at the ugliest side of myself, too, and say, you know, you're right.

It's not like I wouldn't love him, but I don't know if I would have forgiven him.

GROSS: So you decided to have an abortion. You were four months pregnant. This is past the first trimester.

Ms. WALDMAN: Yes. It was the second…

GROSS: What were your options?

Ms. WALDMAN: Well, we had a D&E, which is a dilation and extraction, which is they, you know - and here's another point where, you know, my mother and I differ completely on this. You know, my mother, when she describes a procedure, she doesn't describe the details. And for me, I needed to know exactly what was happening. And in this procedure, your cervix is dilated, and the baby is extracted, and the baby's extracted, essentially, in pieces from your uterus.

It's horrible. It's - the photographs that you see that the right-to-lifers show, you know, they're real photographs. I mean, that's really what it's like. And I say this because I feel like I can't support a woman's right to choose unless I'm willing to look at the darkest side of it, and that was the darkest side of it.

So one of the things I asked the incredibly generous, gentle doctor who did the abortion was, I asked him if he would make sure that the baby didn't feel anything. That was - sorry.

(Soundbite of crying)

GROSS: That's OK.

Ms. WALDMAN: That was really important to me, that he be dead, essentially, before that grim process took place. And the doctor promised me that he would give an injection that would make that happen.

GROSS: So what were your feelings when the abortion was over? Did you feel different about it than you did going into it? Did you have doubts that you didn't have before? Were you okay with yourself?

Ms. WALDMAN: No, not for a while. I mean, almost immediately I decided that I had been completely wrong, and Michael was right. The baby was fine. I had done this horrible, horrible thing. I had killed a baby because I was a coward.

And I sank into what was really a five-month-long depression. I have bipolar disorder. So I tend to cycle, but I have a very mild case, and I had never been really what I think of as clinically depressed until that moment. And I was just profoundly depressed. I was furious with myself. I just felt like the worst mother in the world. And it was only when I got pregnant again that that depression lifted, and it lifted almost magically.

I mean, as soon as I found that I - it was five months later that I got pregnant again - and as soon as I found that I was pregnant, the anxiety and the fear for that baby, for the baby with whom I was pregnant, did not dissipate - not until I held her in my arms nine months later. But the sort of self-loathing and the just trauma of it just kind of floated away.

GROSS: My guest is Ayelet Waldman. Her new memoir is called "Bad Mother." More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: My guest is Ayelet Waldman. Her new memoir is called "Bad Mother: A Chronicle of Maternal Crimes, Minor Calamities, and Occasional Moments of Grace."

You were talking before about the difference between how you see abortion and how your mother sees it, and how you think for your mother and her generation, it was this black-and-white thing - that in order to fight for the right to have an abortion, you had to call what you were carrying a fetus and not a baby. You had to not acknowledge some of the darker sides of abortion because if there was any gray area, you'd lose. You'd lose the fight.

But you see grey area. You had the abortion anyways, but you see the pain, you see the gray area. Do you think if you had an abortion when you were in college, before you were married, before you became a mother, that abortion would have seemed different to you?

Ms. WALDMAN: I've never said this ever, I don't think. I had an abortion before. No, I have never told that to anybody, you know, outside of my girlfriends. I had an abortion when I was much younger, and it was a first-trimester abortion, and I did it without a moment's hesitation, without a moment's anxiety. I knew with utter certainty it was the right thing to do, and I can safely say it had no emotional affect on me.

I was also about four weeks and three days pregnant. I mean, really, I had had the test the day that I missed my period, and I had the abortion three days later. So it was very different, you know, with this - what happened with - we called that - the baby that we aborted - Rocket Ship. That was the name that my son had given when I was pregnant.

With Rocket Ship, I felt him moving. I saw him on the ultrasound. But this was, this really was like my mom and her friends said. This really was a clump of cells, and it had no emotional resonance in my life afterwards at all.

GROSS: And does it now?

Ms. WALDMAN: You know, no, it really doesn't. I mean, I am so certain that it was the right decision, and it was so early. I mean, I do actually think there is a qualitative difference between aborting in the early part of the first trimester and in, you know, the middle or later part of the second trimester, in a way that you feel about it in that you grow attached. I think there's a real difference, and I think that my reaction is probably pretty common.

But I also know that there are people who have very early abortions who then go on to feel, you know, a certain amount of trauma from that, too. So I wouldn't want to, you know, denigrate that experience, either.

GROSS: Do you mind if I ask how you and your mother discussed the abortion and if you used different language and if you had different, you know, emotional ideas about it?

Ms. WALDMAN: My mother was - you know, my mother's so devoted. She's just the warmest, most lovely woman, and she ached for me. I mean, she just ached for me. She wanted me to feel better. She just couldn't stand how much pain I was in, and one of the ways she tried to help me was to say, you know, this wasn't - it wasn't real. It wasn't a baby.

And I don't think she understood how much I needed not to talk about it like that. I don't think - it didn't make sense to her how - she thought I was just being unnecessarily self-flagellating when I would talk about him and what he looked like and when I held those - you know, I kept those ultrasound pictures. I have them still.

There was this great divide in how she felt like I was making my pain last longer by dwelling on this side of it. And I felt like it was not that - it was irresponsible not to accept that part of it and to really acknowledge what I had done.

GROSS: Well Ayelet, I really appreciate how much pain this abortion caused and what it's like to, you know, reveal the first one you had. I just want to thank you for, you know, sharing that part of your life with us. So let me tell our guests who I'm speaking with. My guest is Ayelet Waldman, and she is probably best known for a series of crime novels that she's written called the Mommy-Track novels, where it's a mother-turned-detective.

So it's about motherhood and amateur detective work at the same time. She's written other books, as well, and her new book is a memoir. It's called "Bad Mother: A Chronicle of Maternal Crimes, Minor Calamities, and Occasional Moments of Grace."

There's another, like, really difficult topic that I want to talk with you about, if you don't mind.

Ms. WALDMAN: Sure.

GROSS: And this was, you know, you mentioned that you're manic-depressive, and it's a, you know, fairly mild case of it, but still, you know, when you were diagnosed, you were put on medication, which was very helpful, and right after that, you found out you were pregnant.

Ms. WALDMAN: Yeah, like weeks later. I mean, almost immediately.

GROSS: Yeah, and then you had to decide, you know, should you stay on the medication, which would be good for you, or should you get off of it because it might be bad for the baby you were carrying. And this is something that women go through with coffee and wine, let alone, you know, let alone biochemical kind of drugs.

Ms. WALDMAN: Yeah, and I had stopped the coffee and stopped the wine and wasn't eating tuna and was, you know, carefully making sure I got sufficient Omega-3s and doing - I know - sleeping on the right side, you know, doing all the things that you're supposed to do in that kind of crazy, neurotic way that contemporary American motherhood has told us we have to treat pregnancy.

And then I was taking this medication that I knew was crossing into my baby's bloodstream. You know, my doctor - I went to my obstetrician, and I talked to my psychiatrist, and they all agreed that it was safe. The problem was that after I had the baby, it turned out that there were these research studies that showed that in fact, it wasn't as clear-cut. I mean, there are - babies who are exposed to SSRIs in utero are born with SSRIs in their system, and they go through SSRI withdrawal.

And Abraham had a whole series of problems when he was born, really, which - none of which you could actually say was a result of SSRI withdrawal. He couldn't nurse. He wasn't gaining weight, and while the studies showed that was a side effect, he also had this kind of bubble palate, almost - if it had been a little higher of a bubble, it would have been a cleft palate. So that was most likely the cause of his difficulties.

But to have taken those medications and then to read those studies and then to know that my baby - for another reason entirely, but still - was suffering from those very symptoms was very difficult, and I don't know if I would make the same decision.

In fact, I don't think I would make the same decision again. You know, I'm not - it's not impossible that I'll get pregnant again - although, you know, God forbid, as my mother says. But I would not take medication when I was pregnant now. I would try to kind of go it alone, although it would be hard. It would definitely be hard.

GROSS: So was this your third or your fourth?

Ms. WALDMAN: That was my last baby, my fourth, Abraham, who's 6 now - and who's fine. I just have to say he's totally normal.

GROSS: Good, good. My guest is Ayelet Waldman. Her new memoir is called "Bad Mother." She'll be back in the second half of the show. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross back with Ayelet Waldman. Her new memoir is called "Bad Mother: A Chronicle of Maternal Crimes, Minor Calamities, and Occasional Moments of Grace." It's in part about leaving her job as a public defender to become a stay-at-home mom and still suffering from bad mother anxiety. Waldman is now the mother of four. After becoming a mother, she found a new line of work, which she could do from home - writing. She is the author of the Mommy Track series of detective novels.

She is married to the writer Michael Chabon. You know, you mentioned the mild -the relatively mild case of bipolar syndrome that you have, which is, you know, contrasting highs and lows, you know, depressions and manias. The manias are, of course, very productive and the depressions, not so much. You say something really funny in your book, that you can always spot the other bipolar person at the party. She is the one regaling the room with a hysterical tale of her husband's virulent herpes outbreak.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. WALDMAN: Yep.

GROSS: And you say sometimes, like when you get into the manic phase, like you talk too much, you say too much, you reveal too much. Do you feel like you ever did that like on your blog or you know, or in a novel or something…

Ms. WALDMAN: Oh, always. I mean, welcome to the world of the memoir, right? Where would the memoir be without bipolar writers? I mean, that's what - that whole oversharing thing is really a very clear symptom of bipolar disorder. And I'm not saying that every, you know, I'm not accusing every memoirist of being bipolar. But I think in a way, it's kind of a gift. I mean, if we didn't have people who were missing a very clear, line-drawing impulse that normal people have then we wouldn't have these articles and essays and memoirs that we can all - that we all look to to identify with.

I mean, I get - most of the mail that I get is from people who say, thank you for saying that; I never would have said it myself, but it's so nice to read it. And you know, lucky them, I'm crazy.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Give us an example of something you said that got that kind of comment.

Ms. WALDMAN: Well, I mean, the whole thing about the abortion that we talked about, you know, that maybe that kind of oversharing was a part of writing about that. But probably - I mean, certainly most infamously was when I wrote an essay in which I said that I loved my husband more than my children. That was definitely the most oversharing moment, particularly since I went - it was an essay about sex and about sexless marriages. And I talked about my very not-sexless marriage in far more detail than one should, probably certainly than my husband ever would have, let's just say.

GROSS: Yeah, and the premise of the article was, you know, you knew so many mothers who weren't having sex any longer with their husbands, and you were trying to figure out why, and…

Ms. WALDMAN: Right. The only reason I wrote that article was because I was writing it for an anthology about, you know, all these different mothers writing about different things - this anthology called "Because I Said So" -and the editors came to me and they said, okay, we've got moms writing about cancer and about divorce and blah, blah, blah. And we don't have anybody writing about sex, and since you're the only person who's having any, it's got to be you.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: So you were trying to figure out why is it that like so many mothers don't, you know, don't want or even have sex anymore but you and your husband were enjoying a sexual life, like what was the difference. And your answer was?

Ms. WALDMAN: My answer was that all of these women were good mothers. They had made this kind of erotic transference when they had children. They shifted all of their ardor and their passion and their devotion from their husbands to their children. The children had become the center of their passionate universes. And I'd never done that. I mean, I loved my kids like crazy.

And I love them still, even though some of them are turning into teenagers. But I had never sort of shifted that passionate focus. And I still loved my husband as much as I had, with the same kind of crazy devotion and that - if a good mother was a mother who loved her children more than anybody else in the world, then I was a bad mother because - and here was the line - I loved my husband more than my children. Buh-dum-bum.

GROSS: And then you said, and I might as well quote it here: If I were to lose…

Ms. WALDMAN: Go for it.

GROSS: If I were to lose one of my children, God forbid, even if I lost all my children, God forbid, I would still have him, my husband. But my imagination simply fails when I try to picture a future beyond my husband's death.

Ms. WALDMAN: Yeah, that was the killer. You know, what was going on is, I had just finished this novel called "Love and Other Impossible Pursuits," which was about a woman whose baby dies of SIDS. I had just finished that novel. And I had spent a year in the head of this woman trying to get over the death of a child. So I felt like I had the capacity to imagine that. But I couldn't imagine writing a novel about a widow, and I still can't imagine writing that -I don't know, you know, the extent of that. That experience just seems utterly incomprehensible to me.

So that's really why I said that. But, you know, of course what - when one reads that, the kind of logical interpretation is that, you know, I'd throw my kids in front of a bus to save my husband, and that's just obviously not true. I would throw myself in front of the bus, and then they'd go on to lead very happy lives without me.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. WALDMAN: You know what I thought of when I read this is that, you know, sometimes - well, I used to think to myself, when my parents were alive, who should die first? Like, one of them is going to have to outlive the other. Who would be able to survive, outliving the other better? Which would I - would be - how would I, you know, who - who would I better survive, you know, if one died and the other lived, like how would I, you know, manage it. Then I - once I got to that - these horrible thoughts - games like that slip into your mind. But once I get to that point, I'd kind of stop because I felt like, wow, I just can't go on with that, I mean, it's just, I can't - I can't - I can't work that one through.

And then sometimes just like, even like really stupid thing pops in my mind, like if you had to be blind or deaf, which would you choose?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. WALDMAN: Right. And that's like constant…

GROSS: Well it's like…

Ms. WALDMAN: …that's constant - I've done that my whole life.

GROSS: Yeah.

Ms. WALDMAN: I guess that's just called being Jewish.

GROSS: Maybe, maybe. But then once I put that premise on the table, I think like, I'm not going to play that game. That's a really stupid game, you don't have the choice, you don't have to make the choice. You'll never have to make that choice. So why even put yourself through it? And I never go any further. But it's like you followed that one through, that worst-case scenario, you had to make the choice, thing. You put it on the table, you made a decision, and then you put in print and…

Ms. WALDMAN: Oy.

GROSS: Oy.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. WALDMAN: Well, I think, you know, first of all, we were talking about that land of oversharing impulse. But also I think because, I mean, what I was responding to was, what I saw was - you know, in a way I was saying, look, I'm not the one who set up this hierarchy. But if we were playing the game of hierarchy, well, I think you're wrong.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. WALDMAN: So that's sort of how I did it. You know, it's so funny because everyone was so afraid of like, what do my kids think, poor children, when they read that. So I got very nervous about what my kids would say. And I sat down my older daughter and - this long explanation, told her what was in the essay. And this is what she did. She looked at me and she went, duh, and walked away.

GROSS: My guest is Ayelet Waldman. Her new memoir is called "Bad Mother." More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

If you're just joining us, my guest is Ayelet Waldman, and she's written a new memoir called "The Bad Mother: A Chronicle of Maternal Crimes, Minor Calamities, and Occasional Moments of Grace." She's probably best known for her series of novels, the Mommy Track detective series, which is about a mother turned amateur detective. Okay, another issue that you're facing now: One of your daughters is in her early teens.

Ms. WALDMAN: Yes.

GROSS: And so you're facing what is a trauma for so many parents, which is the…

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: …the early sexuality of…

Ms. WALDMAN: Right.

GROSS: …your oldest. And you…

Ms. WALDMAN: This is so much more of a trauma for my husband, let me just say.

GROSS: Is that true?

Ms. WALDMAN: Having all the reactions of some kind of crazed, fictional, prototypical father, but yes, it is definitely - it's kind of a shock to the system, this little creature - you know, you used to put that little foot in your mouth and now it's, you know…

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. WALDMAN: …tottering around in a stiletto heel, it's weird.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: So you write in your memoir that you lost your virginity when you were 14, which is the age your daughter's at. And you had a - quite an impressive sexual resume before you met your husband.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. WALDMAN: Oh my goodness, oversharing. Yes, okay we're going there, Terry. Let's do it.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: I'm pulling back from the brink here. But, so what do you tell your daughter about sexuality without feeling like a hypocrite?

Ms. WALDMAN: Well, this is - it's really hard. I mean, because in a way, my early sexual experience was a very, very negative one. So that is - that's -actually, I'm almost relieved that that happened because I have a great message to impart, which is don't let - I had - there was a much, much older - he was a man really, he was in his early 20s, and he took advantage of me.

And so I had this great lesson that I can teach her, which is, you know, don't go into a room with a 21-year-old Israeli soldier. I think that's actually a really good lesson for everybody.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. WALDMAN: But, you know, what's more - what I think of as more of challenge is I actually, it's not that I don't want her to have sex, I want her to have sex. I want her to love sex. I think that's a really important part of being a whole human being. So the trick, when you have an adolescent, is to teach them that sex is something good and joyful and wonderful, and that it's something they have to be incredibly responsible about because it can be fatal. And that it's something that is best shared with someone you really love.

And, you know, I'm not actually, I think it's fine in a life of sexual experiences to have some that mean more and some that mean less. And I expect that to happen to them. But I think that it's really a lot better if your earliest sexual experiences mean a lot more. And that sort of the kind of thing I tried to tell them. Until you air this tomorrow, my daughter will not have known that I lost my virginity at 14. So thank you for that, she's 14…

GROSS: Oh gosh.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. WALDMAN: It's going to be - I'm going home and having that conversation tonight. But she seems so impossibly far away from it. You know, I was - my daughter's in eighth grade, and I was 14 in 10th grade. And I think that's a huge difference. I think those two years, those first couple of years of high school are - that's at least going to be my story tonight.

GROSS: Now, you're a writer now, you've written a lot of books. You're a successful writer. But you started your career as a lawyer and left that to become a, you know, stay-at-home mother. But while staying at home, you became a writer. And as I said, a very successful one. How did you figure out that you could write and that you wanted to write?

Ms. WALDMAN: Oh, it was so accidental. I was desperate to try to find something in my life. Here I was a stay-at-home mom. I was desperate to try to find something in my life that my kids couldn't have access to, you know, that was just mine. And because everything when you are a mom - they even, they drink the foam off your latte. I mean, they have - everything of yours is theirs. So, I was either going to, like, take up smoking or write a novel because there - I needed some part of my day that they couldn't own. And I really did do it almost just to entertain myself.

I really had no idea that it would get published. And then when I started, when I was in the throes of it, I said to myself, okay look. Here is this example of a really easy life, right? I used to work 12-hour days, I was in trial, I would have to go to the Metropolitan Detention Center, interview clients, I'd have to do investigations, you know, those - when you're a lawyer you work constantly. And here's my husband, he works like, what? Five hours a day, and then he hangs out with the kids and he like, you know, goes out to lunch. This is the way to do it, right? I've got to do that.

So, it really was envy. And then, you know, lawyers spend a lot of time writing so while I had never written fiction at all, not even a single short story before I wrote my first murder mystery, I had - you know, as a criminal defense attorney, you write these things called sentencing memoranda, where you try to convince the judge what a great guy your client is, and why he should get a lenient sentence, and you know - hell, that's pretty much fiction writing. So I have a lot of experience.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Now, in your first Mommy Track novel, when she starts to work on her first case, and the first case is the principal of the nursery school is killed. And so she has to figure that out.

Ms. WALDMAN: Yes. That was a little wish fulfillment.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: So anyways, the character who had been a public defender like you, you know, the main character…

Ms. WALDMAN: Amazing how art imitates life or life imitates art, something…

GROSS: Yeah. Well, she says the problem with having experience as a criminal defense lawyer is that you tend to see criminal violence everywhere in everyone. Did you have that experience, too, after spending a lot of time in prison working closely with people accused of horrible crimes?

Ms. WALDMAN: Oh absolutely. I mean, you always see - because the people that you see at that moment in their lives, when they've done something terrible - I mean, sometimes there are people that it's easy to say oh that's not me, you know, I am not a heroin addict, I didn't grow up in, you know, a war-torn neighborhood in East L.A. I'm not - that could never be me. But a lot of times, you know, there but for the grace of opportunity go you. So, the - but the only experience worse for seeing humanity as capable of all sorts of evil than being a criminal defense attorney is being a mystery writer because then your whole life - all you're doing all day is trying to find scenarios where people do horrible things to each other.

So you can't even, you know, cross a street without thinking, I wonder if I could have a truck run over someone on that intersection?

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: I wonder if this has made you like an overprotective mother because you've told us you are a pessimist by nature. And that because you were, you know, a public defender that you saw, you know, criminality all around you, so you add the two together ,and it might be scary to let your children out of the house.

Ms. WALDMAN: Well, I'm a - I have a sort of almost political commitment to letting my children out of the house. I know absolutely that according to FBI statistics, it is no more dangerous for children now than it was when I was growing up in the 1970s. I know what a great gift, the kind of freedom that I had with growing up in the 1970s was, where I could just get on my bike and go to the candy store or do whatever I did. Or the way we roved the neighborhood in these packs of children, doing all kinds of unspeakable things to one another that our parents would surely have passed out if they knew we were doing it.

But I also know that's, you know, that's where imagination comes from, that's where the sense of responsibility for oneself comes from. And children who spend their whole day being taxied from one organized play date to another organized, you know, baseball game, they never learn that they can have experiences unmediated by adults. And I am kind of terrified about the idea of a world governed by these people who've never had to govern themselves.

But I'm also crazily pessimistic. And so I do things like, I say to my - to Rosie this morning, who - she is 7 years old, and she really wanted to go around the corner to the café to get a roll and cream cheese for breakfast. So - and she'd wanted to do it by herself, and her older siblings got to. She was almost - she's almost 8, and she wants to do it. So I said, okay, and I gave her $5 and in the three and a half minutes that she was gone, I went the whole thing.

I saw the abduction. I saw the basement, you know, like that thing in Belgium. I did the whole thing, the anxiety, the horror, the misery. And then she came home and of course, she was completely fine. And I feel really good about letting her do that. And she feels really good and - but am I going to ever not imagine the whole terrible - no, that's what I'll do. I'll just keep letting them have their freedom and keep freaking out about it.

GROSS: Are you going to let her do it again?

Ms. WALDMAN: Oh yeah, yeah. She just informed me now that that's her breakfast from now on. She is going to have like work a little harder to get a larger allowance, let me tell you, if she thinks she's going to be spending 2.50…

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. WALDMAN: …on breakfast every morning but…

GROSS: But you and your husband, Michael Chabon, are both writers.

Ms. WALDMAN: Yes.

GROSS: And how - like, do you…

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. WALDMAN: He struggles along in my shadow, Terry. It's very hard for him. I just don't know what to say.

GROSS: Do you edit each other's work and…

Ms. WALDMAN: Oh, constantly.

GROSS: What's it like to be edited by your husband? Do you take it any more or less personally than you do when you get edited by your actual editor at the publishing company?

Ms. WALDMAN: We edit each - nothing goes out of the door that hasn't been, and I mean, not even an email basically goes out the door that hasn't been edited. We edit each other constantly. We also - we have, we skip the, you know, when we're editing other people, we always say, you have to do a praise sandwich, like lots of praise and then the criticism and more praise. And we just skip the bread when it's the two of us. We go right to the problems, and we're brutal. And so - so sometimes I'll hand him something that I've just written and it comes back littered with notes like, DB, which means do better, do better. And, you know, I'll look at enough of those and I'll say, you know, do better? You do better if you can think you can do better.

But we have this kind of bombastic editorial relationship where we often have these huge fights about it. But then the person being edited invariably says, oh my god, you're right. What was I complaining about? You're completely right. I have to totally change this. And so that - I mean, that part is actually, it's crazy but it's fun.

But the most satisfying part is the way that we work together on problems. I mean, writing is such a solitary exercise. And things come up that just - you're breaking your neck over: how to solve this problem with a character, how to make this sentence work. How do you, you know, your plot has kind of spiraled into disaster. And what we do, we have this thing we call plot walks, where we'll just pull each other aside and we'll go for a walk for an hour, and we'll just kind of talk through the problem.

And, you know, invariably, we come to a solution. And it's also this wonderful thing that we share that has nothing to do with our children. You know, so much of time as a couple, when you have kids, is spent as kind of, you know, co-forpeople in a factory, like on swing shifts. And this is something we - a life that we have together that is completely separate from our lives with our children - although they're getting into the business, let me tell you. We'll be sitting at dinner and suddenly, you know, the 7-year-old will have a very interesting point she wants to make about a character that we're talking about, that she feels like she could really save the novel from, you know, ruin.

GROSS: Well, Ayelet, I want to really thank you a lot for talking with us. I really appreciate it.

Ms. WALDMAN: Oh, thank you so much, Terry. It's so exciting for me.

GROSS: Ayelet Waldman's new memoir is called "Bad Mother." You can read an excerpt on our Web site, freshair.npr.org, where you can also download podcasts of our show. Coming up, Ken Tucker reviews Bob Dylan's new CD. This is FRESH AIR.

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