Ayelet Waldman: On Feeling Like A 'Bad Mother' Five years ago, novelist Ayelet Waldman sparked a controversy — and wound up on Oprah to defend herself — when she wrote in an essay that she loved her husband more than her children. Her memoir about that experience, Bad Mother has just been released in paperback.

Ayelet Waldman: On Feeling Like A 'Bad Mother'

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This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli of tvworthwatching.com, sitting in for Terry Gross.

Like many mothers, our guest Ayelet Waldman has suffered from what she calls bad mother anxiety. That's why her memoir, now out in paperback, 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. Her next novel, "Red Hook Road," is scheduled for publication next month.

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 speakerphone 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. One day, she packed up her office to become a stay-at-home mom. Terry spoke with Ayelet Waldman last year and asked if staying home and taking her daughter to the pool and the library was 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.


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 and 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've - 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 between women of my generation and my mother's generation, 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 their - 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.

GROSS: That's okay.

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? Did you - 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.

BIANCULLI: Ayelet Waldman, speaking to Terry Gross last year. More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

BIANCULLI: Let's get back to Terry's interview from last year with author Ayelet Waldman. Her memoir, called "Bad Mother: A Chronicle of Maternal Crimes, Minor Calamities, and Occasional Moments of Grace," is now out in paperback.

GROSS: 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 gray 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 effect 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 for the - 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 - I mean, 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 - you 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. I mean, 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 six now - and who's fine. I just have to say he's totally normal, you know.

GROSS: Good, good.

BIANCULLI: Ayelet Waldman, speaking to Terry Gross last year. Her memoir, "Bad Mother," is now out in paperback. We'll continue their conversation in the second half of the show. I'm David Bianculli, and this is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: You know, you mentioned the mild - 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 the hysterical tale of her husband's virulent herpes outbreak.

(Soundbite of laughter)


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 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'd 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)

GROSS: 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 thought 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 it's 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...

GROSS: Right. It's like...

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

GROSS: Yeah.

Ms. WALDMAN: I think 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...



(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. WALDMAN: Well, I think, you know, first of all, we were talking about that 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're 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 just 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: 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.

BIANCULLI: Ayelet Waldman speaking to Terry Gross last year. Her memoir, "Bad Mother," is now out in paperback. Her next novel, "Red Hook Road," comes out next month.

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