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Sexist Beatdown: Kavalier and Clay in: the Case of the Missing Maternal Instinct Edition

Good afternoon! Are you ready for a beatdown? Of SEXISTS?

Well, good news for you if you are. Indifferent news, if you are not! The blog post will be here all day, seriously. Because, did you know that Ayelet Waldman is a BAD MOTHER? She would certainly like you to think so, anyway, because that is what her new book is called.

Amanda Hess of The Sexist and I are not so sure! In this edition of our Gchat-enabled public discussion forum, we ask the important questions, such as: what makes a bad mother, anyway? What does a woman get out of marketing herself as such? Is Ayelet Waldman, perhaps, a PERFECTLY COMPETENT mother in disguise? And: were we really ready to know this much uncomfortably intimate information about the “quickening of desire” felt towards or by Mr. Ayelet Waldman, who is apparently novelist (that I like!) Michael Chabon?

ILLUSTRATION: In the afternoons, we make sweet, tender love, and then we discuss the Yiddish Policemen’s Union.

SADY: hello! are you ready to talk about how some lady HATES and/or does not maniacally worship her children?

AMANDA: I can barely begin to think about it because i HATE this woman so much!

SADY: i, too, am driven to the verge of madness by her statements! actually, this is technically somewhat true. i mean. i read the “modern love” column that “bad mother” was based on, and: all i could think of was, seriously, you’re opposing the fetishization of motherhood by talking about how much you WORSHIP YOUR HUSBAND?

AMANDA: i know, right? where is the response Modern Love column that says, “i probably don’t love either of them.”

SADY: hahaha. i mean. if the whole weird mother/wife axis is about (1) being an untiring source of boundless Virgin Mary love and devotion for your children, and (2) keeping your man sat-is-fied, writing the article that’s like, “i can’t be all boundless or whatever with my kids because i’m too busy DOING IT with my hot husband, who I LOVE, and have i mentioned WE DO IT” is kind of… not necessarily a step FORWARD, you know?

AMANDA: yeah. i think she’s a controversial figure for another reason, too. she wrote this essay, right, and it’s basically a slap in the face to the whole love-transfer idea that’s expected of a mother, and she even goes far enough to say she’d basically save her husband’s life over her child’s if they were like being held hostage by Two-Face or whatever and she had to choose. but then, she’s spent about 4 years having to explain herself for that, and EVERYTHING SHE WRITES—her fiction, her nonfiction—is about being a mom! and obviously it’s something that she appears to struggle with, but it has consumed her.

SADY: right? like, for someone who doesn’t want to be defined by having babies, she sure does write a lot about having babies. and the “bad mother” label – the thing she seems to castigate herself for most fiercely is having an abortion when she knew the fetus wasn’t totally healthy.

AMANDA: i know, that part made me so sad, that she has these own expectations for herself, and that even though she freely choses not to meet those expectations, she feels like a bad person for doing so

SADY: right? i mean, i can understand that being a difficult, emotional decision, but it really seems like that would only make you a “bad” mother if you had a really over-demanding list of requirements for being a “good” mother.

AMANDA: yeah. there is another really interesting unspoken element here. she met chabon 12 years ago and has had four of his children since then. she indicates that he was very early on — the day they met, i think! — clear that he wanted children. but that was never a priority for her. when she quits her job, it’s not because she wants to spend time with her kid. she makes it clear she finds that boring. it’s because she’s jealous of him wanting that. you have to state the obvious here — the man that you love so much is the reason you have been burdened with motherhood.

SADY: yeah, exactly. and, i mean, she mentions that they got engaged three weeks after they met! which is clearly indicative of the fact that the whole “let’s talk about kids and whether i want them on the first date” thing was not, ultimately, a dealbreaker.

AMANDA: yeah, and was her voice heard there? i mean she spent four of their 12 years just being pregnant with the kids. plus another pregnancy that was physically and emotionally straining. she sure had a lot of kids for not wanting them too much, right? what is the deal with that?

SADY: yeah, and then there’s this, from the “modern love” column: “Every so often we escape from the children for a few days. We talk about our love, about how much we love each other’s bodies and brains, about the things that make us happy in our marriage… And afterward my husband will say that we, he and I, are the core of what he cherishes, that the children are satellites, beloved but tangential.” this is really caitlin-flanagan-y. SOMETHING is going on here, with the husband who tells you he wants kids and then you have four kids and then he tells you that you’re the one that’s most important, not the kids. SOMEONE is understating how important the kids are here, you know?

AMANDA: add that to the “abortion makes you a bad mother” thing and it’s almost like, not making babies when you’re able to make babies makes you a bad mother. what else explains the apparent lack of contraception here?

SADY: i get the sense that, really, waldman’s either way more into having kids than she’s letting on, or she’s backed into this corner of defining herself as a mother while constantly talking about how she shouldn’t be defined that way.

AMANDA: yeah, and i wish the people interviewing her (ok—i will send her an interview request when we finish this) would ask her these things

SADY: like, the mommy-guilt thing is interesting – “of woman born,” by adrienne rich, is a good thing about mommy-guilt – because, yeah, women are constantly told HAVE BABIES HAVE BABIES HAVE BABIES and then they’re told YOU’RE NOT DOING WELL ENOUGH WITH THE BABIES, so, it’s like, childless or with tons of kids, you don’t get to measure up, EVER.

AMANDA: and i get that she feels there are all these expectations that she has to face and can’t live up to. but at the same time, there’s the expectation to HAVE the kids in the first place, and she didn’t have to do that—and then do it again and again and again. it would be interesting to know why, you know?

SADY: yeah, and we sentimentalize maternal instinct to the point that women who express ANYTHING deviating from the message of “i spend all day and all night thinking about my children and wanting more children and then knitting them booties and baby blankets and did i mention they are thirty-four and twenty-three” are demonized. but: there’s got to be a way to tell the story of, “ok, so i have kids, and i didn’t magically become a caring and perfect person who would allow her children to feast on her own flesh if necessary overnight” without slapping a title on it that’s like “BAD MOTHER” and having to state that it wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world if your kids were run over by a truck. i guess my thing is, there’s a good story in here, and i wish it weren’t so hyped and Mommy-Wars-ified.

AMANDA: yeah. i do appreciate that she’s coming from a place of sincerity (almost to a fault), but i wish other people were asking her the right questions (instead of just, ‘star jones doesn’t like you what do you think of that’). or why don’t you like play doh. ok — i have to GO. have four babies. wait, i mean, do my job

SADY: oh, well, good luck with that. YOU BARREN MONSTER.


  1. The Patriarchy wrote:

    Fancy that. Someone who has an unclear idea of a concept and, therefore, a contradictory mode of Being qua (in this case) mother.

    Moms are boring. I was hoping you’d write about big-novel-as-a-metaphor-for-big-penis daddy Chabon.

    Friday, May 8, 2009 at 11:03 am | Permalink
  2. miss elizabeth wrote:

    I really liked the article, and as a woman with children who has similar feelings (and has never ever expressed them publicly for fear of being ostracized) I can really relate. I don’t really understand why you don’t like it? She doesn’t seem to come to any firm conclusions, but just saying something like this in our society is very hard. Just because she doesn’t have a rock solid message doesn’t mean that her feelings aren’t valid, right? I guess I don’t understand what the problem with her is.

    Friday, May 8, 2009 at 11:11 am | Permalink
  3. Sady wrote:

    Well: haven’t read the book. The article, to me, was gooey and overshare-y, and also Caitlin-Flanagan-esque in its whole, “the OTHER mothers aren’t GETTING any, but I. FUCK. MY. HUSBAND. A LOT, so clearly they’re doing it WRONG” message of judgment. I mean, hell, I have an important relationship, too, and I’m happy, but my whole goal is to NOT write about that or use it as a stick with which to beat other women over the head, because that would (a) freak out and piss off the other person, and (b) cheapen the relationship itself, in my opinion. My rule is that I only get to overshare about ME, and that if something involves Other People’s Business, I shut up about it because the story isn’t entirely mine and putting my version of it out into the blogoworld would be invasive and disrespectful. Other people might have other rules. This is the one I’ve made.

    But, shit, it was Modern Love, and that section is pretty much devoted to the strangely anti-woman overshare, so maybe I shouldn’t be surprised by that.

    It just seems weird to say that someone has to be at “the center,” and it can be either your husband or your kids. How about YOU be the center for you, you know? In my experience, that leads to a lot more genuine love and kindness, when you’re not defining your whole experience of life and self around another person.

    I think her basic message – motherhood has been over-sentimentalized and idealized to the point that no woman COULD ever live up to the expectations attached to the role – is a good one, and I actually would like to read the book, because it seems entirely likely that there are nuances to this that can’t be captured in a Modern Love column. But the hype, the Ayelet Waldman as Media Creation thing, the fucked-ness of the backlash but also the weirdness of the piece itself, and, yeah, the oversharing, are what I wanted to talk about specifically in this conversation.

    Friday, May 8, 2009 at 11:29 am | Permalink
  4. Sady wrote:

    <— Which is not to say that I won't write about people in my life, EVER. It's to say that I have a very strict (perhaps too strict) idea of what is Private (example: what you talk about after sex) and what is not (example: someone telling me that my idea for a blog post was stupid). If that makes sense.

    Friday, May 8, 2009 at 11:34 am | Permalink
  5. emjay wrote:

    Every time I read something of hers, I feel uncomfortable, not for whatever truth she expresses, but because she seems so driven to say it…like she’s trying to convince me. It’s OK, Ayelet; I don’t really judge and/or care, and people who do, are, you know, messed up.

    Writing about your own parenting, though is just difficult to do right *while you’re doing it* because, well, you’re still doing it. And what you think Tuesday may be blown up Wednesday, so best not to assume you know what you’re doing or What It Means, etc. etc.

    Also, as someone who once lived in Brooklyn* but could not have afforded the lovely Park Slope, happy-hip-white-couples-with-kids-in-Ramones-onesies lifestyle, sometimes the writings of this little circle of hip people makes my eyes roll right out of my head. And that’s painful.

    *Boro Park, represent!

    Friday, May 8, 2009 at 1:27 pm | Permalink
  6. mir wrote:

    Motherhood *is* boring. To me, at any rate- both living it and reading about it. And writing about it, for that matter.

    I’ve been a mother for 17 years and early on I sincerely tried to be interested in the constant stream of Cool-Mom articles, or Motherhood-With-a-Spunky-Twist! books, or blogs or essays or short stories or documentaries, et al, but it never took.

    For a while I thought I maybe had some kind of ISSUE, you know, like I avoid that which I DESPISE ABOUT MYSELF or something but no, not so much. I’m fairly well-adjusted and gave it lots of thought. My conclusion is this: if you remove (or do your best to ignore) the constant social/cultural message that to mother = this, or being a mom = that, being a female parent just *is*. It’s just a thing, a choice*, something a woman can do or not do like getting a degree or not getting a degree, going into banking or throwing pots in a studio all day. Some people are good at it, some ‘bad’, some awful, but most people do a fair-to-middling job at a sometimes-interesting, mostly tedious, not very earth-shattering thing that a whoooole lotta people also do.

    If you’re a reasonable person who trusts yourself to not fold, staple or mutilate the child in your life, mothering is by and large unexceptional.

    I think my point is that if you have to blog about your motherness, or write books about it, or take a stand as to what sort of mother you are, you should probably pay less attention to the culture at large and more to your own head and heart. Because you’ll ALWAYS be a bad mother in someone’s eyes. (And of course, for this IBTP)Fuck em.

    *Choice for those of us privileged to even make choices about whether or not we want children, or what sort of work we’ll do or whether we work at all. So many can’t/aren’t allowed- but I only know how to speak from my personal experience.

    Friday, May 8, 2009 at 5:54 pm | Permalink
  7. Davey wrote:

    It’s interesting, because Chabon’s “Yiddish Policeman’s Union” turns on the plot point of a late term abortion of a fetus with complications and


    The fetus turned out to be healthy, and the guilt over that is what drove the (male) protagonist into leaving his wife and throwing his life down the gutter in an alcoholic stupor. Towards the end of the book, when they actually talk about it, and he tries to apologize for “making” her abort the child, his ex-wife (who has kept it together) corrects him:

    “The day you ever have that much control over my behavior, it will be because somebody’s asking you, should she get the pine box or a plain white shroud?”

    Saturday, May 9, 2009 at 6:19 am | Permalink
  8. Sage wrote:

    Every time I see one of your extraneous exclamation points, it makes me smile a little smile on the inside, and sometimes on the outside too.

    I guess that means they aren’t extraneous.


    Saturday, May 9, 2009 at 10:33 pm | Permalink
  9. BonnieBelle wrote:

    Yeah, the modern love column was decidedly creepy. My thought before I read your extra comments was this: Why “devote” yourself to either? I have a two year old, he is a very large part of my world. I have a husband, he is also a very large part. But neither of them ARE my world.

    I think you’ve lost the meaning of feminism if that happens. I think women should be their own best friend and love themselves first, before they “devote” themselves to anyone. I’m tired of the stupid Mommy-wars bs. I blame the media more than anyone else for that crap.

    Sunday, May 10, 2009 at 7:12 pm | Permalink