Mothering Online and in Print
An Interview With Author Ayelet Waldman
by Sheri Reed
While my co-editor Amy has been a longtime fan of author Ayelet Waldman's Mommy-Track Mysteries, I got a late start reading Ayelet's writing by following her regular column at Salon.com. Wow, what a wonderful and open voice for motherhood! Ayelet is also the author of Daughter's Keeper and the upcoming novel Love and Other Impossible Pursuits, and her personal essays have been published in various publications, including the New York Times, Child Magazine, and the San Francisco Chronicle. Her recent essay "Motherlove" in Because I Said So sparked a huge debate on the web and a wonderful, much-needed discussion about marriage and motherhood on Oprah. Ayelet also lent her blatantly honest voice to the mama blogosphere for some time with her Bad Mother blog. We interviewed Ayelet via email last month.
Amy: I've devoured every book in the Mommy-Track Mystery series you write. Juliet Appelbaum, the main character, is so honest about loving her kids and still finding herself bored and unfulfilled as a stay-at-home mom. When I read the first book in the series, I was relieved to find a literary character I identified with, as I had been feeling like the only mom around who wasn't just loving every damn second of caring for small children. So many little details in the book stuck with me, even trivial ones like Isaac (Juliet's toddler son) going off to preschool wearing one Hot Wheels shoe and one Thomas the Tank Engine shoe—and both shoes, it turns out, are left shoes. What was comforting about that detail to me was not just that Juliet's kids weren't always perfectly turned out in matching outfits and shoes, but that her kids wore shoes with (gasp!) commercial characters on them, which is practically the equivalent of bringing a gun, or maybe a Lunchable, to school in some parents' minds. How much does Juliet reflect your own views and struggles as a parent?
Ayelet Waldman: Lunchables, oh my. Do you know that there was a horrible period where I routinely gave my kids those? Only organic food otherwise, but then I'd let them mainline chemical crud. All because I couldn't manage lunch. Now I do lunches for four of them, and honestly sometimes I want to fling myself out of the kitchen window when I forget to do it the night before. Juliet is a very accurate reflection of ME. Everything I love and hate about parenting.
Amy: Carolyn Heilbrun, the late feminist and Columbia English professor who wrote the Amanda Cross mysteries, chose to make her main character, Kate Fansler, a female professor without a husband (in the earlier novels) or children (ever). Heilbrun said that she began writing those books when she was working full-time and raising, with her husband, four children; Kate Fansler lived a very different life from the one Heilbrun was living at the time, and writing about Kate, she's said, was a bit of escapism on her part. What made you choose to write about a character who is very much like you, at least on the surface: a former attorney with a Harvard education, a writer husband with a passion for horror films, comics, and other "boyish" collections, and (as of the last book) three children?
Ayelet Waldman: I wanted to VENT. I can see how escape was appealing, but I needed to rage against the insanity. Or have some alter ego do it for me.
Amy: I read your Salon column religiously and really identified with your first essay "Living Out Loud—Online," in which you talked about your struggles with reigning in the mama blogger in you. You said blogging brought out a "compulsive need to haul open the tattered edges of my emotional raincoat and expose the nasty parts lurking beneath." I find this same impulsiveness in myself now that I have my own webzine, a blog, and my own column. It's invigorating, freeing, and even a little ego-boosting to have this open forum for my life, especially my mama life, which, out in the everyday world tends to be discussed in such a surface manner like, "My son's fine; he's getting so big," or "Yes, the time does go by so fast." I find myself wanting to talk about motherhood honestly and about life from the vantage point of a mother rather than regurgitating my son's growth chart and the funny things he says all the time. What are your thoughts on this? Is your Salon column allowing you to strike a balance with this profound need to share your mama life and the slower pace required to make real sense of it too?
Ayelet Waldman: What I really needed was an EDITOR. To say things like, "Um, let's not go there." It works best for me to have a second set of eyes. I can be a little too, er, confessional.
Amy: You wrote an essay titled "Motherlove" which was published in the recent anthology Because I Said So, edited by Camille Peri and Kate Moses, and also excerpted in the New York Times. In the early part of the essay, you ask, after reflecting on how often mothers talk to each other about not wanting to have sex with their husbands, "Why, of all the women in the room, am I the only one who has not made the erotic transition a good mother is supposed to make? Why am I the only one incapable of placing her children at the center of her passionate universe? Why am I the only one who does not concentrate her sensual abandon on her babies instead of her husband?" Later in the essay you write, "I am that most abominable thing—a bad mother. I love my husband more than my children." Those ideas received a pretty passionate response from readers, and you ended up on Oprah defending yourself to some of the other guests. Now that a few months have gone by, what have you come to think about that period of your life and the reasons why people responded to that essay with such vehement disapproval?
Ayelet Waldman: If anything, I stand by that essay more firmly than I did before. Watching those unhappy women on Oprah—the one who WATCHES TV while she has sex?—made me realize that I was right. We are NOT striking the right balance. Women responded because it struck a chord, and it freaked them out. Otherwise they would have dismissed it as silly or whatever. I think the fact that the response was so vehement and vitriolic means I was getting at something they didn't want to think about.
Sheri: Bee Lavender author of the memoir Lessons in Taxidermy and the publisher of Hip Mama credits insomnia with allowing her the time to be creative and write. I was also at a reading recently where novelist Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni said she remembered writing for long hours when her boys where small, so much that once her then young son fell asleep in the chair next to her as she typed. I have been known to use naptime, late-night hours, television, and my husband's agreeable nature to get my time. Also, I hardly ever do major housecleaning. Where do you continually find or create your creative time, especially with four children, their growing needs and projects (like that God forsaken homework!), and a husband (Ayelet's married to novelist Michael Chabon) who needs the same kind of quiet creative time?
Ayelet Waldman: We allow each other to go away. I just got home from a two-week stink at Yaddo. Without those yearly escapes, I'd never make it. I now have an office outside the house. That helps. And we have each other. We support each other. Michael is off now for five days in a hotel finishing his book. I'm home picking up the slack for him, just like he did it for me.
Sheri: Besides your always-wonderful Salon column, what writing projects are you currently working on?
Ayelet Waldman: My novel Love and Other Impossible Pursuits will be out in January. I'm working on a new one Winter's End.
Sheri: What are you reading now?
Sheri: Considering the society and culture we live in as parents today, what one thing would you change that would make parenting easier for you or would make you feel more supported as a parent?
Ayelet Waldman: AAAKK. Hmm. One thing? Health insurance. Honestly, if we had a national health insurance system we wouldn't be scrambling for movie writing gigs. We wouldn't have to shell out the fifteen grand a year it costs when we are on Cobra. We could relax. That, and a new president. I realize that's not directly about Parenting, but don't you think it would be nice?
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