It was 2005 when Ayelet Waldman declared in Modern Love that she was the only one in her Mommy and Me class who was still having sex with her husband (the novelist Michael Chabon) — and liking it. She went on to aver that she loved him more passionately than she did their four children, and that she thought she could survive their deaths, but not his. The backlash was swift and vicious, as mothers everywhere howled their protest.
What kind of woman would put her husband above her children? More galling, perhaps, was the implicit rebuke to their own collective marital-bed deaths. (That Ms. Waldman and Mr. Chabon had a rocking sex life may have been the greater transgression.)
In coffee shops, parenting chat rooms and the studios of daytime television, Ms. Waldman was reviled as a combination of Britney Spears, Susan Smith and Medea, with a bit of Anna Karenina thrown in for good measure. Much of the opprobrium spewed from one source, “New York City’s elite Bad Mother SWAT team, the warrior-shrews of UrbanBaby.com,” as Ms. Waldman wrote later, referring to the cacophonous parenting site and its voluble members, who “sank their pointy little incisors into my metaphorical ankles.”
And the invective just kept coming. Ms. Waldman found a note on the gate of her family’s Berkeley house, threatening to turn her in to social services; Star Jones took her down on “The View” and Gawker began a gleeful, decade-long ribbing of the Waldman-Chabon marriage.
The apogee was an appearance on “Oprah,” an event Ms. Waldman imagined, as she said recently, would involve a cozy tête-à-tête with Ms. Winfrey, surely a sympathetic interlocutor, and also an opportunity to pitch her work. Instead it was a face-off between Ms. Waldman and a group of mostly hostile mothers.
“It was scary and it was unpleasant,” she recalled. “The worst part of it was that I didn’t get to plug my books. Not only that, but if you clicked on my name on Oprah’s website, you went to somebody else’s author page on Amazon. I really did not want to go on Oprah and talk about my sex life, but I really wanted to sell books. When does the naïveté of the literary novelist abate?”
Still, the essay would make her famous. Not a bad thing, Ms. Waldman admitted, for a Harvard Law School-educated former public defender who was trying to make it as a novelist and whose oeuvre at the time was a lighthearted, if not widely read, series of murder mysteries starring a former public defender turned stay-at-home mom and amateur sleuth. (She had just written a more serious novel, however, “Daughter’s Keeper,” that explored the relationship between a mother and a daughter who faces prosecution for her connection to a drug deal; it was that book she had hoped to hawk on “Oprah.”) That all changed, post-essay, when Ms Waldman was instantly anointed as a parenting expert, the go-to apologist for maternal ambivalence. (She did feel she’d hit a wall, career-wise, when she found herself giving tips about traveling with children to Katie Couric on “Today.”)
Finally, her friend Daniel Handler, otherwise known as Lemony Snicket, told her: “Why don’t you just shut up and write a book?”
“Bad Mother: A Chronicle of Maternal Crimes, Minor Calamities and Occasional Moments of Grace,” out in 2009, was an affecting if gentle memoir — as a reviewer at Jezebel noted, it delivered more misdemeanors than actual crimes, along with a heartbreaking essay about terminating a pregnancy — that would become a New York Times best seller.
“I still stand by my essay, and my children do, too,” Ms. Waldman said. Not that they’ve read it. They are just aware, in a general if bored way, she said, of its contention that there’s a distinction between romantic and maternal love. If she has any regrets, Ms. Waldman said, these center on how her “humble-brag,” as she put it, would dog her. “Looking back,” she said, “it was a little smug.” She never reckoned she would be answering questions about her sex life for the next decade — and beyond.
(Sorry, said this reporter. “It’s O.K.,” Ms. Waldman said.)
“The essay was both a gift and a curse,” she continued. “It gave me the opportunity to have a career that I don’t know that I would have had. But when I wanted to write something different” — when she wanted to leave the mommy track, as it were — “everyone was like, ‘Wait a minute. You’re the lady that likes her husband.’”
On the upside, she pointed out, in 2005, Twitter had not yet been invented. Facebook was still a social network used only by college students. “I was really lucky, because this happened before the worst of the internet,” she said. “Can you imagine if that happened now? I would not have survived.”
And what of the children? What indignities have they suffered since their mother’s confessional? Sophie, the eldest child, is now 23; Abraham, the youngest, is 14.
“Here is what happened,” Ms. Waldman said. “Years ago, Sophie read ‘The Mysteries of Pittsburgh’” — Mr. Chabon’s best-selling first novel — “or she read part of it, and she was like, ‘Dad, there’s too much sex.’” Sophie “basically issued a family fatwa against our books, though an exception was made for ‘Summerland,’” Ms. Waldman said, referring to Mr. Chabon’s young adult novel, published in 2002.
“But they don’t really read our work,” she said. “They just don’t care.”
As for her sex life, Ms. Waldman answered the inevitable question patiently. “It’s fine, thank you,” she said dryly. “Just a constant Cirque du Soleil.”
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