For The Love Of Moms

A mother and child

Mark Riechers (TTBOOK)

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Original Air Date: 
May 13, 2023

We celebrate Mother's Day with a collection of stories from our archives, by and about moms. Stories about care and about courage — about the work of mothering.

Left to right: Rylea Nevaeh Whittet as Maddy and Margaret Qualley as Alex in episode 101 of "Maid."

Stephanie Land’s 2019 book "Maid: Hard Work, Low Pay and a Mother’s Will to Survive" detailed her personal experience struggling with precarious work as a housecleaner while raising a young child.

Eula Biss

"On Immunity: An Inoculation" author Eula Biss recommends a memoir in which author Maggie Nelson asks questions that bend conventions about gender, sexuality, motherhood, family and identity itself.

A woman with baby

Jacqueline Plumez tells Steve Paulson that every caring woman has greater strength than she imagines and gives some examples of "mother power" in action, from MADD to the Mall of America.

A woman with child

The time a person spends carrying their child during a pregnancy is only a brief time compared to the time they'll spend being a mother, but as Amanda Henry shares in her story, that time goes differently for everyone, shaping who you are and what impact you'll go on to have on the world around you.

Aylet Waldman

Writer Ayelet Waldman recounts many stories about what she calls "the perils and joys of trying to be a decent mother in a world intent on making you feel like a bad one."


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- It's "To the Best of Our Knowledge." I'm Anne Strainchamps. And today, we're celebrating Mother's Day with a collection of stories from our archives by and about moms, stories about care and about courage, about the work of mothering.

- How you doing today?

- We moved into the homeless shelter when she was seven or eight months.

- Here's writer, Stephanie Land.

- She started walking on her first birthday or the day before, and we moved out of the homeless shelter the day after her first birthday. Given the environment, it was drab and a little sad and disappointing, but it's still amazing to watch your child reach that milestone. I don't know. Looking back at it now, I can appreciate it a lot more. Even though we were in this environment, we were still kind of learning how to move forward with our lives, and things were happening even though I felt like I had absolutely nothing. I mean, for her, it was just life and it was great to her. I mean, she had me and she had a few toys, and I felt like I wasn't giving her enough or I wasn't enough several times a day, but looking back, I can see that she was just fine.

- Stephanie Land's memoir about life as a single mom is called "Maid: Hard Work, Low Pay, and a Mother's Will to Survive." It is a pretty unflinching look at the kind of double standards we have for mothers about what it's like to clean other women's houses when you're barely making enough to keep your own child alive. The book came out in 2019, and it changed Stephanie Land and her daughter's lives. First, it was a bestseller, then it was the basis for a Netflix series also called "Maid." But when Shannon Henry Kleiber talked with her, all that was still ahead and the book was barely a week old.

- You write about being overwhelmed by two things, motherhood and poverty. These are two experiences that have changed you so much. How did they both change your life and are they so intertwined?

- Wow. I think they're both pretty all encompassing in different ways. The motherhood, of course, you're constantly worried about your child, just making sure that they're okay. I'm thinking about them constantly. Poverty was kind of the same way. I couldn't go to a grocery store without, first, budgeting. I had a tally in my mind almost constantly of what bills had been paid, what check was about to go through, how much money would that leave me so can I buy a new dish sponge? And there was just a somewhat constant taking care of my financial situation as much as taking care of my daughter.

- Yeah, I can see how they're different things, but they are all encompassing. You're always thinking about them. I don't know any mother who doesn't feel the difficulties of being pulled between kids and work, and it's so much harder on single moms and those who are barely making enough to live. How do you work with that constant pulling?

- Oh, boy. Well, a lot of it is just, it's not necessarily working with it, it's just doing the work, and you have to show up for the work. You don't have a choice in the matter because you're the only one. I think there was a lot of lack in thinking about the future. Thinking about the future was kind of depressing. I didn't wanna think about that we were gonna be in that situation for years and years, and so the shortsightedness, I think, allowed me to appreciate the little moments a little bit more. Time slowed down a lot in a good way and I was able to be really present with my daughter, and just focus on the good moment or the good environment or the little things that came to us that meant so much, I think were appreciated a lot more. Now, I rush through the day a lot more. I depend on television or tablets. I feel like I am not as present for my kids now as I was then.

- Hmm.

- But then it was just like that, that was all I had to give.

- How do you mean you were more present? That's really interesting.

- Imagine living in a 300 square foot apartment with a three year old who was very energetic and very well-spoken and smart. I was constantly trying to come up with ways to keep her occupied and keep her busy, and we were kind of all up in each other's business all the time. And so I think there were just more opportunities for connection and there was more opportunities for us to have moments together.

- It's interesting when you look back at those times and you think, "Okay, she had a few things and that's all she needed. We were kind of happy. We had this and we didn't need that." And then you went to go clean people's houses and they had so many physical objects that needed to be cleaned and needed to be organized, and you saw that was a little overwhelming too.

- Yeah. Yeah. What struck me the most was cleaning entire rooms. I mean, rooms that were as big as the space that we lived in that never got used. They were just like spare rooms, and those were the types of things that I just, I couldn't understand, especially because I struggled so hard to pay for the space that I lived in. I couldn't imagine just having the same amount of space just hanging out and not get used at all, and then paying someone to take care of it and clean it.

- So as a mother, sometimes I think mothers are almost superhuman when they need to be. We figure it out. You think that you can't do it and then it just happens. Did motherhood drive you to do what you needed to do out of necessity and love?

- Almost definitely. Not only did it drive me, it centered me. I mean, it was, I don't know if it made me feel small, but it definitely gave everything that I did much bigger meaning. It wasn't about me at all anymore. Everything I did was about Mia for several years, and then now, I have two kids and it's about both of them, but it still is kind of for Mia 'cause she's been with me since the beginning, and I have brought her through so much that it still kind of feels that way. A lot of what I do is to show her that she can do the same.

- And I also think it seems like from the mom artists I know, writers, and visual artists, there's sometimes some kind of guilt of people saying, "Well, you should get a regular job. You should get a job that pays more." How is this working for you where you've now become a successful writer? And did you ever feel like, "Okay, I really need to spend this amount of time on it and tell people, 'This is my regular job. This is what I do.'"

- I still feel like I'm trying to convince myself that this is my regular job. It's been a long, long journey full of imposter syndrome and doubt and questioning myself and my decisions. As a single parent, you're told to work as hard as you can to get to the point where you're a contributing member of society and you're, you have the regular job with the regular paychecks and the health insurance, and everything that that brings, to branch off and be a freelance writer was incredibly risky. But at the time, I had just invested $50,000 into a college education for a degree in English, and I-

- I have one of those too, a degree in English, yeah.

- Oh nice.

- Yeah, yeah.

- I'm told they're common.

- Yeah.

- But I mean, for me, it was just, I put my diploma on the wall and that was like my beacon of stubbornness to make that thing worth as much as I possibly could instead of just preventing me from one day owning a house.

- The maid hours, in some ways, they were set, they were not very flexible, but you would go and you would do it and you'd come home and it would be done. The same way you would work in the barn, you'd described all of, like the working with the hay and the barn, and as a writer, it is kind of, it's different where you need to set your own hours and that flexibility can be good but you also have to be really on top of your own independence with that.

- Well, that was a lot of the reason why it worked out for me in the beginning. I mean, I graduated college and then had a baby on my own just a month afterwards, and I needed a job that I could do basically at all hours of the day or just whenever she was sleeping. So those first couple of years of freelancing, I did that way. I did most of my work after the kids went to bed until like two or three in the morning.

- Yeah. I think that there's this untapped energy of mothers all across our country who could be working while they're up at night. I sometimes think about that as I've been a freelance writer for a long time too and just-

- Yeah, t's a lot of-

- Is the way it worked.

- It's a lot of madness.

- Right.

- Figuring out what your job is exactly and trying to describe it to people and trying to explain why you're answering emails at six o'clock in the morning when you're still in bed.

- Right.

- It's a job that never really stops or sleeps, it seems like.

- What do you hope for them, for your daughters as they eventually find work? Do you think about the idea of finding your passion? Is that something that's a good idea or even realistic? What do you hope for them?

- Well, I hope they don't feel limited in any way, but I also hope that they work both sides of the spectrum. I wouldn't want them to not experience what it's like to be a waitress or someone who is in the retail department or someone who has a job in customer service. I think everybody should work a job in customer service. So at least, like do some of their time doing that, getting them through college or, I don't know. I just hope that they feel like they can do what they want to do whatever that is. I mean, Mia wants to be an astronaut and I encourage her on a daily basis to do that.

- Yeah, and you did try to make things really special for her. You had things about keeping schedules and you had your rituals.

- Yeah. I heard some kind of discussion by John Gottman, I think it was, when she was three or four months old or really young, and it said as long as they have one stable person in their life, one primary caregiver that is predictable and always shows up whenever they say that they are, then the rest of their life will be chaos but they'll at least have that one person who is like a lighthouse or a pinnacle point, which will kind of keep them from living in a constant state of chaos. So I tried to kind of like fall into a place of predictable nature as far as our home life was concerned. Even though we were moving around a lot, I always set things up in the same way or tried to move from start to end completely, like on a weekend that she was at her dad's house and I would make the environment exactly the same even though the building we were in was different.

- Yeah. So your story, Stephanie, is so evocative about yourself, but it's really the story of so many moms, so many women, so many single moms especially. You've given a voice to single working moms. Do you think it will move beyond you?

- Oh, I hope so. I mean, that's why I wrote the book. That's been part of my mission from the beginning is just to bring into the light the expectations that we put on single parents. We expect them to be two people, both physically, emotionally, and financially. And they're stigmatized in a way that makes, I don't know, when I was a single mom, I felt like I was constantly begging for help in every single aspect. I had someone send me a message recently on Facebook that they said, "Boy, if I would've realized how much you were struggling at the time, I would've agreed to babysit more often." I was like, "Well, yeah. Why aren't you doing that normally?"

- Yeah.

- For me, that's the biggest way you can help a single parent is just showing up on a regular basis, taking their kids somewhere, giving them a break, but also, forming a relationship with their child so that the parent has someone else that they can kind of send their kids to whenever they're having a hard moment or need to talk or, 'cause my daughter could never talk to me about me or about her dad or things like that, and it's been really important to her that she has close relationships with other adults so that she can talk to them about things that she would feel uncomfortable talking to me about.

- That's really good advice. So, you know, the way a lot of people say, "Well, let me know what I can do." And people mean well when they say that, but to be more specific about, "Hey, can I take your daughter to the movies?"

- Oh yeah. It's so huge.

- Yeah.

- To give them an experience that their parent probably can't really afford to do either time-wise or financially, to just give the kid a one-on-one focus with another person is enormous. I mean, I oftentimes get so busy that I forget the importance of having the sit down on the floor with them and play or listen about school or whatever it is they're really into. It's easy to just kind of mill through your day and not do that. It's really important for them to feel like they're connecting with other adults.

- And for also the rest of society to see, you mentioned a couple times how people will say something like, "You're welcome." And when they see that how you're paying for your groceries or something like that, how can you get people to understand what single working moms, people who who need to pay that way are going through?

- I would just ask people to maybe imagine themselves in the same spot and having to fill out packets and packets of applications and prove that you're working, and what your rent is and your utilities. It's an error of distrust when you're applying for government assistance, and just within the system itself, I'm not even speaking to the general consensus of it, people taking advantage, and it's degrading and it's humiliating. And then to actually buy groceries with an EBT card and use it in that visible way so that everybody knows around you or it feels like everybody knows around you that you can't afford to provide bread and whatever necessities for your kids, it's incredibly embarrassing, and I don't know if it's changed much recently or if it's still the same. I, fortunately, haven't been on government assistance for a few years now, so, but I can imagine it still is.

- Tell me about having fun with your girls. What do you like to do? And I know as a parent, sometimes you're just so focused on school and work and life and you look up and you think, "Okay, we've gotta just have fun today or just be silly or," what do you do?

- Well, Missoula is pretty great. I mean, you can drive 20 minutes in any direction and you're on a river in the middle of nowhere, it feels like, and you can just kind of have a day doing that.

- That was Stephanie Land author of "Maid," talking with Shannon Henry Kleiber back in 2019. Land's child now goes by her middle name, Story, and Land herself is at work on another memoir called "Class." And next, mothers can take on almost any challenge from PB&J sandwiches to organized crime.

- 12 Women banded together. They became very upset when the mafia moved into New Rochelle and started a very open gambling operation. And New Rochelle is a lovely town but the final straw was when a couple of children told their mothers that they had seen police officers placing bets. The mothers decided enough was enough. So they contacted the Treasury Department. They went undercover. They went into the bedding establishments and they placed bets. They documented the gambling that was going on, and then they also, in their cars, staked out the operations and they followed the mobsters back to their home base, and turned all that information over to the Treasury Department, and the Treasury Department was then able to crack the operation, and they put these guys into jail.

- The personal and political power of moms, coming up. I'm Anne Strainchamps, and this is "To the Best of Our Knowledge" from Wisconsin Public Radio, and PRX. When I was a young mother, I had a hard time finding books I could relate to. I mean, there were plenty of books about breastfeeding and sleep training, how to handle teething, how to raise a reader, not so much about how terrifying it felt to be responsible for the entire future of a tiny precious human being. Luckily, there were a few exceptions. One was Eula Biss' book, "On Immunity," written while she was pregnant with her first son. And so here she is to recommend another book, also born out of a pregnancy.

- I am Eula Biss, author of "On Immunity," and I would love to recommend "The Argonauts" by Maggie Nelson. This is an extraordinary book, very difficult to classify, and hard to describe in the way that I think all the best books are hard to describe. Books that I really love, I struggle to describe in part because I don't want to flatten them out in my description. And almost anything I can say about "The Argonauts" will flatten it, but it's part memoir, and it's part philosophical treatise, I guess. The main character, of course, is Maggie Nelson, who, over the course of the book, becomes pregnant and gives birth and begins raising a young child. The other character is her partner and lover, Harry Dodge, the artist. And over the course of this book, Harry Transitions, in some ways, from female to male, but there's a great quote where he says, "I'm not on my way anywhere." His insistence is not on becoming a man after having been a woman, but on being kind of neither and both. This is a really important part of the philosophical examination of the book, is what it means to allow yourself to dwell in a space between. Maggie Nelson really celebrates this in-betweenness or bothness, the and rather than the but through the entire book. It's a book that examines queer identity, and in some ways, identity in general, how we think about ourselves. What I love about the book is that it offers an attitude that I think is a beautiful attitude to try on, be inside for a while. It's an attitude towards the self, but an attitude towards the world that's, I think the best description of it is just deeply generous. Reading this book made me come out the other side feeling better about myself and the world, which is not how I always feel after I finish reading a book that I love. But this book was truly happy-making in part because part of what Maggie Nelson is doing in this book, in "The Argonauts," is giving herself permission to be happy, and I think that we forget sometimes that we need to do that, that we need to give ourselves permission.

- Eula Biss is the author of "On Immunity," and "Having and Being Had." That was her bookmark recommendation of "The Argonauts" by Maggie Nelson. You can find more book recommendations from authors on our website. Just go to We're celebrating Mother's Day this hour in the spirit of the women who organized the very first Mother's Days, the pacifist and women's suffragist, Julia Ward Howe, Appalachian anti-poverty crusader, Ann Jarvis, and her daughter, Anna. The Mother's Day they dreamed of was intended to give women an opportunity to mobilize for global peace and for community improvement. Psychologist, Jacqueline Plumez, thinks motherhood is a path to personal and political powers, both then and now.

- Santa Ana, California is another example where it was the mothers who cleaned up the town, and this time, the police were very happy to work with them. Santa Ana had a terrible drug problem and gang problem. And again, individual mothers and groups of mothers in different neighborhoods work with the police, help them document the drug dealing that was going on and the gang activities that were going on, and in 10 years, crime has gone down 50% in Santa Ana because of the moms.

- You write about one mother in particular, a woman named Rosa Perez, who-

- Yes.

- Who really went out of her way and at great personal risk to target individual drug dealers.

- Yes. She was called the finger because she put the finger over 100 drug deals and put so many people in jail.

- Now, do you think some of these women are able to pull this off because the criminal element doesn't wanna go after them? Because they are mothers, they seem sort of untouchable?

- In the beginning, I think that the criminal element disregards, you know, "Oh, they're just a mom, what can they do?" So then, when they realize that the moms are a very serious threat, they do go after them, but by this time, the moms have connected with the police, the moms have connected with some group that can protect them or they protect themselves. The thing that I found so exciting, Steve, about when I was doing all this research is that these are very ordinary women. One of my favorite examples is a woman named Iris Sanchez. Iris lives in a very poor, rough area of Brooklyn, New York, and she was struggling on a clerk's salary to support her child and her grandchild. But one Thanksgiving about 10 years ago, she felt so grateful for what she had that she went out and she bought an extra turkey and an extra loaf of bread and she made turkey sandwiches and handed them out to homeless people in her neighborhood. And that felt so good to her that she decided every Saturday, she would make soup and sandwiches and give them out to homeless people. And then she got a couple women from her church involved and then she asked the church if maybe she could use their kitchens to do the cooking. Well, fast forward, now, Iris has, out of her church. She has a soup kitchen that feeds hundreds of people every week. She's got a job training program, a summer camp program, an afterschool program. And I figured if Iris can do it, anybody can do it.

- Now, there have been some very well-organized movements that have come from mothers banding together. I suppose the obvious example would be Mothers Against Drunk Drivers.

- Another example that everybody knows is Maureen Kanka, the mother from New Jersey who started Megan's Law to protect children against sexual predators. But the thing that I found out about her that I think is so interesting, she'd been married for 12 years when her child was killed, and she had never driven alone. She was afraid of driving, she was afraid of public speaking. And yet, when this happened to her child, she said, "I'm gonna do everything I can so this never happens to another child." And she tapped into her mother power, white knuckles on the steering wheel, she was terrified. She took her old battered car and drove it around to most of the states in the union and button hold legislators. She was so scared, but really empowered by her maternal caring and her mother power. And look what she accomplished? One woman.

- But not every mother is like this. They don't all have these transformative experiences.

- Every good mother has that capacity. A mother has a fierce protective instinct. There's a flip side to this sweet soft love that a mother has, and that flip side is as tough and strong as any human being. And I know many people listening to us today are not gonna believe it, but I promise that every good mother has an enormous amount of power, mother power inside of her. On the other hand, you don't have to have kids to be maternal. There are many women who don't have children and are maternal, and they can use mother power too. It's the maternal caring that makes the difference.

- I can imagine a lot of people listening would be thinking, "Wow, these women are incredible. They're special people. I'm not." How do you respond to them?

- I didn't find one person who set off trying to be a hero. I didn't find one woman who thought she was very special. I don't know whether this says something about the female's sense of self-esteem, but I think we are trained to think that other people are special and that we can't do it. But the key to mother power is for every woman to take herself seriously, to look at her life and say, "What do I wanna change? What do I wanna achieve? What do I want to change about my community? How do I wanna make the world a better place?" And to start small, get a few friends involved, positive friends, and it will grow and be a very exciting process for each woman, and she will find strength that she never knew she had.

- Psychologist and writer, Jacqueline Plumez, author of the book, "Mother Power," talking with Steve Paulson. From the test results to the morning sickness and countless doctor's appointments, the road to motherhood is one filled with hope, joy, anxiety, and sometimes grief. Maternity is, in many ways, a miracle, and writer, Amanda Henry, reminds us that the pregnancy journey is almost never straightforward or easy.

- The day I started high school in a new town, I was wearing an unusual accessory, a big red Rudolph-esque cold sore on my upper lip. There's nothing like the suggestion of a contagious disease to win friends and influence people, or had my classmates been bold enough to ask, I could have explained that I always get disfiguring facial blisters at such inopportune moments. It's a great antidote to vanity. Someday, I plan to gather those precious recollections into a chapter for my hypothetical self-help book, should a market ever develop for depressing tales of self-improvement through humiliation. Other entries in this gloomy tone will include why being bad at sports isn't so bad? And infertility, a future parent's best friend. Can you see Oprah getting on board? I don't mean to sound glib because I have yet to find much humor in the experience of wanting children and not being able to conceive, or as in my case, waiting for many years and then finally unexpectedly expecting, at Christmas no less only to discover at the first ultrasound that it's a strange kind of phantom pregnancy in which the process begins but a baby never develops inside your expanding womb. It's a terrible thing to look for that flickering blob of life, the one you've spied floating in black and white on your friend's refrigerators and see only an empty screen. But maybe it was worse the way I lost my second pregnancy. Suddenly, almost a year to the day later, no one really expects to be in a pair of plane crashes or shark attacks or house fires. Surviving one is supposed to provide cosmic immunity. There are so many shards of memory I could share with you, the words, the waiting rooms, maladroit attempts at comfort, here, hold my baby. As my Catholic mind searched for meaning in it all, the best I could come up with was empathy, a nice sounding word that is as unpleasant in the acquisition as the so-called gift of humility. But at least, I can now say to others, "I hear you. I have been to that place or at least a neighboring town." It's a sentiment that meant a great deal to me when so many had the grace to share their own sorrows. There was another wrinkle to this unpregnant pause. One day, I found myself staring at two pink lines again. I had been sure it was a dread disease. And after sweating out the weeks until the doctor's appointment in a conflict ration of dread, cynicism, and secret hope, it turned out to be a real baby, little heart thumping away. As much as I felt entitled to the good news this time around, the sense of disbelief was familiar. To lose a baby is too much to grasp, to have a baby is just as unfathomable. On some level, the miscarriage is registered as my fault. Whether by an error of biology or age, karma, or jogging. Yet for the pregnancy, I couldn't take credit. It was a mystifying bit of serendipity outside my conscious control. There's something liberating about not being in charge. I was very calm during my pregnancy, though not because I didn't believe anything bad could happen. On the contrary, I knew that it might, but there was nothing I could do. Dread is not a suit of armor, and anxiety never softens the blow. The day after my big, loud, scowling baby girl was born, at Christmas, of course, her pediatrician diagnosed a slight heart murmur. It may have been the hormones talking, but I just looked at his scribbled ballpoint sketch and thought, "Could be. But did you see the jiu-jitsu she used on those nurses who tried to give her an EKG?" I think she's gonna be okay. Like all parents, I'm still haunted by wisps of fear for my bonny little daughter. And I tried to take the days as they come instead of as they might possibly be in some horribly gothic alternate future. That will be the coda to my chapter on parenting. Don't even pretend to be ready for the worst. The stress will give you cold source.

- Writer Amanda Henry on the Road to Motherhood. Coming up. In 2005, Ayelet Waldman stirred up quite a controversy when she confessed in the New York Times Modern Love column to loving her husband more than her children. Even Oprah Winfrey took notice.

- Well, it was pretty amazing. They called me from Oprah and they said, "Come on the show 'cause Oprah agrees with you." And I was only too happy to go on the show. I had these visions of selling Jonathan Franzen-like quantities of my books.

- I want you to brace yourselves 'cause you're about to hear one mother's really controversial confession.

- What I didn't realize was that they had sort of collected this audience full of women who hated me.

- She loves her husband more than her kids, and she's swinging from the chandeliers. Oh boy, did she strike a nerve?

- I didn't quite know that Star Jones is gonna take off after me on the view. I didn't know I'd be sitting here next to you. I didn't know that I'd be facing down a group of angry mothers. As I was walking on the stage, they had selected one woman to come up from the audience and she kind of leaped out of her chair shrieking, "Let me at her."

- But why do you say that you can love your husband and not your children, though?

- No, I, you, no, you've absolutely misunderstood. I did not say I love my husband and not my children. What I'm saying-

- What does that mean?

- Wait. Let me explain it. What I've seen is that we have, we are totally out of balance. This is like "Jerry Springer." I am about to be on "Jerry Springer."

- I'm Anne Strainchamps, and this is "To The Best Of Our Knowledge" from Wisconsin Public Radio, and PRX. It always strikes me as ironic that we have this one day a year devoted to a national celebration of the general awesomeness of moms. Because the other 364 days a year, moms are held to impossible standards. No matter what we do, it's either not enough or too much, which is why I still remember how delicious it was back in 2009 to discover, Ayelet Waldman's book, "Bad Mother" in which she reclaims the label, every mother fears.

- What I was responding to is really this phenomenon of all these women I knew, none of whom were having sex at all. Their relationships were simply devoid of the intimate with their husbands. But they had these incredibly intense, impassioned passionate bonds, and I don't mean sexual at all, bonds with their children. I felt like these two things were connected. That when I started looking around at why is it that I'm one of the only people I know who still, is having an intimate relationship with my husband after you know four children and all this time, and why aren't my friends? I realized that the difference between them and me was that they were all very good mothers. There were mothers who put their children before everything else at the heart of their lives who focused all of their passion and art and devotion on their children, and that I had somehow managed to miss that boat. I mean, I still loved my children absolutely, but they weren't the center of all of my attention and all of my passion the way they were for many of my friends.

- So are you saying you felt like you were a good wife but a bad mother?

- The sort of project of motherhood is one that fills me with both joy and anguish all the time. But what I would hear this kind of language, like I'm so in love with my children. I mean, so in love with the baby, and that's never how I felt. When I think about being in love, I think of being in love with my husband. He's the person who's the object of that kind of intensity of passion. When I first wrote that article, everybody was talking about it. It was sort of the Amy Chua tiger mother of that moment.

- Listening to this, don't you have to wonder, why do we care? Why would people care what kind of mother you are?

- You know, I asked this question of Lisa Belkin who writes for the New York Times magazine. She's experienced the same kind of vitriolic reaction. I mean, she wrote an article many years ago that was a cover piece in the New York Times magazine that was about women with law degrees and business school degrees who had chosen to leave professional life and be stay-at-home mothers, these kind of uber successful stay-at-home mothers, and she suffered this unbelievable backlash for that. And I asked her, you know, when I was sort of crying in my tea about the people leaving notes on my gate saying that they know where I live and my children should be taken away from me, which the implication being, what? That they're gonna do the taking? I sort of called her up sobbing about that and she said, "You know what, Ayelet, when you write about women like us, primarily white, although not exclusively, primarily middle class, though not exclusively, you are not so much writing an essay as you're writing a Rorschach blot, and people read the Rorschach blot bringing all of their own psychodrama to it." So all of their own anxieties, all of their own fears, all of their own feelings of deep ambivalence, And it's all this sort of comparison that we engage in in order to make ourselves feel better.

- One of the things that seems to me like such a tragedy really about where so many women are today is that despite, however many decades of the women's movement, women today seem to have more ways than ever to feel that they are failures. You know, either-

- Exactly.

- Either you are a failure because you are staying home with your child and you've eschewed having a career or you're a failure because you're going to work and not staying home with your child. We've had two decades of this and we're still not over it.

- Right, exactly. I mean, and here's why, here's why. Because you know what? The feminists were right. And the way they were the most right was when they said the personal is political. because we have taken it, there's been all these changes in our ambitions, in our aspirations, and everything remains personal. So if you have trouble juggling work and home, or phrase I hate to use, but for lack of a better one, then that failure is your personal failure. So if you feel ambivalent, like you're stretched too thin at work, you're stretched too thin at home, that's your personal failure. If you pack it in and decide to stay home, that's your failure. If you farm your kid out to a nanny and go to work, that's your failure. What we missed in this conversation was the sense that it wasn't just the women who needed to change, the men needed to change too, and though society needed to change, what troubles me most is this strange coincidence, the professional life in many, many different sort of jobs has completely changed. So just when women entered the workforce in great numbers, the workplace became a place that it was virtually impossible to both excel in and maintain a reasonable amount of actual FaceTime with your kids. And then that's when we started to do things like talk about quality time, and nobody really wants quality time. What people really usually want is quantity time. They just can't have it so they try to make the best of what they have.

- We should play out some of what you're saying in terms of some specific stories from your own experience raising your kids. For instance, a lot of women feel like particular failures around things like breastfeeding.

- It was my fourth baby. I should have been a natural at it. Not only was I not a natural, but the baby nearly died in his first two weeks of life because we weren't, he wasn't getting any nutrition. By the time anybody figured out that he was, he had no latch, he was horribly dehydrated, had probably not consumed more than an ounce a day for two weeks. It was a complete disaster and catastrophe. And then I went through this thing where I was pumping every two hours for six months round the clock. I almost never spent time with my actual baby because I was always hooked up to this pump. And this nadir came at this moment where I was standing in a cafe, I was feeding the baby. He was in, I think, a sling or a BabyBjorn, and I was feeding him from a bottle, and the milk in the bottle was vaguely purple because I had horrible thrush and it was dyed from the gentian violet homeopathic remedy I was using 'cause I, God forbid, I wouldn't take any actual, whatever that would kill the thrush. And I had pumped it at about four in the morning, and I'm sort of standing there bleary-eyed, giving him this purple milk, this woman taps her on the shoulder and she says, "You know, breast is best." I had four kids. I should have known that what was really important in that first six months of my baby's life was that I not freak out. And that if he had formula and a mother who was sane, that was probably going be a lot better for both his life and my life than if he was drinking pumped breast milk and had a mother whose entire life was falling apart.

- It's so interesting that some of the most difficult areas for mothers, the areas in which we feel the most pressure have to do with feeding our children, from breastfeeding to fast forward to the years when there's so much pressure on parents of young children to feed them correctly.

- Absolutely. And my kids go to the most adorable, wonderful school. I love my kids' school. It's supposed to be waste free lunch. So everything that must be packed in reusable containers, so no Ziploc bags. And it's all supposed to be healthy and there's not supposed to be any sugar. Well, at some point I just realized, "You know what I should do? I should just send plastic food." That kind you buy in Japanese restaurants where they show you that it's like the sushi models because my kids are not eating this pristine, incredibly laboriously created sugar-free, nutritious food that's carefully packed in bento boxes 'cause God forbid, there should be a Ziploc bag. No. What they're doing is they're, I'm sending it and it's coming back uneaten. So I'm just gonna send them little bags full of plastic food and then when they come home, I'll give them Cheetos, organic Cheetos. Come on. I'm not a bad mother, but Cheetos.

- Another thing that makes a lot of us feel like a bad mother is talking to kids about issues that we don't really wanna discuss from our own pasts. You wrote openly about how you had been, what? You'd call a slutty teenager.

- Yes, I was a slutty teenager, but you know, I came into my experience with having a teenage girl, having a teenage daughter thinking two things. One, I wanted to save her from all the pain that I went through because I was certainly too young when I started having sex, and my experiences were not all or even mostly positive, my early sexual experiences, but there was that impulse to protect her. And there was also the impulse to make her strong and powerful, and both own her own sexuality and be able to enjoy it. And then there was this incredible sense of embarrassment. If she asked me how old I was when I lost my virginity, what was I gonna say? Oh my God. So, you know, it was-

- Because really, you were 14.

- I was 14, yeah. Oy gevalt. And I did, like I talk about in the book, I received as a sort of giveaway, this package of candy colored condoms, which, excuse me, are never gonna be part of my life. I don't know what the market is for lollipop condoms, but whatever. I had this package and I thought, I was about to throw it away, then I thought to myself, "No. I know what I'm gonna do with these." And I went, and I put them in my kids' bathroom. I just put them on the top shelf of the cupboard. That's it. And I actually even opened the bag so that there was no like, oh, closed bag, just opened bag. So I put this in their bathroom. Six months past, something like that. And then one evening, I hear this sort of harrowing shriek from their, and I run to the bathroom, and my son and my daughter are standing, looking at this and they, they look at me and they say, "What are these?" And I said, "Well, what do you think they are?" And they said, "Hey, condoms?" And I said, "Yes." And my daughter says, "You are just so disgusting." And I launch into my whole rap about you have to be safe. And they're just like, "No, no, no, no, no, no." And they walk out of the bathroom leaving me with this bag of condoms, which I put back. And now, it's all notes for the memoir. The memoir about daughter of bad mother forthcoming in 2021.

- Yeah. That's the one she'll write.

- Yes, it's her memoir. Exactly.

- Author, Ayelet Waldman. That's in a conversation we had back in 2009 about her book, "Bad Mother." She's also written seven novels in her "Mommy-Track Mysteries" Series, and a best selling memoir about microdosing called "A Really Good Day." I'd like to dedicate this hour to anyone and everyone doing the work of mothering. You know who you are, teachers and caretakers, parents and grandparents, aunts and uncles, and friends and neighbors, mothering takes so many shapes. Here's to them all. "To the Best of Our Knowledge" is produced by Angelo Bautista, Charles Monroe-Kane, Shannon Henry Kleiber, and Mark Riechers. Our technical director and sound designer is Joe Hardtke with help from Sarah Hopeful. Additional sound this week from the "Oprah Winfrey Show," courtesy of Harpo Incorporated. And we heard music from Cambo, Captive Portal, Semyon, Small Column, and the Climax Golden Twins. The executive producer of "To the Best of Our Knowledge" is Steve Paulson, and I'm Anne Strainchamps. Thanks to all our guests and especially to you for listening.

- PRX.

Last modified: 
May 03, 2024