The XX Factor

Reading “Bad Mother” in China

Within the seething morass of second guesses and good intentions that is the mind of a parent, there shines one beckoning truth: that everything is your fault. When your kids are late, you’re the driver. When they’re hungry, you’re without snacks. When they’re quarantined in China, you put them on the plane. And when that single truth paralyzes all others-when you’re down on your knees-what you need most is company. And this is why I’m glad that Ayelet Waldman and Michael Chabon, as the New York Times Style section put it on Sunday , “write it all down.”

I took Bad Mother with me to China this summer, traveling with three kids, my husband, and my own mother to adopt our fourth child. Punctuating my parenting low moments, such as the seat-belt-free ambulance ride to the unknown quarantine destination, and the helpful email from a friend detailing all the ways adopting another child would ruin the lives of the first three, were Waldman’s lows. Amidst my highs were her highs. When I needed to get out of my own head, there was hers, waiting.

At home last week, busy ruining the lives of now not just three but four children, I read Manhood for Amateurs in the evenings, usually after the kind of ruthless bedtime you hope isn’t what your kids most remember. Our lives remain fraught, achieving at best an uneasy, post-quake rhythm, and so it isn’t Chabon’s highs and lows that stick with me this time but his stories-stories that take those highs and lows of disruption and aftershock and smooth them out in a rosy rearview mirror. Disruption and aftershock, now catalogued and appreciated-lesson learned. His book was less a trip into his head than a trip into the future: With Waldman, I walked through the trees. With Chabon, I see the forest.

The NYT writer seems amused by their pairing. Here is a family truly leading the examined life, and look, they see it differently: Here is Michael Chabon planning parties and lauding the family musical efforts; here is Ayelet Waldman puncturing his balloon. But I’m grateful that Chabon and Waldman share the writerly impulse to tell, and a willingness to tell it differently. I look more deeply at my life when I’m reading about theirs. If I sometimes want to pinch Waldman and tell her to open her eyes-she’s secretly proud of some of the “bad” things she’s done-then I have to own my belief that tough moments make tough kids, and stop berating myself for every forgotten pick-up, sibling injustice, or terrifying midnight wake-up call at the hands of a still-Communist regime. If I want to bust Chabon for letting a 6-year-old watch Dr. Who , I have to hear my own envy talking. Quarantine? Not my fault. But the choice to go with a TV-as-babysitter episode of Dora the Explorer instead of putting aside the laundry to sit down and watch something a little more challenging together? That one’s all mine.

Together, Waldman and Chabon take that single beckoning truth of mine and flip it over. No fault lies with one person alone, just as there is never only one telling of any story. There is the way it feels when it happens, there is the way it feels later, there are the things you tell and the things you leave behind. I’ve reached for many parenting memoirs in the last few months, by everyone from Heather Armstrong to Shirley Jackson . Above all, I’m looking to hear that this, too, shall pass. Chabon and Waldman have been the best possible kind of company: chatty, entertaining, undemanding, but leaving behind a pretty decent parting gift: perspective. Doubly so.