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In Praise of 'Bad Mothers' and 'Bad Fathers'

By Rebeldad Brian Reid

I do love a good parenting tempest in a teapot, so I’m eagerly awaiting Ayelet Waldman’s new book, “Bad Mother.” It’s an expansion of her most famous piece on motherhood, a doozy of a bomb that the New York Times ran four years ago that details how she loves her husband way more than her four kids. This, naturally, created a minor brouhaha among women would couldn’t imagine such a sentiment. Really.

Waldman’s been making the interview circuit, and her argument now goes broader than just encouraging moms to be “bad” by admitting that maybe they prefer their husband to their kids. She wants to break the guilt cycle entirely: no dwelling on parenting errors, no drive to make the best snickerdoodles , no worries about academic underperformance, no beating yourself up if you occasionally end up screaming at the kids.

I’m sure Waldman will get plenty of press. Moms will flock to her defense. Others will demonize her for intentionally setting the bar for minimum parenting standards awfully low. But the remarkable thing is that this kind of call to action would fall entirely flat if a dad wrote it. Fathers are bad parents, by Waldman’s definition, and we don’t care. Never have. Not even a subject for debate. And that’s a great thing.

I’ve spent a lot of time in the company of all kinds of fathers: at-home dads, working dads, single dads, dads who straddle all kinds of labels. And I’ve never felt like there was ever a standard that I needed to live up to. If you love your kids, if you don’t hurt them physically or (as best you can) emotionally, you pass the test. (On the flip side, these active dads have little patience for the abusers and the absent fathers. It’s a low bar, but they have no sympathy for those that don’t clear it.)

This is one of the reasons that I’m always pumping the idea of involved dads. It’s not just good for fathers to be involved; it starts to change the whole dynamic of what’s important about being a parent. Because if the loving, slacker dad on the playground lowers the standards for parents in general, we’re moving in the right direction.

Brian Reid writes about parenting and work-family balance. You can read his blog at

By Brian Reid |  May 1, 2009; 7:00 AM ET  | Category:  Child Development , Relationships
Previous: Not-So-Safe Cribs | Next: Where's the Soap?


I think there is just something about men that care less about what others may or may not think or be doing. I always enjoyed men friends for many reasons, one of which is there is no gossip or backstabbing. They never cared about much more than whether you were fun to be with. The only place where my argument falls apart I think is when it comes to adult men and money, but that's another blog.

Posted by: moxiemom1 | May 1, 2009 7:51 AM | Report abuse

I'm starting to really resent the assumption that all women care about how other people see their parenting, or see parenting as a competitive sport. Sure, there are some like that, but I'd wager that most of us are just muddling through, doing the best we can and hoping not to screw things up too badly.

But even so, what's wrong with worrying about your kid's academic performance? Or with trying to be the best parent you can be, which necessarily means paying attention to errors so you don't repeat them? If that's the kind of the thing that qualifies for a high bar, then a high bar is a good thing, imo.

Posted by: newsahm | May 1, 2009 8:06 AM | Report abuse

"What's wrong with caring about your kid's academic performance?" is a valid question -- but I was raised by a crazy, helicopter mom who lived through her kids long before it was the norm. In my case, my brother and I did OK because we were naturally academically inclined. In my sister's case, my mom began taking her to reading tutors when she was in first grade. My sister's problem? She only read on grade level and in our family this was unacceptable. Later, my sister was pulled out of public school and put in private school because she was getting B's, she was forced to take THREE SAT prep courses in order to get a score that my parents regarded as acceptable and was pushed into a college that was far beyond her actual academic abilities -- largely as the result of all this prep. By the time my sister was in first grade, she carried the message that my parents were disappointed in her because she couldn't make the grade. Not surprisingly, she moved far away and made a life that looks very different from my parents. Later in life, she found herself and is very happy running her own business.

The problem with parents who worry about their kid's academic performance is that frequently they're more worried about looking bad because their child doesn't measure up than they are about the child. And hey, somebody's got to be average! Ultimately, there's only so much you can control about your child's academic performance. And a lot of parents have real trouble admitting that.

Posted by: Justsaying4 | May 1, 2009 8:25 AM | Report abuse

Waldman is a part of the NY/CA elite (look at her speaking schedule) set of "parenting experts" that I don't think are representative of the vast majority of parents. I read about 4 lines of the link to the NYT article from 2005 and clicked off, it was a waste of my time.

I'ver never sat around with the type of women that compare their kids ad nauseum, I quit a "playgroup" that was nothing more than a group of women that complained about their husbands and how tired they were. Hey ladies - welcome to parenting! My opinion, there is nothing wrong with confiding in a friend if there are real troubles, but when it becomes sport and public addresses on "my life and times" I want nothing to do with it. Misery does love company though.

As for loving your husband more than your kids, I love my husband differently than my kids. I just don't see the importance of Waldman's stmt, as in, so what?

Oh, and there is nothing wrong with worrying about academic performance or a host of other parenting issues. I trust that most women and men handle this rather well.

Posted by: cheekymonkey | May 1, 2009 9:02 AM | Report abuse

[sexism alert]

IMHO - i've seen all of our friends in a new light since we had our daughter a couple of years ago. some friends are in dc, some far away.

although we are a pretty laid-back group of mid-30's professionals, i believe most of them are very competitive mothers. but i observe that they are competitive because they fear being judged, and not because they have a drive to be the uber-mom.

that being said, i've notice a lot of dads compete to see who can be the most casual parent out there.

Posted by: interestingidea1234 | May 1, 2009 9:04 AM | Report abuse

just read the article.

a little silly in my opinion. i agree with the earlier posting that i love my wife and my daughter differently.

although i read with wide eyes her opinion that her mommy friends' lack of sex drive was the result of re-directed affection. that sounded dead on.

Posted by: interestingidea1234 | May 1, 2009 9:23 AM | Report abuse


Posted by: bbcrock | May 1, 2009 10:11 AM | Report abuse

Next she will spout about how it's ok to send your 6 year old home on the subway alone while you get your nails done....What a loser, I feel for her kids.

Posted by: pwaa | May 1, 2009 10:28 AM | Report abuse

The article in the Times really doesn't have much to do with whether or not the author is a "competitive" mother. It's really a self-congratulatory piece from a "competitive" wife. It's kind of disturbing, actually. She states that, unlike other people who can't envision the future if something would happen to the kids, she could lose all her kids but can't envision a future without her husband. That's a pretty outrageous statement to put in print.

Posted by: GroovisMaximus61 | May 1, 2009 11:37 AM | Report abuse

"She states that, unlike other people who can't envision the future if something would happen to the kids, she could lose all her kids but can't envision a future without her husband. That's a pretty outrageous statement to put in print."

Holy crap! Imagine being a kid, reading that your mom wrote that. This is something I often wonder about, in our modern blogging-over-sharing world: how are kids affected by reading their parents' (sometimes negative) thoughts about them? I think I'd have been crushed, outright devastated, to have read a statement like the one above.

Of course we need to have our own independent lives. Of course we need to love our spouses. But do we really need to publicly proclaim the extraneous-ness of our kids?!

Posted by: newslinks1 | May 1, 2009 11:54 AM | Report abuse

Groovis, If Waldeman did say she could loose all her kids but not her husband (I didn't read it, so I am parapharasing) - she is lying. Whether it be to sell books, get articles published, advance her career - whatever, it is a lie. God forbid it should happen and she realizes her foolishness in writing such horsecrap.

If she's not lying she is a hard hearted woman and obsessed with her husband. If I lost my husband I'd be devastated, but I'd continue for my children's sake if nothing else. I wonder what this woman's husband thinks? Do I care?

Posted by: cheekymonkey | May 1, 2009 12:26 PM | Report abuse

FIL announces proudly "I never had to hit any of my kids." True, he didn't need to, he always got his wife to do that for him. And he did far more damage by pulling his love away from his children in an effort to control them. The gift here? At least DH is aware of it and working hard to carry that on to our kids. We keep hoping it will quit before there's no more time to repair the relationship. Hoping...

Posted by: StrollerMomma | May 1, 2009 1:12 PM | Report abuse

cheeky - we read so you don't have to. :-)

This is what she said about the topic (follow the NYT link above for the full context):

"An example: I often engage in the parental pastime known as God Forbid. What if, God forbid, someone were to snatch one of my children? God forbid. I imagine what it would feel like to lose one or even all of them. I imagine myself consumed, destroyed by the pain. And yet, in these imaginings, there is always a future beyond the child's death. Because if I were to lose one of my children, God forbid, even if I lost all my children, God forbid, I would still have him, my husband.

But my imagination simply fails me when I try to picture a future beyond my husband's death. Of course I would have to live. I have four children, a mortgage, work to do. But I can imagine no joy without my husband."

Her last paragraph is, um, somewhat similar to yours. :-)

Posted by: ArmyBrat1 | May 1, 2009 1:13 PM | Report abuse

Cheeky -

you said - "If she's not lying she is a hard hearted woman and obsessed with her husband."

I'm hoping she was exaggerating for the sake of her writing career.

Posted by: GroovisMaximus61 | May 1, 2009 1:14 PM | Report abuse

ArmyBrat - the uncomfortable part of her writing isn't the last paragraph - it's

"And yet, in these imaginings, there is always a future beyond the child's death. Because if I were to lose one of my children, God forbid, even if I lost all my children, God forbid, I would still have him, my husband."

Doesn't that hit you as twisted? I look at people who have lost kids and wonder how they can keep going (although I understand they have to esp. if there are other children). But I don't think I've ever thought anyone would say "at least I still have him, my husband."

Posted by: GroovisMaximus61 | May 1, 2009 1:25 PM | Report abuse

Haven't read the NYT article, just the quote here. Seems like it's simply her circumstances - and mine are *very* different.

I expect at least another 50 years knocking around the planet and annoying my descendants, because of my incredibly long-lived ancestors. Because of DH's diabetes, I expect him to be around in my life for *maybe* another 20-30 years - if we're both lucky! I have very high hopes for older son's life, but because of his autism there's a very real possibility that he *won't* ever leave the family home, my home.

So, my hopes/dreams/expectations of life are very, very different from our subject's, because the circumstances of our lives and our families are so very different.

And since high school, I've always believed that "life is what happens to you while you're busy making other plans." Whatever the future ultimately holds, it won't be what we planned or what we expected. A successful life is lived by adjusting and adapting to what actually happens that you weren't expecting.

Posted by: SueMc | May 1, 2009 1:37 PM | Report abuse

The odd thing to me is that one is much more likely to lose one's spouse to accident or even natural causes, than one's children. What a weird thing to write about...

I also fail to see how parenting on a kind of day to day basis makes a "bad mom or dad." Maybe because I only have one and really don't know what I am doing, so I just do the best I can in each given situation. Isn't that what everyone does, even if they are not honest enough to admit it?

Posted by: VaLGaL | May 1, 2009 1:51 PM | Report abuse

"But I can imagine no joy without my husband."

Her last paragraph is, um, somewhat similar to yours. :-)"

AB, I never said I couldn't imagine joy, I just said I would go on regardless. I suspect I would find joy because death is just a part of life. My husband is wonderful, but he is not everything to me. Actually, the quote you posted makes it even creepier because it sounds like her husband is everything to her. That sounds unhealthy, at best.

Gotta agree with Groovis, never heard someone say "At least I still have my husband" after their child dies. I wonder if she realizes how incredibly hard it is to keep a marriage together after a child is lost.

Posted by: cheekymonkey | May 1, 2009 2:05 PM | Report abuse

cheeky, agree that the tone of the quote is a little to, um, "upbeat" for me given the topic. But the rest of the article was about sex (she's the only mommy in her peer group getting any; she's going to stop at the store on the way home to see if they have any good new sex toys, etc.) so perhaps she was a bit "distracted" when she wrote it.

I think a lot of the reaction to losing a spouse or a child would depend on the circumstances of the loss - whether it was a disease or an accident/violence; whether it was sudden or you had a while to get used to it; etc. From the (admittedly very few) people I know who've lost young children, it's a very different process to lose a child to muscular dystrophy than it is to have one die in a car wreck.

With the disease, you know it's coming over a matter of a few years and so you're as prepared as can be; it's in your plans to some degree and while it's still devastating, you can handle it to some extent. On the other hand, losing a perfectly healthy child suddenly in a car accident can be many times worse because there's no thinking ahead or planning - everything hits you after the fact. (To make matters far worse, the co-worker I knew that lost her child that way was driving. A dump truck ran a red light and t-boned the rear door of her car; she walked away with minor injuries but her 8-year old son, buckled into his seat in the back, was killed by the impact. Even though it wasn't her fault, she'll blame herself for the rest of her life and she's said many, many times over the years that she wishes it had been the other way around.)

Posted by: ArmyBrat1 | May 1, 2009 2:22 PM | Report abuse

My step-children are not my own flesh and blood so I suppose it might colour my answer. I would miss the children terribly if they were to be removed from my life but I don't think I would be devastated. But sometimes you don't know how you would feel - there is a big difference between logically thinking about it and experiencing it.

I don't think I could possibly care about the children the same way I care about my husband. How can I? The relationship is completely and totally different. How do you compare the amount of 'love' you have for people that you care about in different ways? The only comparison that comes to mind is if someone said to me: "I will kill either your husband or your child. You decide". Does anyone really know what they would do when tested like this?

Posted by: Billie_R | May 1, 2009 2:51 PM | Report abuse

I can only hope that she is not being honest in her writing when discussing death and children.

I love my husband, but I can live without him. I could not live without my children. I have also known a few people who have lost children and it doesn't matter how they lose them, it hurts just the same.

Posted by: supersonic1 | May 1, 2009 2:56 PM | Report abuse

"I will kill either your husband or your child. You decide".

A mother would not hesitate. At least not all the mothers I know.

I know I wouldn't and what father would say "no save me instead of the baby."

Posted by: supersonic1 | May 1, 2009 2:59 PM | Report abuse

"The only comparison that comes to mind is if someone said to me: "I will kill either your husband or your child. You decide". Does anyone really know what they would do when tested like this?"

Billie, yep, no doubt: I would save my kids. But it's not a "who do you love more" test. Fundamentally, I am responsible for my kids' health and safety in a way I cannot ever be for another grown, fully-functional person. They're the ones I save first in a plane crash, car crash, house fire, etc., before myself or anyone else. Period. And I would absolutely expect my husband to do the same. I couldn't live with myself -- or him -- if we chose differently.

Posted by: laura33 | May 1, 2009 3:11 PM | Report abuse

"But even so, what's wrong with worrying about your kid's academic performance?"

Plenty, if you're one of those parents who won't accept anything less than an A and prefer to punish your kid for getting lower grades than that instead of seeing if there's a genuine reason for grades lower than a B. I was one of those unfortunate kids who spent their nights studying their butts off only to get C's, D's, and even E's in some subjects simply because they learned differently than they were taught! Art and English classes I excelled in. Science and math...don't ask. Multiple-choice and fill-in-the-blank tests were easy, while essay exams were something that I almost always flunked. It wasn't until college that my parents finally got me tested and discovered that I was a hands-on learner rather than a book learner! I wish I'd known that in middle and high school...I spent so much time in the doghouse then that I used to joke that it was my temporary mailing address!

My sister lived through all this as well...she was a straigh A student in high school, but it came at the price of high stress, sleepless nights, and two bouts of stress-induced illness (to say nothing of repeated migraines). She's now doing great and enjoying her job.

I'm emphasizing doing the best YOU can to my kids, but my older daughter already freaks out if she gets a B on her tests, and she's only in the first grade. I'm already telling her that a B is still a VERY good grade and not to worry about it. I don't know where she got that attitude from, because I certainly don't tell them that it's got to be a perfect score. Who'd have though academic competition began this early?

That having been said, the idea of losing one's child is far worse than losing your spouse! Parents are not supposed to outlive their children, and I don't see how anybody could value their spouse above their kids. That just strikes me as VERY strange!

My younger daughter had heart surgery last year at the age of 18 months, and even though I knew it was a common procedure that she was undergoing, I still feared the possibility of complications, and even the idea that she could die. Her heart problem is relatively minor (she still has to undergo echocardiograms every six months to make sure things don't require surgery again), but it gives me an idea of the strength that parents of children with even more serious medical issues possess to get through every day. How could someone say they'd rather lose their kid?

Posted by: dragondancer1814 | May 1, 2009 3:25 PM | Report abuse

The thing is, my love for my husband has deepened and strengthened so much since we had our baby. Our baby isn't just an individual: he's me and my DH staring back at me every second. Our son is an extension of both of us.

Neither DH nor I would hesitate to save our baby first: if there was one dose of anti-venom and we'd all three been bitten, the baby gets to live. No question, no hesitation. It would be unthinkable to consider anything else.

What's deeply disturbing about her whole article is that she doesn't seem to feel that tie uniting her, her DH, and their kids. She feels like she and DH have a separate relationship completely independent of their kids. And I just don't see how you can have a family and not see the bonds there all the time...

I've seen the opposite be true, too: my mom adored all of us kids and regarded my dad as peripheral and unnecessary. (They're divorced now.)

It just feels self-evident to me that children cement your marriage bonds even stronger, but obviously that isn't the case for everyone...

Posted by: newslinks1 | May 1, 2009 3:26 PM | Report abuse

We've gone over it many times before - If the family got caught in a burning building or sinking ship, dad gets the lowest priority for rescue. It's the moral thing to do, besides there is a practical reason for not saving me in favor of one of the kids... I've got life insurance. Yep, if good ol' dad kicks the bucket, the payoff will be such that Mom will finally be able to buy a house big enough for the kids to have their own room, not to mention a fireplace and bigger kitchen.

But conversations like these are sheer silliness.

What isn't silly though is when hubby wakes up before the crack of dawn, makes his own breakfast and eats it by himself, leaves to catch the bus while wifey is still in bed sleeping as she nurses the baby, puts in a hard days work, then comes home to a house trashed with toys/laundry/stacks of dishes/craft projects/junk from school , Walmart bag in the master's chair, the urchin still on the breast as if the baby were surgically attached, then finds out that he gets to fend for his own dinner because the older kids had McDonald's. (which is obvious from the empty bags, wrappers and paper cups on the dinner table laying amung the breakfast dishes)

I've seen it all too often, mommy gets her affection and self worth through nurturing her kids and dad gets pushed away and treated as if he were another mouth to feed. When it comes to this point, a puppy, membership to a bowling league, and marriage counseling won't help. It's time to find a lawyer. (God forbid)

Posted by: WhackyWeasel | May 1, 2009 3:37 PM | Report abuse

AB, I think this author is a ninny, so I don't care if she was sex deprived or was having sex 10 times a day (which makes me winch, but you get what I am saying). Maybe she doesn't realize that she can have sex again if her husband dies, but dead is final.

The worst part about Brian's post today is that there are so many of these so called authors out there, polluting magazines and newpapers with their thoughts and musings. They make hundreds of thousands of dollars a year speaking to women's groups about how fulfilled, or unfulfilled they are, and sadly I have spent a good 15 minutes today replying to it all.

I will never get this 15 minutes back - ahhhhhhh!

Posted by: cheekymonkey | May 1, 2009 3:44 PM | Report abuse

Aritist like to say this kind of crazy stuff to establish a sense of "specialness". Unlike all the dull, Wal-Mart shopping, Ford driving clods out there she is "Honest" and therefore a little more interesting and edgy than everybody else. It's all ego and image, and really no different than those moms that are so completely wrapped up in their kids achievements. People will say and do the craziest stuff to feel special.

I don't think she actually loves her husband more, she just loves that fact that he makes her feel important, which the kids don't just take the time to do. But if a Sophie's choice situation came up the kids would come out the winners. She just enjoys her husband more and really she should just say that regardless of how boring and conventional it sounds, becuase unless she has a narcisstic personality disorder that's alot closer to the truth.

Posted by: pinkoleander | May 1, 2009 5:19 PM | Report abuse

I am the single father of a wonderful, beautiful, autistic son. And also a wonderful, beautiful son with psychological issues. I am human, love my kids, scream at my kids, screw up, and sometimes hit the mark. I don't care what anyone thinks, well maybe my kids. Here is a great website if you are tired about hearing about everyone else's perfect children.

Posted by: KellyMBray | May 3, 2009 9:31 PM | Report abuse

Sounds like, with 4 kids, she's thought about this an awful lot. It's certainly hard to raise 4 kids. I can imagine she is wishing for a little freedom, but no need to make her fantasies of her childrens' deaths public!

Posted by: goodhome631 | May 4, 2009 10:58 AM | Report abuse

"I can only hope that she is not being honest in her writing when discussing death and children.

I love my husband, but I can live without him. I could not live without my children."

It's pretty amazing how the people here automatically assume (proving Waldman's point in her NY Times article) that choosing kids over spouse is the RIGHT thing to do. So you think she is crazy and you hope she is dishonest that she couldn't liver without her husband? What in the world makes you think that YOU'RE not crazy for being unable to love without your kids? Interesting how different posters accuse Waldman of having an unhealthy obsession with her husband and then go on to describe being similarly preoccupied with their own children. It certainly is true that (1) those offended by someone else's profession of love reflect more about their own twisted priorities than the professing individual, and (2) it is always easier to criticize others than to question oneself.

Posted by: Julkrey | May 5, 2009 12:10 PM | Report abuse

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