Arts & Events

Chronicles of a Bad Mother

By Ayelet Waldman
Thursday May 07, 2009 - 06:28:00 PM

EDITOR’S NOTE: The following is an excerpt from ‘Audacity of Hope,” chapter seven of Ayelet Waldman’s Bad Mother: A Chronicle of Maternal Crimes, Minor Calamities, and Occasional Moments of Grace. For a profile of Waldman, see the Daily Planet’s April 30 edition. 


I have been committing that worst of maternal crimes on a near daily basis. I have been lying to my children. I’ve been feeding them this tale about how if they came across a Bedouin in the Negev desert, he would welcome them into his tent and serve them a cup of mint tea, and that if they found themselves in Burkina Faso, a 7-year-old kid might kick around a soccer ball with them. 

It’s not that I would not warn them, say, that while on the Via Veneto in Rome it’s wise to clamp a hand over their wallets if rushed by a group of Gypsy kids, or that I would allow them to apply to a student exchange program in Harare, Zimbabwe. I’m not sheltering them from the truth, exactly. The older ones know what an IED is, and that hundreds of thousands of people, both soldiers and civilians, have been killed and maimed in Iraq. They know what happened in Abu Ghraib. They are not naive children. But in a way they are innocent. As honest as I’ve been about all the world’s calamities, I’ve also tried, despite knowing full well that I was deceiving them, to instill in my kids a faith that at heart all people are just like them, and that justice, if it is not prevailing now, is bound to one day. 

That woman who told me when Zeke was a baby that I was imposing my negative view of the universe on my children had it only half-right. On the one hand, I’ve successfully managed to raise at least one punk rock kid, Zeke, who periodically becomes convinced that the human race has, on balance, brought little but destruction to the world, and that it would be best if our species, like the saber-toothed tiger or the great auk, simply became extinct. But at the same time I’ve also so successfully sugarcoated the world that Zeke is able to have his faith in human decency completely restored just by listening to Rush (“And the men who hold high places, must be the ones to start, to mold a new reality, closer to the heart”). Which is worse? Lying about hope or telling the truth about hopelessness? 

The myth my husband, Michael, and I have been telling our kids—that each individual in the world shares a core of human decency—has a corollary in the way we discuss the history of America. Our kids get a slightly more honest view of American history than we did back in the 1970s, but the lessons being taught today are not that different in tone from those bygone rose-colored paeans to melting pot and opportunity. While our children learn in school that Columbus cannot be said to have discovered America, they are also told that he did make a very important journey. As the song they teach Berkeley schoolchildren every Indigenous Peoples Day goes, “It was a courageous thing to do, but someone was already here, yes, someone was already here.” Because their teachers wouldn’t, Michael and I taught them (with the assistance of the brilliant Sarah Vowell and Ira Glass’s “This American Life”) about the Trail of Tears, and the brutality of Andrew Jackson, but we also told them about heroes like Tecumseh and Sitting Bull. We wanted to make sure that while they understand this country’s history of brutality, they also saw grace and courage. We taught them that once, in the far past, women were not allowed to vote, but now, thanks to suffragists like Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, California can be represented in the Senate by not one but two women. 

My kids are proud to live in the Bay Area, where there is a mayor like Gavin Newsom, brave enough to stand up for justice and allow gay people to marry. We spend a lot of time talking about injustice in our family, but the way we tell it, those days are mostly over. The Voting Rights Act passed into law, and equal protection means that every individual, regardless of race, ethnicity, nationality, or sexual orientation, is entitled to be treated the same. We tell them that the end of racism and prejudice of all kinds is inevitable. I spout to my children an optimistic version of America and the world, but I have always feared, in my heart of hearts, that I have been selling them a bill of goods. 

The stories we tell our kids come easier to Michael in part because, unlike me, he spent his childhood in a place that inspired patriotism. He grew up in Columbia, Maryland, in the 1970s, when that planned community came close to achieving its utopian ideal of racial integration. In Columbia black and white families lived side by side. White and black children rode their bikes together along the meandering paths, swam together in the neighborhood pools, got into arguments, made up. They were friends. My hometown wasn’t anything to be proud of, particularly when it came to race. I grew up in Ridgewood, New Jersey, a town where real estate agents routinely steered minority families to certain neighborhoods. The African American kids were isolated, segregated, and we white kids made little or no attempt to cross over that divide. As a little girl, I knew there was a problem, but it never occurred to me that I could do anything about it. It was just another reason to hate my hometown. Now, as an adult, I am not only conscious of and ashamed of my failure to act, but I’m also damaged by it.  

Part of the story we’re teaching our own children is that things like that don’t happen anymore. America is different. And it’s not entirely a lie. Their America is different. Berkeley isn’t Ridgewood, or Indiana, or even Columbia. They go to schools that not only celebrate diversity but actually embody it. One of Zeke’s best friends is a kid whose parents between the two of them encompass four ethnic identities: Jewish, Greek, African American, and white. His other buddy came to Oakland as a refugee from Mississippi after Katrina. Together the three of them look like a Benetton ad. In the year 2000, the first in which the census permitted people to check a box to describe themselves as mixed-race, nearly 5 percent of Californians chose that option. One in 19 children in the United States is of mixed race, and in California that number is closer to one in ten. 

I was in Columbia, South Carolina, during the Democratic primary, volunteering for Barack Obama. The night of the election I was standing in a crowd of hundreds waiting for our candidate to take the stage. While they waited, people amused themselves by watching the news on the JumboTron. Bill Clinton’s face appeared five feet tall on the television screen, a replay of his now-notorious reference to Jesse Jackson having also won the South Carolina primary, with its implication that this year’s black candidate’s victory would be as fleeting and ultimately irrelevant. In response, a group of black college students took up the chant, “Race doesn’t matter, race doesn’t matter.” Within moments the cry spread throughout the room. 

Of course race matters. America is still a country where nearly a quarter of African Americans live in poverty and more African American men are in prison than in college. Sixteen years ago, when I was living in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and dating a black fellow law student, race sure as hell mattered. Even in the birthplace of the abolitionist movement people stared at us. Cabs refused to pick us up. People avoided sitting next to us in movie theaters or on the bus. 

But now there’s Barack Obama, who doesn’t so much espouse the rhetoric of equality and the end of racism as embody it. There is the evidence of my four white children, who count among their friends children of any number of races and permutations of racial identity. My kids no longer see the world in black and white. The other day Abe was describing two people. One, he said, was bald, with pink skin. The other wore a red shirt and had black hair and brown skin. Skin was something that could be described by color, like hair, but that’s all it was. No race, no politics. Just color. 

I’m not naive. I know that soon enough Abe will learn how racial differences and distinctions continue to preoccupy American society. But he’s growing up in a world where young people can lead a chant that embodies not only the feeling of a moment but the hope for our country’s future. He and his siblings are growing up in the America of our stories, and I can’t quite believe it. Maybe all along, like a Good Mother, I’ve been telling the truth about that good country, America.