Sitting at the kitchen table with New York Times best-selling author Ayelet Waldman, while her Pulitzer Prize–winning husband, Michael Chabon, whipped up a gourmet dinner, I started buying into ideas I wouldn’t normally consider: Being a “bad mother” is okay when you have a devoted spouse to pick up the slack and make you feel better about it. And perhaps equality at home is a prerequisite for women to excel in the workplace. But where are these equal halves? Do they really exist, or are they the unicorns of the female-empowerment movement? Another unrealistic expectation for women to find, meet and marry, along with bodies by SoulCycle and jobs by Sheryl Sandberg? According to Waldman, unicorns are real and you can find one living in Berkeley.
Nothing, however, is a panacea. Speaking to Ayelet — who is upfront about her tendency to over-share and has no need to tiptoe around the feelings of colleagues or clients — was refreshing and enlightening. Debevoise? Ridiculous. Practicing law? Miserable. Drugs? Ecstasy. Motherhood? Tiresome. I thought I had her figured out after reading her Twitter tirades on my flight from New York to San Francisco, but you can’t always judge a book by its cover.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
Ayelet Waldman: I’ve always believed that it’s possible to be creative and construct a professional identity that doesn’t suck your soul, but it is hard. My inspiration was my husband, Michael. What he does for a living helped me imagine doing it. Even more than that, he sent my first book to his agent.
Yeah! It opened all these doors. Maybe I would have been able to get those doors open on my own, but I probably wouldn’t have even thought to try the door.
I loved being a federal public defender, I loved being a trial lawyer. If I hadn’t had my daughter, I probably wouldn’t have allowed myself to take the break that allowed me to reimagine my career. It was accidental, in a way. I did not really know that I was leaving the practice forever. I had been at the federal public defenders’ office in L.A. only a few years when Sophie was born. My decision to leave wasn’t because I longed to stay home with my kid. It was because Michael wanted to go to New York City for a month to do research. I was never going to be able to do that with a regular job. But it gave me the idea that we could have a different kind of life — we could travel the world, lead a flexible, romantic life that would involve jetting off to London, or wherever. That idea was like a gateway drug, and it got me off a traditional job track.
It’s hard to say. I get very involved in my work, and the truth is, I’m not enamored of the day-to-day of parenting. I love my kids. I love babies. But the day-to-day — picking them up, driving them around, taking them to the park — that got really tiresome. I didn’t have the kind of imagination to turn it into a creative outlet. Had I not found an alternative, I definitely would have gone back to work right away. Had I not had a husband who shared those tasks with me, I definitely would have gone back to work. Had I married a hedge fund manager or law firm partner, like most of my friends did, I would have gone back to work for sure. I wouldn’t have wanted to be trapped in the house by myself. We did end up with a flexible life, but not in the way I imagined. My fantasy of jetting off to Bali — that did not happen.
The freedom you feel when you skip out the door is pretty intense. I really did love my job as a public defender. I mean, I probably would have had an aneurysm and died young, because I was way too passionate. As a public defender, you constantly feel powerless in the face of the might of the state. That feeling of powerlessness on behalf of clients you care about can be exhausting and frustrating and incredibly stressful. In the long run, in terms of my sanity, it was probably better for me to leave. But I didn’t know that when I left. At the time, I really believed that I was taking a short hiatus from a job I loved.
I started writing with very, very low expectations. I certainly had no literary ambitions. I might have had commercial ambition, but I didn’t have any literary ambition.
Yes, but I just didn’t think I could do it. When I started, I thought that the most I could do were these fluffy, silly little murder mysteries — entertaining and meant to be read with exactly the amount of attention you can spare while breastfeeding. It didn’t occur to me to try to compete, even with myself. After awhile, I started thinking, “I’m actually pretty good at this.” The sentences I construct may not be as good as my husband’s, but they’re certainly as good as a lot of other people’s. I started getting more ambitious, expecting and demanding more of myself. That reached its pinnacle with my most recent book, Love & Treasure, which I really feel is a work of unquestionable literary merit. It’s hard, as a woman, to say that about your own work.
That was just me being an idiot. Eventually, I got to that place of competitiveness, as you saw in my Twitter freak-out. But it took years.
Gawker is always eager. In a world where the Kardashians are role models for young women, it’s horrifying to imagine that I fall into that box. It makes me want to never be online again. My publishers love my online presence. I honestly feel like I prevent book sales with every tweet. For every person who thinks, “Oh, I know her name. I’ll look at her book,” there are 100 others thinking, “It’s that crazy woman who’s always ranting about something. Forget that.” I don’t write things because I think they’ll make me popular. And I have never intentionally done something to cause notoriety.
I didn’t submit it to the New York Times. I wrote the essay for an anthology that happened to end up on the Modern Love editor’s coffee table. I got a phone call out of the blue from the editor, who said, “Hey, I would love to put your essay in the Modern Love column.” I didn’t take a moment to think about what that meant. That essay is not just about sex, it’s also about how my husband and I use Ecstasy every year or two. I didn’t think to myself, “Do I want the entire world to know about my sex life and drug use?” It was just, “Oh, great! New York Times, awesome!” During the editing process, I got a call from someone high on the masthead suggesting that we take out the reference to Ecstasy. I agreed. The irony is, I think that if the Ecstasy comment had been included, the essay wouldn’t have had a decade’s worth of notoriety. The whole piece would have been easier to dismiss as completely crazy. Without it, readers actually had to confront what I said.
Well, they focused on it if they themselves were not having sex. The people who got so outraged were, by and large, people who looked at their own marriages and felt a sense of failure and competition. I don’t think anyone with the kind of relationship that my husband and I have felt outraged. The truth is, you cannot prioritize your children to the exclusion of everyone else in the world and maintain a decent marriage. By the time I wrote Bad Mother, everyone was saying, “Yeah, of course you’re right.” There are dozens of books, articles, studies and pastors saying the same thing. When I was on Mormon radio, they were like, “We love this.” The Bible doesn’t say sanctify your child above all else. It says sanctify your husband above all else.
It didn’t seem possible that I was the only person who felt this way. I’m a pretty average person. When I feel strongly about something, I don’t assume that I’m alone. During the course of my life, I have taken great solace in reading the words of people expressing an emotion that I have been afraid to make public. When I speak out on topics that I feel are silenced — abortion, mental illness, premenstrual dysphoric disorder, HPV — I feel that shining a light on it serves a purpose. We could dissect this forever, but it probably has a lot to do with the fact that I have a mood disorder and am volatile. That allows me to give into my impulsivity, at least periodically. The positive part is when you write a piece about mood and hormones, for example, people email you, saying, “Oh, my God. I finally understand what’s going on with my life. Now I can get adequate treatment.” The negative side of indulging impulsivity is that you occasionally go on an asinine Twitter freak-out because you’re disappointed that a handful of people at a newspaper didn’t think your book was as good as a couple of others.
Yeah, I was lying on the couch crying, and I just vented foolishly. Sometimes it feels like somebody sat down one day and thought, “What is the best medium to ruin Ayelet Waldman’s life?” and they came up with Twitter. It’s as if Twitter was designed to take advantage of my worst impulses.
I’m privileged in my race, education and economic status. But I’m not a billionaire. My day-to-day life is a fairly typical upper-middle-class American life. I drive my kids to school. I go grocery shopping. I have a cleaning person. I have tremendous privilege, but I do feel my obligations, both as a writer and a human being. It was not for nothing that I wanted to be a public defender. Some of the things I do as a writer have nothing to do with furthering my career. The Voice of Witness book Inside this Place, Not of It, first-person narratives from women in prison, is an example. It took a huge amount of time, and I didn’t make a dime. It was incredibly important to me because I feel like we have robbed many people of opportunity in this country. We incarcerate women who are among the most abused and demoralized. Right now, I’m putting together a book of stories from Palestine. The goal of the anthology is to bring storytellers from all over the world to the occupied territories, give them the chance to meet people and let them tell whatever story they want to tell. It’s really important to me to do it. Is it going to make me any friends? I don’t think so — my books are primarily bought by middle-aged Jewish ladies, like myself.
I had planned to be a psychologist, but I slept through the GREs. Clearly, I didn’t want it that much because I set off to travel through Asia with a boyfriend for a year. When we returned, I had to figure out what I wanted to do with my life. I was argumentative, I could write and I had inclinations to the dramatic. So, law school seemed like the logical place for me. I did really well on the LSAT and got into Harvard. I loved law school. I thought it was super fun. I participated a lot and was the class loudmouth. I always say to my kids, “It’s better to be a person who speaks rarely but intelligently than a person who just blabs all the time.” Tragically, I am the latter. There’s wheat with it, but there’s also a fair amount of chaff. I participated vigorously, graduated magna cum laude and got pretty much every job I interviewed for, except one with the New York City DA. They sensed immediately that I had a defense attorney’s heart. But I got the clerkship I wanted in San Francisco.
I wanted to be a trial lawyer in the way that a lot of young law students do. I thought I would be living this Perry Mason existence. Of course, that was very naive. But that’s what I loved.
San Francisco was really attractive to me politically. I grew up in New Jersey, and what could be more different from New Jersey than California? The first clerkship interview I had was with Fern Smith in San Francisco. I loved her; I was nuts for her. She was a strong, smart woman who was a mom before attending law school. She became a managing attorney and then a judge. I loved her career trajectory. So I took that job. I never imagined that I would stay in California; I’d always assumed I’d go back to New York because I’m too bitchy and sarcastic for sunny California. Literally everybody who meets me says, “Oh, you’re from New York, right?” I’m not even from New York; I’m from New Jersey.
I met my husband in California and we got engaged immediately. We didn’t know each other at all. I really thought he wanted to stay in California because his mom and brother were there. I thought, “All right, I can work here and the weather is amazing.” I really can’t overestimate how profound an effect a flowering tree in the month of February had on me. February used to make me, like, suicidal. Years later, I said to him, “It’s so great that you wanted to stay in California. I probably would have turned into a really bad person in New York — super competitive, crazy and money-obsessed, talking about nothing but real estate and the size of my advance.” And he responded, “What are you talking about? I wanted to go to New York. You were the one who wanted to live here.” We were blinded by infatuation and just didn’t know each other well enough to have the conversation. But it worked out for the best.
I worked for Debevoise & Plimpton for a year to pay off as many of my loans as possible. I abandoned my people because I thought it would be nicer to work with the WASPs than at a firm where the partners were just like me — short-tempered and volatile is no fun for the people who work for you, right? They were really nice, collegial.
Ridiculous. It was ridiculous. In that one year, I busted a union, represented a waste management company and an asbestos manufacturer. All of the glory and the pro-bono work that I had seen as a summer associate was washed away, and it was all about face time. My approach was different from my first-year colleagues, because I knew I was only going to be there for a year. I worked hard, and I was there every minute that I needed to be to ensure that my work was top-quality. But I didn’t care about the face time. Of course, there were the town cars, the meals and crazy overnights. I remember pulling an all-nighter to file a petition for certiorari. I spent most of that night photocopying and being billed out at some insane rate. Can you imagine?
I loved the money. I made more money my first year than my father made at the end of his career. But I didn’t experience the money in the same way that others did. I didn’t spend it. I just paid down my loans. I lived very modestly. If I had a date, I would eat out and have a nice dinner, otherwise, it was Honey Nut Cheerios in my apartment.
There was a senior associate who had triplets, toddlers. I remember once, late at night, I said, “What the heck are you doing here? I’ll do whatever it is, just give it to me. Go home to your kids.” She said, “Are you crazy? I have toddler triplets. I would much rather be at work.” That was the first time anyone expressed that to me, and it immediately made sense. When I was young, I spent about six months teaching preschool on a kibbutz in Israel. I was like, “Hell yeah, I totally get it. Triplet toddlers.” There were very few women partners, and going through the ranks to get to that position seemed almost impossible. I do think that the structure of a corporate firm is biased against women. The minute you lean in, you’re a bitch, and nobody wants to promote you.
Well, one of my dear friends, Nel Scovell, wrote that book. She’s the coauthor.
I know, somewhat ironic, but oh well. I have a tremendous amount of admiration for Sheryl Sandberg and for what she’s accomplished. But I think she’s speaking about a very exclusive group of women. It’s not necessarily wrong to speak only to the privileged, as long as you recognize that’s what you’re doing. I have a bit of a problem with saying lean in is just as applicable if you work at McDonald’s because, as it turns out, it’s not. I think she underestimated the toll her advice would take on women. Yes, it’s true that men ask for raises. And yes, it’s true that women are more reticent. But that’s not necessarily because we have weakness of character. It’s because we’ve learned that we pay a tremendous price for exactly the behavior that she advises women to engage in.
As someone who has frequently been called a bitch or aggressive in situations where men are seen as go-getters, I have a problem with the whole lean in idea. When I was a summer associate, I really wanted a small firm. I didn’t go to the big firms that gave me offers. I went to a smaller firm. At the end of the summer, they said to me, “Your work’s amazing, it’s excellent work, but we don’t feel like you fit into the culture of this firm. You’re so, I don’t know, New York.” And I said, “Well, as far as I’m concerned, that’s a code word for anti-Semitism. You’re just saying Jewish, right? Pushy, obnoxious.” At the time, it seemed to me like clear-cut anti-Semitism. In retrospect, I think it was also because I’m a woman. They would’ve tolerated confidence and assertiveness, backed up by quality work, from a man. I learned a really important lesson there. I later learned, with some satisfaction, that the firm went belly up.
Implicit bias is a tremendous problem. It’s not just a gender issue, obviously. It’s just as much, or more, a race issue. When your gut reaction to a pushy woman is that she’s a bitch, it’s not a conscious thought. You don’t sit down and think, “Do I like this behavior? Do I not like this behavior? Is this behavior appropriate?” You don’t weigh it out, you just think, “Ugh, I don’t like that bitch.”
I also think that the work corporate attorneys do is by and large really miserable — particularly at the lower levels, but even at the higher levels. Sifting through boxes of discovery is boring. Managing massive cases on behalf of clients you don’t admire is demoralizing. I think women abandon these jobs not only because the jobs are difficult to manage along with a family, but because the jobs themselves are awful and children are a ready excuse to leave. I’m not saying that’s true for all women who leave their jobs. But I think if we did polling, we’d find that the problem is not that the women aren’t leaning in. The problem is that the jobs are nightmarish. So, why do men put up with it? Maybe they’re more attracted to the money. Maybe the system isn’t designed to give them an out. What’s your out if you’re a man? Be a stay-at-home dad? Some guys choose that, but it has a huge social price.
Oh, absolutely. I know a couple of dads who stay home. And I have thought, “What the hell do they do all day? Why aren’t they working?” Then I realize I wouldn’t have thought that about a woman. The very existence of a stay-at-home dad with an ambitious, successful wife is a great thing for the entire community. Any time my kids see that as a model, it infiltrates their unconscious a little bit. But I can only imagine how much shit they have to deal with on a daily basis. The challenge is to move beyond that and continue to chip away at the power structure any way that you can.
I had my first child while I was there, and I was pregnant with my second when I left. I was so young; I was 29 when I had Sophie. I tried not to let it stop me at all. I just chug, chug, chugged along. I used my pregnancy as much as I could at trial. The jury would look at this cute little pregnant woman in a headband with a big bow on her tummy and her sweet little husband sitting in the audience, and think, “Oh, that methamphetamine dealer she’s representing can’t be such a bad guy. Look at him pulling out her chair.” I genuinely cared about the people I represented. The only one I did not care for was a white-collar client who was just a prick.
I did have a difficult transition because my first boss in the Orange County division was a complete nightmare to work for. I think he was the only Republican public defender I ever met. I started butting heads with him early on. When I showed up, he said, “You have to wear a skirt.” I had pantsuits, and said, “I’m not wearing a skirt. You cannot make me wear a skirt. That’s madness.” The office rule was, “All women have to wear skirts…except Ayelet,” until the next New York lawyer arrived and was like, “What the fuck? I’m not wearing a skirt.” Finally, the other women realized it wasn’t fair that only two of us were allowed to wear pants. He gave me a case to cut my teeth on that he said was a loser. I won. He monopolized the two secretaries in the office so all of the other lawyers had to do their own work — I was not going tolerate that. Then, when I got pregnant, he tried to fire me. I asked if he’d read the Prejudice and Discrimination Act and wished him good luck with that. He could fire me if he didn’t think I was a good lawyer, but he sure as shit couldn’t fire me because I was pregnant. So, I called up his boss, Maria Straten, to explain what was going on, and she said, “Nobody’s firing you, please come and work in Los Angeles.” She was an amazing woman — a total inspiration and a fabulous role model. She had two kids, went back to work when they were about a minute old and had — from the outside, at least — an amazing marriage and amazing kids. I had a great experience working in that office.
I’m impressed. I think it’s hard. Ideally, it wouldn’t be necessary, and both parents would be encouraged, or at least allowed, to stay home with their kids.
Part of the problem is the organic cookies, right? I once got an email from a woman at my kids’ school saying something like, “For teacher appreciation day, you’re assigned to muffins and everything has to be home-baked.” I called her and said, “This is incredibly sexist and classless. It’s very possible that there are lots of homes in which there’s no stay-at-home mom or dad who can bake and do all that stuff. And frankly, you don’t want my muffins. You want the beautiful muffins and morning buns that I buy from La Farine.” To her credit, she responded, “Oh my God, you’re so right. It’s just fine for the stuff to be store-bought. Any way in which you could show appreciation would be wonderful.” That moment of consciousness-raising was inspired by my incapacity for muffin baking, or maybe my unwillingness to devote the time to making the muffins. I will say, however, that when my son announced he wanted caramel cupcakes and that his class had a no-sugar rule. I did bake agave-sweetened cupcakes for 25 kids. So, I have my moments.
There’s great research about how today, women with full-time jobs spend more time with their children than stay-at-home moms did in the ’70s, when motherhood was not a competitive sport. I don’t have any sociological basis for this, but I do have elaborate conspiracy theories that it’s not a coincidence that work became a 24/7 thing and the demands of motherhood became excessive when women entered the workforce in great numbers. It’s not enough to send your kids out the door. You have to personally monitor every interaction they have with other children and pieces of playground equipment.
That as women gained more power in the workplace, the patriarchy made the workplace less accommodating to women and families. My dad came home from work every day at six o’clock. When the train pulled in the Ridgewood, New Jersey, station, it was full of commuter dads. I would bet money that the six o’clock train pulling into Ridgewood today wouldn’t have a whole lot of dads. The 8:30 train, maybe that one would be full of dads. The workweek has expanded and motherhood demands a multitude of sacrifices. And to what end? Are children today so much happier and more successful than their predecessors? Anyone who spends time with college freshmen would tell you that the answer to that is a resounding no. I’m just talking out of my ass here, because I haven’t studied this. I think one probably shouldn’t talk out one’s ass when one doesn’t know anything, but I’m going to anyway. I think that the helicopter and bulldozer parenting that I have engaged in — I’m as guilty as anybody else — has backfired and made our children more fragile, less competent, less capable of tolerating challenge, less capable of sacrificing their own immediate needs for other people. I think my kids are more fragile than I was at their age. I try to give my kids more independence or, to use Lenore Skenazy’s phrase, “free-range kids.” Even before she wrote that book, Michael was giving lectures about how kids should be allowed to go out and play. Our kids do, and there’s no one for them to play with out in this beautiful, natural neighborhood. But nonetheless, I’d been bulldozing a path for my kids, and it’s so hard to step off.
Everybody thinks that I don’t love my children. Well, of course that’s not true. I spend as much time as anybody else worrying about my kids, doing things for my kids, freaking out about my kids and thinking about my kids. Bad Mother is about accepting your limitations and your failures, not berating yourself. I have ideas about what kind of mother I should be, and then I fail at being that kind of mother. I fail at forgiving myself for my failures, too. For example, my son recently had two papers due and was panicking because he was afraid that he wasn’t going to get them in on time. He asked if he could stay home from school to work on them. A year ago, I probably would’ve said yes, helped him brainstorm a topic, sat with him while he looked for quotes, asked him if he needed edits, given it a quick proofread for spelling mistakes and all that crap. This time, my husband was like, “No, we’re going to let him fail.” We’d never done that before, and he’s off to college next year. We both responded, “You have to go to school. You’ll do the papers and if you get a bad grade, you get a bad grade.” I had to suppress all of this anxiety to sit there and do it. Of course, he got the papers in — I don’t know what his grades are yet, but I’m sure they’re fine. But I have very protective impulses. If anybody says anything negative about my husband, I launch into crazy pit bull mode, and the same is true of my kids.
The thing I’m smug about is definitely my marriage, which is much less about me than it is about Michael. I just happened to be lucky enough to fall in love with this remarkable man. He is absolutely a committed feminist, a completely equal partner. He does more of the parenting than I do. He’s devoted, and makes me feel great about myself. It boggles my mind. I see the smugness now when I read that article. But I think it’s tempered by the fact that I feel like I won the lottery. You can be smug about winning the lottery, but all you did was buy a ticket. Perhaps the criticism is jealousy? I’d be jealous of me if I weren’t married to him.
I think everybody can have an egalitarian marriage if they demand it and choose a partner wisely. If your boyfriend doesn’t define himself as a feminist, keep shopping. If a man has a problem with the word feminist, there is going to be a problem.
As far as I’m concerned, the word feminist simply means that you believe that women have an equal right to all the privileges that men have, all the rights that men have and all the obligations that men have. It’s as simple as that. My advice to my daughters is to only go out with a guy who says he’s a feminist. That can’t be your only criteria — we’ve all met the guy in the pro-choice T-shirt who is at the Take Back the Night march just to get laid — but that’s your first bar.
That’s one worry that I have. I want my kids to have really nice standards in terms of how they’re treated in a relationship. But every once in a while, I get an email from someone who says, “I’m miserable. My parents’ marriage is like yours, and I’ve never found anybody to love me like that.” That freaks me out. On the other hand, it’s not like our marriage is perfect. We fight, we have plenty of difficulties, we go to therapy. We work on it all the time. I hope seeing that we work so hard at our marriage — which we do visibly in front of our children — is inspiring in another way.
Well, I do have some advice. Take it with a grain of salt because all I ever do is fail to follow my advice. Not every kid is going to be a concert pianist. Not every kid is going to be a soccer champion. You have to decide what you’re going to do with your day. Something has to give. I actually think it’s better for kids to be under-scheduled rather than over-scheduled. I think the pressure we put on ourselves, and our children, to be magnificent successes contributes to our misery. However, there’s a caveat to that. There was this little squib — in New York Magazine, I think — after the Amy Chua, Tiger Mom piece: “Where is the Tiger Mom’s perfect daughter going to college? Harvard. Where is your (meaning the reader’s) active, sleepover-attending, drama club–joining daughter going? Wesleyan.” My daughter had just decided to go to Wesleyan. And I was like, “Well, there you go.” So, if your goal is Harvard, don’t listen to my advice. I think, in the long run, my kid’s going to be happier. But, again, I’ve never sat in the audience of Carnegie Hall watching my kid on stage.