In Ayelet Waldman's world, bad parenting kills. In Nursery Crimes, her first mystery novel, the murder victim is a daycare director who neglects her own daughter. In the second novel, The Big Nap, an overbearing Hasidic father's insistence on an arranged marriage leads to his daughter's murder. A Playdate with Death features an abandoned child, a genetic disease, and a mother's unequal love for her children, and the newest (and longest) in the Mommy Track series, Death Gets a Time-Out, involves a death in which the prime suspects are all related.
Murder mysteries have often involved dysfunctional families. What Waldman's mysteries add to the mix is a detective, Juliet Applebaum, who is herself a mother, caring for two small children as she explores the family secrets of her Los Angeles milieu. The character reflects on her own status as a parent as she uncovers the failures of parenting all around her.
The cases Applebaum investigates involve victims who are victims twice over -- abandoned or neglected by their parents before they are killed, or become killers themselves. Their stories also resonate with issues in Applebaum's life as a mother: as she investigates (in Playdate with Death) the shooting of her personal trainer, she agonizes over her small son's fascination with guns. Her young Hasidic babysitter's disappearance, in The Big Nap, leads her to investigate her commitment to her family's Jewish heritage along with that of the Hasidic communities of Brooklyn and Los Angeles.
Applebaum bears a decided resemblance to her creator. Like Applebaum, Waldman is a former federal public defender turned stay-at-home mother. Like Applebaum, Waldman is married to a writer (in Waldman's case, Pulitzer prize-winner Michael Chabon). Like Applebaum, Waldman found staying at home with children isolating and boring.
It's a story Waldman has often told. After her second child, Isaac, was born, she decided to become a law professor, so she could live a less crazy life and have more time. She got a part-time gig teaching law school. But every time she sat down to work on her law review article -- a necessity for tenure -- "it was a catastrophic experience." She found herself unable to write, uninterested in or intimidated by the academic approach to legal issues she still cared passionately about. So, in 1995, she decided to take a few years off and be a stay-home mom. "That lasted about a minute," she says. "Seriously. I mean, I did it, I stayed home, but I got depressed. Definitely depressed. So I started writing while my son was taking his naps to make myself feel better about what I was doing."
Writing, like detecting, requires dedication and a certain amount of intensity. Waldman has admitted that she is ambitious -- as a Harvard law school grad and former federal defender, how could she not be -- and in the early days of her marriage, she and Chabon always assumed she would be the breadwinner. Staying home with the children meant giving up the income and the professional status that she had as a lawyer. Through her characters, Waldman now can explore her ambivalence about such life choices or expose the failures of high-powered parenting. The daycare director of Nursery Crimes, for instance, cares for the children of the rich and famous but ignores and neglects her own daughter.
The novels don't simplistically suggest that being a professional destroys families, however. In Playdate, the most recent novel, the abandoning mother is a stay-at-home mom. It's not whether mom stays at home or goes out to work, then, but how well she knows her children that makes the difference.
Waldman herself, who juggles childcare with writing, whose children spend their days in school, with nannies, in a patchwork of caregivers and family, does not apologize for her choices. Indeed, she seems now to revel in them. If she became a writer out of ambivalence and anxiety, she now embraces the life she and Chabon have been able to forge.
Waldman and Chabon usually share their days with their four children: Sophie, Isaac, Rosie, and the new baby, Abraham. "I write in the morning and Michael writes at night," she says. "So I get up with the kids, do all the morning stuff, and then I basically write from carpool to carpool. And Michael wakes up at midday, and we get together over our work -- my lunch, his breakfast. We hash out work problems over lunch. I'm having trouble with this character, I don't like this page. Whatever. And then we're with the kids together in the afternoon. Always. So that's really great. Michael does the nighttime routine, he puts the kids to bed, and in the evening we spend a couple more hours, just the two of us. And then he goes off to work and I go read in bed, which is how I get to read so much, since I go to bed alone."
I point out that they've nonetheless managed to produce plenty of children on this schedule, so something must be working right. We laugh. And then the phone goes dead. Waldman's waiting for a babysitter to call, someone who'll be caring for the kids while she and her husband travel to New York for a rare dual book tour.
It's not the babysitter, Waldman explains when I get her back on the line. "I think maybe the baby's on the extension." She sounds tired, a bit harried, but eager to talk about books and parenting, her dual obsessions.
The babysitter finally does call, and Waldman asks if she can call me back. "She's on a payphone in Vegas," Waldman admits. "And this is the person I'm leaving my children with?" She begins to write my article for me, moving into a somber, disapproving voice: "Ayelet Waldman leaves her children with a stripper from Vegas while she goes off to spend the week with her husband at the Pierre in New York..."
While she's enjoying her new life, she's still a bit ambivalent about the trips, the travel. She can joke, but the joke reveals an anxiety that's familiar to most mothers. "We all think we're bad mothers," Waldman says. "I know I do." Over a year ago, she says, her then eight-year-old daughter Sophie dropped the baby, Rosie, on her head, fracturing her skull. Rosie is now fine, but Waldman recalls telling the story at a reading: "A woman comes up to me afterwards and says, 'Ninety-eight percent of men in prison had serious falls as children -- you have to get her cranio-therapy...' And I think, she's going to jail, she's going to be a violent criminal, this is what I did. I take responsibility for the bad stuff. The good stuff, I think is just them, but I'm responsible for the bad stuff."
I suggest to her that the books express this, with their depictions of the failures of parenting. She agrees: "My fiction is all about being a bad mother. Even this new novel (Daughter's Keeper) is a bad mother, though it's more redemptive in the end." She explains that "I started to write a searing indictment of war on drugs -- a thing that I care a lot about -- and ended up writing a mother-daughter story, which goes to show that's all I care about really. It's a mother-daughter story against the backdrop of war on drugs."
"You think I'm working something out?" Waldman asks wryly. Perhaps. But more importantly for her readers, she's teasing out maybe the biggest issue for mothers of our time. It seems to me that she's asking: "How do I best care for my children and for myself? Are my needs at odds with theirs, or can we both develop fully, together?" These questions, implicit in the Mommy Track mysteries, come front and center in Daughter's Keeper. Towards the end of the novel, a central character reflects that "she had withheld herself ... as if mothering were itself a kind of mandatory minimum sentence, as if there were some minimum amount of love you were required to give your child, some minimum responsibility you were obliged to assume....She had never understood, until now, the fundamental truth: that the sentence of motherhood had no limit. There was no cap." In Daughter's Keeper, the female characters seem to know intuitively that learning how to mother is a central task. It's obviously been one for Waldman herself, testing the limits of love as she and Chabon parent their four children.
A version of this profile appeared in Brain, Child: The Magazine for Thinking Mothers, Spring 2003, and has been updated for publication here.