Somewhere along the way I saw Michael Chabon's essay collection Manhood for Amateurs: The Pleasures and Regrets of a Husband, Father, and Son discussed somewhere, so I thought I would give it a try.
There are a lot of modern novelists I can't stand, and Chabon is one of them. I have tried several times to get into The Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, and I just don't understand the appeal (or the story). So I did what I usually do: wait for said novelists to write an essay collection, and then I get them.
Chabon's greater theme is indeed "manhood," as far as it pertains to coming of age, fatherhood, past and present relationships, and work. There are some good essays here, with some humorous moments; in one, Chabon talks about taking his son grocery shopping, where another customer tells him he is a "good dad." He accepts that, but goes on to say:
"I don't know what a woman needs to do to impel a perfect stranger to inform her in the grocery store that she is a really good mom. Perhaps perform an emergency tracheotomy with a Bic pen on her eldest child while simultaneously nursing her infant and buying two weeks' worth of healthy but appealing breakfast snacks for the entire cast of Lion King, Jr. In a grocery store, no mother is good or bad; she is just a mother, shopping for her family. If she wipes her kid's nose of tear-stained cheeks, if she holds her kid tight, entertains her kid's nonsensical claims,buys her kid the organic non-GMO whole-grain version of Honey Nut Cheerios, it adds no useful data to our assessment of her...Good mothering is a long-term pattern, a lifelong trend of behaviors most of which go unobserved at the time by anyone, least of all the mother herself." (p. 12.)
I liked that. Very much, in fact. His chapters about being a father were my favorite, actually; other than that I could pretty much take him or leave him (which seemed about right, considering how I feel about his fiction).
As I was reading Chabon's book, I got the urge to read Ayelet Waldman's essay collection Bad Mother. I had read bits of it years ago, but never the whole thing, and I thought now might be a good time to revisit it, as Waldman is actually married to Chabon (and they have four kids). So then I re-read the Waldman.
What did I find in these two takes on the same married, with kids, writing lives? Well, I enjoyed them both, although bits of the Chabon felt a little like a slog sometimes (I was prepared to prefer the Waldman on length alone--her book is 208 pages to Chabon's 306, and I do like me a short book). But in the end? I would choose the Waldman as the more interesting and pertinent read (at least for my own reading preferences). I can sum up the difference in how they handle one story in particular.
At one point, Chabon alludes to the fact that he and his wife have been through both pregnancies and terminations, and leaves it at that, while Waldman devotes an entire chapter to their experience of having a pregnancy tested for genetic anomalies, finding evidence of one, and making the choice to terminate. I did not enjoy this chapter--I can certainly understand their choice but it makes me unhappy anyway--but at least Waldman spells it out for you. She engages with the unpalatable in a way that Chabon never really does. And that, if you must know, is how I see a lot of marriage, parenthood, relationships, what have you--staring the unpalatable in the face and then having the guts to tell the whole story afterwards. This is why I never mind when other women tell me their childbirth stories, horrific or otherwise. At least it seems honest. I never quite trust people who gloss over the big stuff, by saying things like "we've been through pregnancies and terminations."