The petite redhead in the oversize Superman T-shirt shepherding two small children across a rocky Maine beach has none of the hallmarks of the terrible mother she is reputed, in some circles, to be. Ayelet Waldman, vacationing with her husband, novelist Michael Chabon, and two of their four children, has a refrigerator full of organic hamburger waiting for dinner at their rented farmhouse; she's just arranged for the new Harry Potter book to be delivered to their two older children at camp. True, she refuses to play the ''soul-sucking death torture'' game of Candy Land, but that hardly makes this veteran carpooler Mommie Dearest. Nonetheless, over the last few months, complete strangers have informed Waldman that she has no business raising children.
Until this spring, Waldman, 40, was best known as the author of the effervescent Mommy-Track mysteries, in which former lawyer and stay-at-home mom Juliet Applebaum juggles breast pumping and sleuthing the latest, The Cradle Robbers, lands in stores this month. Then, in March, Waldman asserted in a New York Times essay that her post-kid sex life remains ''vital, even torrid'' because, unlike many mothers, she is in love with her spouse, not her kids. Waldman's money quote: ''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.''
Three weeks later, she was on Oprah's couch fending off a posse of irate females. ''It was terrifying,'' says Waldman, who, in person, is witty, profane, and compulsively candid. ''They'd assembled all these women and one of them was shouting 'Let me at her, let me at her.' Oy. I got letters from people saying 'Amen, sister,' and from men who were getting laid for the first time in 10 years. But you only feel the negative stuff.''
Waldman, a self-described exhibitionist who lives in Berkeley, Calif., has courted some of that ''negative stuff.'' In her column in the online magazine Salon, Waldman has written about her bipolar disorder, a second-trimester abortion (the fetus had a genetic abnormality), and her fond hope that her older son turns out gay. How does the more reserved Chabon feel about his family's newfound notoriety? ''I would prefer not to have any scrutiny, public or private,'' says the Pulitzer winner. ''On the other hand, I'm in favor of people standing up and saying things no one is saying. Some people can do it, some can't and I'm glad she can.''
Born in Israel and raised in New Jersey, Waldman met Chabon 13 years ago on a blind date; they were engaged three weeks later. When their first child, Sophie, arrived in 1994, Chabon stayed home while Waldman kept her job as an attorney. ''It's easy to be hot for someone who does 50 percent of the child care,'' says Waldman of Chabon. ''A lot of the lovely, lovely men I went to college with the ones who were banging the drum at the 'Take Back the Night' marches have transformed themselves into 1950s husbands.''