We need to talk about motherhood

The ideal mother looms large in art and popular culture, from the ubiquitous image of Mary cradling Baby Jesus to the modern day supermum.

In literature, motherhood is not always depicted in such a rosy light. While the loving, generous and nurturing ideal of motherhood might be present, so are depictions of mothers who are cruel, ambivalent and selfish.

When discussing flawed motherhood, it is hard not to refer to We Need to Talk About Kevin. Lionel Shriver’s depiction of a woman who struggles in her role as a mother, even doubting her ‘maternal instincts’ prior to her son’s birth. Her words and thoughts are notably free of maternal warmth and affection: “Now that children don’t till your fields or take you in when you’re incontinent, there is no sensible reason to have them, and it’s amazing that with the advent of effective contraception anyone chooses to reproduce at all.”

We Need to Talk About Kevin turns on its head the dominant narrative, in media and in art, of motherhood as being a natural state of selflessness and generosity, of the woman being the mother above all else. Shriver presents a far more complex, challenging and confronting representation.
Similarly, although written almost as a farce, Ian McEwen touches on the ambiguity of motherhood in Nutshell. Narrated by a foetus, squeezed sometimes uncomfortably into his mother’s womb, the book provides insight into the thoughts and words of the mother. To the foetus, it appears that the mother, of highly dubious character, wants to dump her baby once he is born. Despite knowing about this plan, and her numerous other flaws, the narrator finds himself irresistibly drawn to her, willing to forgive her errors and misjudgements in the name of unconditional love.

The humour of the book serves as an antidote to the pathos of the situation, in which the unwanted baby is willing to forgive all for an indifferent mother. The book was based on Hamlet, which also features a mother who is considered to be shallow and selfish. Although Shakespeare’s Gertrude does display love and affection for her son, despite the questionable decisions she has made.

Motherhood is revealed in all of its complexity in Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout. Olive is the mother of a child who is desperately loved, despite the disappointment he caused her when he moved away with his wife, rejecting the house that his mother and father had prepared for him. The reason behind this rejection becomes clear later when Olive finally gets the opportunity to spend time with her son, but behaves badly. Old patterns of behaviour emerge, and the reader comes to understand why Olive’s son might have chosen to move away from his parents; a mother who is unable to control her impulses, despite her desire to be close to her son.

It is the tension between Olive’s desires and her behaviour that is so captivating in Strout’s novel; tension that might be familiar to mothers, or anyone else for that matter. The mother yearns for her son’s love, yet inexplicably pushes it away when she has a chance to win it. While the son is just as willing to build a better relationship with his mother, he is thwarted again and again by her behaviour.

A clue to this behaviour lies in Strout’s words:

“You couldn’t make yourself stop feeling a certain way, no matter what the other person did. You had to just wait. Eventually the feeling went away because others came along. Or sometimes it didn’t go away but got squeezed into something tiny, and hung like a piece of tinsel in the back of your mind.”

The Man Who Loved Children famously exposes a dysfunctional family, with a narcissistic father at its centre. However, the figure of the mother (Henny) is also revealed as being flawed, as she swings between being fond and maternal, to impatient and occasionally cruel. In a way, Henny is an extreme version of the very thing many mothers dread — irrational and unpredictable — attempting to be the kind of mother she wants to be in the face of a starker reality of a toxic marriage and her own inadequacies.

Alongside images of flawed mothers, literature also explores the absent mother, and the impact of this absence on her children. In Burial Rites, Hannah Kent writes about Agnes, a woman sentenced to capital punishment due to her role in a crime that was committed. However, in presenting a full picture of Agnes’s life, including being rejected by her mother when she was six years old, Kent alludes to the conditions which were influential in shaping her actions and her circumstances. It wasn’t just her maternal rejection that was instrumental in forming Agnes, but the implications of that rejection in the community at the time.

Last weekend at Clunes Booktown, Kent spoke about the importance of kinship in navigating the brutal conditions faced by those living in Iceland at the time of the novel (1829), and the difficulties that arose from being without family, describing these characters as “untethered”.

In Jane Eyre, the absence of a mother (and father) also plays a defining role in the title character’s life. After the death of both of her parents, Jane is placed with a cruel aunty, who reluctantly took on her care after making a dying promise to her father. In her aunty’s house, Jane is unhappy and mistreated, with her life completely in the hands of a malevolent relative. Interestingly, while the aunt dotes on her own children, this behaviour does not ultimately serve her children well, and can later be recognised by the reader as another of her flaws.

Since becoming a mother, I have come to appreciate more and more the diverse, complex depictions of motherhood in fiction. As much as the ideal mother is, and should be, celebrated, it is also valuable to see the different forms that motherhood can take. Motherhood is individual and complex, riddled with errors and missteps, alongside the many moments of joy and affection, and hopefully, a touch of the ideal.

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