The experience of motherhood is such a rich seam of material that writers are always mining it in new and creative ways. Every relationship between mother and child is different and it is one of my favourite subjects in fiction, because of that variety but also because of the emotional complexity. Without my mum I wouldn’t have my love of literature. It was mum who taught me to read. She always had books around the house and took us to the local library to borrow books and explore whatever we wanted to read. I’m so proud of my mum, that despite being unable to finish her secondary education, she has always loved literature and writes beautiful poetry. She introduced me to classics through her book collection and through film adaptations that she enjoyed. I watched D.H.Lawrence adaptations Women in Love and The Virgin and the Gypsy, the Thomas Hardy adaptations of Tess and Far From the Madding Crowd with Alan Bates, and the beautiful 1970s adaptation of L.P. Hartley’s The Go Between starring Julie Christie, which I still love to this day. Thanks to her I was introduced to Du Maurier, Mary Webb and the beauty (rather than the sensationalism) of Lady Chatterley’s Lover. These days she is the first person I would take to see a literary film and the first member of my book club. She is endlessly understanding, encouraging and doesn’t judge me whatever I do. My own experience with motherhood has been a difficult one, so when choosing the mothers for this post I wanted to include the tougher parts of being and becoming a mum. Happy Mother’s Day to all of you mums, step mums, adoptive mums, fosterers and those whose babies have angel wings. I hope you all have a wonderful day celebrating the love you all have for your children and the love they have for you.
The Ideal Mum. Marmee from Little Women.
“Money is a needful and precious thing,—and, when well used, a noble thing,—but I never want you to think it is the first or only prize to strive for. I’d rather see you poor men’s wives, if you were happy, beloved, contented, than queens on thrones, without self- respect and peace.”
Marmee is the sort of literary mum who gives the reader a great big hug from within the pages. Yes her Christian values are a little out of step with today’s society, but if you listen to her wisdom such as the quote above there’s still so much to take away from it. She’s teaching her girls that however much you have, you’ll be richer by sharing it with someone else. I love that she allows her girls the freedom to explore who they are, especially Jo who doesn’t dress like other girls, uses slang and is always running, leaping over gates and climbing down the drainpipe. She even allows her a relationship with Laurie from next door that’s very close and ignores the society gossips who think she’s hoping to make a rich match for her daughter. Marmee knows that Laurie respects her and her daughters. She teaches the girls to be charitable, and not just with material things but with time and commitment. She’s incredible with her advice, her time and her love. Most of all though, she influences them by example; one of my favourites is when she tells Jo about her own terrible temper and her attempts to master it. Her relationship with Jo evolves into a friendship as Jo becomes older and has returned home to nurse her sister Beth. They have a frank discussion about Laurie, now in Europe on his Grand Tour, and Jo doesn’t hold back. She admits that were Laurie to return and ask her to marry him a second time she might say yes, not because her feelings for him have changed but because she cares more about being loved these days. Loss and loneliness have made Jo appreciate what he was offering, and I love that the only person she shares this with is her mum.
The Feminist Mum. Pauline Mole from Adrian Mole’s Diaries.
“All under-fives are mad Adrian, you used to talk to the moon. You invited it to your birthday party and cried when it didn’t turn up.” George: “When it went dark and the moon came up, you ran outside and threw a sausage roll at it!”
I don’t think we can call Pauline Mole an ideal mum, but she is more realistic and probably one of the funniest mums in literature. Adrian despairs of his parents, in fact at one point he’s so disillusioned that he observes he wouldn’t be surprised if his father turned out to be a Russian agent and his mother ran off with a circus knife thrower. I always remember when Adrian’s father George gives him some sage advice about matters of the heart. He suggests that before he even thinks about marrying a woman, he should live with her and if she leaves her knickers on the floor for more than three days not to bother. There are the romantic entanglements, first with Mr (Ratfink) Lucas and then with Ivan Braithwaite father of Pandora. However, she does end up in a cottage caring for George after he’s had a stroke. She has a feminist awakening in the 1980’s when she organises a trip for ladies in the close to Greenham Common. They come back awakened and are keeping Adrian awake singing ‘We Shall Overcome’ till the wee small hours. She even names Adrian’s baby sister Rosie Germaine Mole after reading The Female Eunuch. Despite having an ideal son called Brett Mole in her head she does love her son and is there whenever something goes badly wrong. She collects him when everything goes wrong after his brief stint as a celebrity chef. When Adrian is ill in the final diary of the series, she is the one who drives him to hospital every day and nurses him at home too after his wife leaves. Despite making mistakes with each other, mother and son do stick together.
The Unexpected Mum. Marilla Cuthbert from Anne of Green Gables.
I loved Anne of Green Gables when I was younger and even now, if this particular adaptation of the books is on I do watch, because I love this depiction of the rather severe Marilla, a woman who never expected to be a mum. Marilla and Matthew Cuthbert are brother and sister, running a farm together on Prince Edward Island in Canada. They decide to apply for an orphan, a boy who will be able to help them with the farm work as Matthew gets older. Yet, when Matthew goes to the train station to collect their new charge he finds a freckle faced, red headed girl with two pigtails and a hot temper. Being soft hearted and not knowing what to do, he takes her home to Marilla. I love how Marilla has no idea what to do with Anne Shirley, in fact at first she wants Matthew to return her, but she slowly thaws towards this unexpected girl who tries her patience terribly. Marilla is an old maid so has never expected to be a mum, especially not to the dreamy and clumsy Anne. Marilla can seem harsh and has just as hot a temper as Anne does, but slowly she learns to love the girl she wanted to send back and watching Anne love Marilla, knocking off her harsh edges, is so heart-warming. As an unexpected step mum myself I do have a soft spot for this particular woman, who it turns out had missed her one chance of love and a family many years before.
The Mum Who Will Do Anything. Veronica Murphy from This Is How We Are Human.
Louise Beech’s novel was one of my favourite books of last year and the story has stayed with me, because its hard not to fall in love with Sebastian Murphy and the lengths Veronica will go to for her child are incredible. As mum to a son with autism, Veronica is used to having an unconventional relationship. She knows everything about her son: his schedule, favourite music, the way he likes his eggs. She expected questions about relationships as he got older, but is a bit shocked when he tells her he’d like to have sex. She’s helped him negotiate everything else in his world. Should she help with this and how would she go about it? This is a mum who has tried to insulate her son from all the difficulties he might face in the world. He loves swimming and he still goes to the same swimming group he did when he was eight. He doesn’t like change so Veronica fixed it for him, so how is she going to cope now he’s entering into an area of life there’s no control over? Her solution might shock some people, she decides to meet with a sex worker with the name of Violetta. Violetta is working to pay for student loans and for her father’s care. He is affected by a stroke and wanted to rehabilitate at home rather than a nursing home. Veronica makes an agreement: a set time every week for Sebastian to spend time with Violetta. However, Veronica is worried about him becoming too attached, what if his emotions bleed into the arrangement? These three people will affect each other in unexpected ways and its just possible that Veronica has underestimated her son. A beautiful, moving story about the things we do for people in the name of love, and a depiction of a mother who’s far from conventional, but is determined that her child will be happy.
Mums in Waiting. Zoe Baxter from Sing You Home.
Zoe and Max Baxter are having problems in their marriage, after a ten years struggle with infertility. They have frozen embryos stored at a medical facility, but since every attempt has so far failed they are left heartbroken. They are struggling to grieve together and with heavy hearts agree to separate. Max finds consolation in God and joins an evangelical church, soon making friends and finding support. Zoe’s life starts to change unexpectedly when a new colleague starts at the school. Zoe works with the students using music therapy, so she works in close contact with the new school counsellor Vanessa. They form a friendship, but much to Zoe’s surprise their feelings start to deepen. Zoe finds herself falling in love and coming into conflict with her ex-husband’s new born-again Christian views. So, when Vanessa and Zoe discuss starting a family, and she approaches Max about their remaining embryos, it’s no surprise to find he’s resistant to the idea. Those three embryos are Zoe’s final chance to have her own biological children and her desperation is understandable. However, doesn’t Max have a right not to become a father, especially in circumstances he doesn’t agree with? As the two become embroiled in a court battle for rights to the embryos, Max makes it clear he believes Zoe and Vanessa’s relationship to be an aberration. Zoe is not going to give up her right to be a mother without a fight. As a woman who has Hughes Syndrome, I know the heartbreak of being unable to have your own children. The treatment for Hughes meant given up a lot of the medication for my Multiple Sclerosis and then medicating to thin my blood for three months before any attempt to conceive. I decided with a heavy heart that perhaps motherhood was something I wouldn’t experience. Twenty years later I’m an unexpected step mum and love the challenge of helping to raise two teenage girls. I believe motherhood is a gift and not a right, and although I don’t agree with Max’s views on same sex relationships, I can understand his reticence to become a father with Zoe after their split. It’s a tough, complicated court case and I seemed to changed my mind with every chapter.
Complicated Mums. Eva from We Need To Talk About Kevin, Sethe from Beloved, and Leda from The Lost Daughter.
Of course all mother-child relationships are complicated, but these are a little more complicated than most. In The Lost Daughter we are on holiday with Leda, who is taking a break alone in Italy. As she lies on the beach reading each day she notices the mother-daughter relationship between young mum Nina and her daughter Elena. Slow and unsettling, her observance of this relationship opens up her relationship with her own daughters. In watching Nina’s motherhood she is taken back to when her own daughters were young. She sees the ideal of motherhood as a performance, a performance she didn’t want to undertake. There are echoes of problematic motherhood throughout this novella. Leda’s own mother threatens to leave her, but is that any better than leaving without warning, like Leda did? When Elena loses her doll, Leda finds it and does perform those simple tasks of caring for it, the washing and drying are soothing when the recipient is silent and lifeless. Leda explores that pull between career and motherhood dragging her in two different directions, but also that feeling of giving herself so wholly to the care of others that she loses who she is. The whole book is claustrophobic, Nina’s family feel threatening but for no specific reason and Leda’s anxious introspection adds to the tension. This is a dark and brutally realistic look at motherhood with an intelligent grasp of intergenerational trauma.
In Beloved we are introduced to Sethe, a freed slave who escaped the plantation named Sweet Home and found a home with her mother-in-law Baby Suggs. Sethe lives with an ailing Baby Suggs, her daughter Denver, the dog and the angry ghost who has been haunting their home for most of that time. Toni Morrison explores so many complex mother-child relationships through Sethe. How do you feel about those children who were taken from you? How do you mother the children forced on you? How do you mother the ghost child whose so angry with you they won’t let you live in peace? Sethe has learned to live alongside the baby ghost and the guilt of killing her with the handsaw from the shed, rather than see her suffer the slavery Sethe escaped. The baby’s headstone simply reads Beloved, but that mother’s love is tested when a young woman turns up at the door claiming that she is Sethe’s lost daughter. This young woman is the embodiment of all Beloved’s fury and she slowly encircles Sethe, demanding her attention and love while excluding her daughter Denver. Beloved ruins Sethe’s fledgling relationship with another escapee of Sweet Home. She is a parasite who won’t be satisfied until she has consumed her mother. This is a genuinely scary ghost story, but the real horror lies in the history of slavery and Sethe’s experiences before her escape. We are never sure whether the young woman is Beloved, a demon or a manifestation of Sethe’s own guilt.
One of the most complicated mother and child relationships I’ve ever read is that between Eva and her son in Lionel Shriver’s We Need To Take About Kevin. The most brilliant thing about this story is how ambiguous it is; is Eva a terrible mother who creates a monster or is Eva correct in her belief that Kevin is born a monster. Shriver brilliantly portrays their relationship from Kevin’s birth onwards, but always in Eva’s voice. As she portrays events from his early years the reader is left to make their own judgement of his actions. Persistent crying is something most parents experience, but in Eva’s eyes this is a battle of wills and Kevin wants to break her. I veer between feeling suspicious of Eva and terribly sorry for her. Even if Kevin is just the average baby, Eva is clearly exhausted and not coping but her husband just doesn’t see it. He believes Kevin is just a normal, exhausting, baby and Eva is overreacting, but never seems to think Kevin might come to harm despite his wife’s feelings about their son. Interspersed with these difficult early years is Eva’s present day situation dealing with the aftermath of an horrific mass murder. Cleverly, Shriver keeps the tension going, in fact it seems to be heightened as Eva takes us back to situations from Kevin’s earlier life that seem to foreshadow his murderous tendencies – there’s a scene with eyes and lychees that completely turns my stomach. Despite being completely unnerved by her son, Eva is constant. Her husband convinces her to have a second child, a daughter who she’s sure will be Kevin’s victim. Yet despite Kevin’s actions she never walks away. I guess its up to the reader as to whether that’s a good thing or not.
Mums That Make Me Cry. Rachel in Everything Happens For A Reason and Jess in I Wanted You To Know.
In her debut novel Everything Happens For A Reason Kate serves up raw emotional honesty in her character Rachel, whose son Luke was stillborn. When a well-meaning but thoughtless woman tells her ‘everything happens for a reason’ Rachel becomes obsessed with finding that reason. She is deranged by grief and feels that Luke’s death must be her fault, so she fixates on an incident from earlier in her pregnancy, when she stopped a man from jumping in front of a train. What if stopping that man from killing himself meant that her child died? She becomes determined to find him, enlisting the help of an underground worker Lola and her daughter, Josephine. I lost several pregnancies in my late twenties, so this was a tough read in parts, particularly the insensitivity of well meaning family and friends. I remember some of the most painful things said to me, were from people who meant well. I also recognised the endless questions that Rachel subjects herself to and the endless turmoil – marking milestones, imagining her child’s lost future, the complete emptiness and inability to feel or reach him after nine months of him being part of her. There were times when standing a room of people when I wanted to scream out loud. To communicate some of how it felt inside. I was so glad Kate wrote this novel because it made me feel like a mother. Everyone has always thought of me as childless, whether by choice or not, whereas I felt like a mum. A mum who had lost her children.
In her third novel I Wanted You To Know Laura Pearson tells her story in a series of letters, letters written by Jess to her daughter Edie. Jess didn’t expect to be negotiating life as a single mother. She certainly didn’t expect to be juggling a newborn and cancer treatment. This part of life is meant to be a beginning, not an ending. Not knowing how much time she has left and full of all the wisdom she wanted to give her daughter at different times in her life, Jess starts to write letters for Edie. Dear Edie, I wanted you to know so many things. I wanted to tell you them in person, as you grew. But it wasn’t to be. This novel is a real heartbreaker as Jess has to decide who she wants to be there for her daughter and what she would want her to know about school, leaving home, getting her first boyfriend and becoming a mum. Yet, it never feels maudlin, just real, raw and honest. I can’t imagine how terrifying it must be to become aware that the most precious thing in your life will have to grow up without you. What I love most about the book is the way the author avoids making Jess a saintly figure. When I think about the book I’m blown away by this woman’s practicality and courage, but it’s done in such an understated way.