Appropriately, a helpful list of books covering the subject of motherhood was published the other day…on my due date, in fact… (Which has now past. Clock is ticking people. And seriously, don’t get me started…) I was in the middle of drafting my own list (assuming I am blessed with the kind of magic baby that sleeps every once in a while so that I can keep up with my current pile of novels…) and though there was some overlap, I wasn’t terribly interested in non-fiction. To be fair, I am very rarely interested in the world of non-fiction as it is. But it’s also worth considering how little motherhood makes it into fiction, in any way that is not purely metaphoric. The Oedipal relationship, the Ogresse in the woods, the Wicked Step-Mother, the GoodKindMother who is usually killed off fairly soon…
Very few people seem to really explore things like ambivalence, terror, passion, yearning… That is to say, things that mothers themselves feel rather than things that mothers represent to everyone around them.
And while the vastly complex and destabilizing experience of being a mother is often portrayed in non-fiction, (sometimes by fiction writers), it is not often the territory of story. For example, Madeleine L’Engle has written extensively on motherhood, and most of it (if you can kind of get around the very religious bits which, I’ll admit, make me somewhat uncomfortable) is composed of brilliant confessional. Another example is Shirley Jackson, whose Life Among the Savages was kept in my family’s library next to the parenting manuals. It is also one of the funniest things I’ve ever read, which is surprising for an author so famous for horror.
If we know anything about women writers who are themselves mothers – those we might expect to compellingly take on the subject – we often know that they are brilliant intellectuals, but very poor maternal figures. Nobel Prize winner Doris Lessing suffered from such a reputation.
Furthermore, if we know anything about fictional mothers, we know it from the perspective of the daughter, and daughters are often immensely unkind.
So given all of that, I wanted to go ahead and write a few words about my motherhood reading list in the event that some of you were out there searching for it.
First, I’m looking forward to reading Elisa Albert’s recent After Birth, just to see what kind of book this might be. I’m also curious as to how she works with the theme of domestic life. We’ve reached this point where the home space – the space of the mother – is an ideological combat zone. Staying at home or flying the maternal nest both require an immense amount of justification. I’m wondering if her book – which begins a year after the birth of the main character’s child – really does give birth to a “wet, red, slimy, alive…truth baby” as the NYTimes claimed in this promising review. I’m hoping that Fiction – which can tell the truth – will prevail here in cutting through all the fictions – lies – of motherhood that are currently infiltrating the zeitgeist.
Now, I had of course thought about Little Women, followed up by Little Men. Let’s face it. You cannot read these books enough. And I figure that the madness known only to mothers of newborns – from the paranoid house fire fantasies to the baby blues to that moment when you (so I’ve heard) actually want to throw your kid out of a window because it won’t stop crying – could be significantly calmed by the likes of Marmee. Come…on…who doesn’t want to be Marmee? Don’t we ALL think we’re going to grow up and have either a houseful of young women whom we raise to be stalwart, independent, good-hearted, thinking women? Or maybe we’re Jo, with a houseful of boys running around and getting into all kinds of mischief at Plumfield. (While also, ahem, having made a career for ourselves and married a man who truly appreciates our minds, thankyouverymuch.) Either way, these are the images of motherhood I was raised with.
HOWEVER, anyone who’s done their research knows that real lives upon which these novels were based, that is to say the strange and often weary life of Louisa May Alcott and her family, was not so pretty. Her father, Amos Bronson Alcott, basically spent the latter half of the nineteenth century dragging his family around from one harsh environment to another. He palled around with Emerson and Thoreau, but was a bit more extreme in his socialist/transcendentalist undertakings. And all the while, his wife Abigail (who had been very well educated, by the way) had to follow him around, doing his wash, cooking his clothes, and raising his children. But she herself was an interesting figure of ambivalent feminism and certainly ambivalent motherhood. So, with that in mind, I’m throwing Eve LaPlante’s Marmee & Louisa and My Heart is Boundless (Abigail’s journals) into the mix. It has always seemed to me that Louisa May Alcott lived the life that her mother encouraged her to live, but also lived a life that Abigail would have wanted for herself. I want to see if LaPlante explores that kind of mother-daughter transmission of ambition and longing at all…
[I was toying with the idea of doing a “mater in absentia” double feature with Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying and Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse but I don’t think those would be at all emotionally grounding in the postpartum days to come, as interesting as those mothers are… However that might be someone else’s cup of tea…]
Speaking of Doris Lessing, The Golden Notebook is definitely on the list. I’ve been meaning to read it for years, and am almost glad that I let it go until now, based on these remarks alone. What I find so interesting, and also terribly disheartening, is the way that we are still having the same “Can I have it all?” conversation that women have been engaged in for the last century and possibly longer. The protagonist, Anna, has a privately written life spread between four different colored notebooks, meant to span the four different sectors or themes of her life. The golden notebook is her attempt to resolve them. And isn’t that what we all – but particularly women (mothers or not) – are forced to do? Piece ourselves out fourfold and then attempt to make coherent sense of the pieces?
[If you, reader, are in the mood to continue with some Nobel Prize-winning South Africans, maybe follow this up with J. M. Coetzee’s Elizabeth Costello. I have zero interest in rereading this book (I didn’t like it at all) but it is considered by others to be a pretty good read. (This is also where Coetzee makes his famous eating meat=Nazism argument.) I also have this vague idea that the eponymous character, a writer and neglectful mother, is at least a little bit based on Lessing…]
Okay, and finally, in honor of his recent passing, I plan to read Terry Pratchett’s posthumously published The Sheperd’s Crown. Here’s the deal, haters gonna hate, but Pratchett’s witches are some of the most delightful maternal figures I have ever encountered. The relationships that protagonist Tiffany Aching forms with her magical mentors in the three proceeding books (The Wee Free Men, Hat Full of Sky, and I Shall Wear Midnight) are really enjoyable and I’ll tell you why. The older witches and their novice trainees are not nice to each other. They are proud and competitive and annoyed with each other, all of this combined with an inexhaustable wellspring of respect. If that’s not a great (but also truthful) mother-daughter relationship, I don’t know what is.
What’s interesting about these substitute mother figures in Tiffany Aching’s life is that they are not filling in for an absent mother who died tragically. Tiffany has a mother, with whom she gets along in a basically loving sort of way, though we don’t hear much about it because it’s not terribly interesting. But there’s more to Pratchett than you think. (Again, haters gonna hate, psh.) I would say that the living mother is in some way a subversion of the absent mother trope. And in the way that good YA literature tends to choose honesty over symbolism, I think here is where a literary choice is made to represent reality. Of course Tiffany Aching has to in some way incorporate the real mother (domestic life, origins, family structure) with the mother figure (ambition/career, exotic places/ideas, professional structure), because that’s far closer to real life. So in this final novel of the Discworld series (hello, historic moment) Tiffany herself grows fully into her own as a witch/maternal figure. This transition from daughter/novice to mother/expert should be interesting…
Anyway, here I go – happy reading to youuu!