In classic literature, good mothers are few and far between. Early novels centered on young women in search of marriage whose mothers were absent or inadequate, like the orphaned Jane Eyre or hysterical Mrs. Bennet of "Pride and Prejudice." It’s not until Toni Morrison’s 1987 "Beloved" that readers encounter a mother/child relationship from the mother’s perspective as an intense, fraught romance. “Your love is too thick,” says Sethe’s lover, Paul D., and he means for her daughters, not him.
Only since then, in the last 25 years,has there been much to choose from in the way of literary takes on and by mothers. Here, then, are three books by brilliant contemporary writers that delve into the joys and perils of maternity.
"Hey Yeah Right Get A Life," by Helen Simpson (2000)
For a more comic take on motherhood, you can’t do better than Simpson’s stories. The women are exhausted, the men insensitive, the teenagers narcissistic, and the children do things like shove lentils up their noses. In other words, they are painfully, laughably real.
Simpson’s stories should be required reading for anyone embarking on parenthood, capturing this generation’s painful choices between parenting and professional lives, but also the unique depth of love and odd intimacy mothering can generate – a fictional corollary to Jennifer Senior’s "All Joy and No Fun: The Paradox of Modern Parenthood."
In “Café Society,” two exhausted mothers try to connect through a conversation in a café, only to be perpetually interrupted by one of their toddlers. In “Getting a Life,” a stay-at-home mother makes her way through a day of chauffeuring her children to school, refereeing squabbles, making dinner, attempting to find an outfit that still fits her for an anniversary dinner and, after the fiasco of a dinner, gently cleaning up her son’s “sick” from his hair and tucking him into her side of the bed, where her husband won’t be disturbed.
Simpson is a master at recording the emotional currents of these desperate housewives and working mothers, yet shot through with a sense of wonder and humor.
"Room," by Emma Donoghue (2010)
The power of "Room" lies in the voice of its five-year old narrator, Jack, and the world he describes. Like the best gothic novels, "Room" dwells on the intersection between horror and the quotidian. The gothic, which is said to reflect our collective psyche, tends to show women who dread being trapped in the house (while the men fear being locked out). “Ma,” the young mother here, has been abducted and locked in a one-room house, her son Jack the product of her rape. The subject matter may seem sensational, but in fact, much of the novel represents the child’s eye view of life with a grotesquely stay-at-home mom. Donoghue shows all the quirks of their daily routine and the ways Ma tries to protect Jack, many of which are not so dissimilar from the average mom: negotiations over teeth brushing, how much TV he can watch and their physical intimacy – when Ma suggests they start to “skip” nursing “once in a while, now you’re five?” Jack responds adamantly, “No way, Jose.”
The magic of "Room" lies in how beautifully Donoghue portrays the intensity, even in the grimmest of circumstances, of the emotional connection between Jack and Ma – one any mother can appreciate.
"The Argonauts," by Maggie Nelson (2015)
To say "The Argonauts" is “about motherhood” would be reductive and not entirely accurate. Nelson’s memoir is a meditation on bodies and identities in flux. While her own body transforms with her pregnancy, that of her partner, Harry Dodge, transforms as “T” (testosterone) is injected into it, and these transitions in their bodies affect how the outside world perceives and treats them.
Pushing back against the tendency to sequester mothers and the domestic into a sentimental realm, separate from intellectual public spaces, Nelson explores what our culture’s philosophers and critics have to say about the maternal. But Nelson is a poet, as well as a critic, and what’s especially delightful about her prose are the descriptions of the physical experience of pregnancy and tending an infant. Every woman’s labor is unique, but I think it’s safe to say Nelson offers one of the most resonant personal narratives of what contractions and the delivery of a baby can feel like. Her images of the physical components (including constipation) move with ease from the philosophical to the sensual.
There is deep pleasure in images, like this one, of the way her son’s “soft little tongue, always whitened in the center from milk, nudges out of his mouth in gentle anticipation, a turtle bobbing out of its shell.” Elsewhere, she captures the complex journey of emotions felt by many mothers over the ardent quality of their affection: “I was so in awe of Iggy’s fantastic little body that it took a few weeks for me to feel that I had the right to touch him all over. […] I wanted to attend to Iggy, but I didn’t want to ambush him. Also, the culture’s worrying over pedophilia in all the wrong places at times made me feel unable to approach his genitals or anus with wonder and glee, until one day I realized, he’s my baby, I can—indeed I must!—handle him freely and ably. My baby! My little butt! Now I delight in his little butt.”
The book transmits this delight in a deeply original and thought-provoking way – a contemplation of the peculiar happiness that can come with family life.