Writing the modern mother: The complex struggles of motherhood in Brit Bennett’s The Mothers (2016)
By Johanna Decker
Mothers have served as some of the most beloved heroines, but also as some of the most hated villainesses in film and literature. There is the loving, caring ‘angelic’ mother, who will sacrifice herself in a heartbeat for her cherished child – The Scarlet Letter’s Hester Prynne, Harry Potter’s late mother Lily, or Mrs. March in Little Women come to mind. Oppositely, there is the archetype of the cold and selfish ‘witch’. Some of the most memorable examples include Hamlet’s cold-blooded and power-hungry mother Lady Gertrud, Stephen King’s Margret White (the main antagonist in his first novel Carrie), or the Brothers Grimm’s countless evil stepmothers, whose counterparts – the gentle ‘natural’ mothers – usually fail to survive the first paragraph. The two archetypes of mothers have been re-worked throughout literary history (Kaplan 2013, 9), serving as cautionary tales or emblematic role models, but they traditionally do not take center stage – their husbands and children do. After the birth, a “mother is rendered abject and voiceless and ceases to have a presence. Subjectivity passes over her to the offspring.” (Sheehy 2014, 4) The phrase “[m]others don’t write: they are written” (Suleiman 1985, 356) firmly situates mothers at the margins of the stories as the eternal object; always present but hardly ever the topic per se. This is even more apparent for the literary representation of non-white and non-middle class mothers, who are often objectified to the extent that they only appear as a ‘mammy-stereotype’ (cf. Osnes and Andes 2010, 13f.). The most famous example is the character of Mammy in Gone with the wind, however we find countless examples throughout the 20th century in literature, advertisement, film and TV. Towards the end of the 20th century and partly due to second-wave feminism, we can observe a significant shift that aims to restore the subjectivity of mothers, creating a new scholarly interest in maternal characters and the depiction of their subjective struggles (cf. Eckard 2002).
One remarkable example is Brit Bennett’s debut novel The Mothers. The novel was published in 2016, became a New York Times bestseller, and a film adaption is already in the making. Set in Southern California, it traces the life of three lost teenagers (spoilers ahead): 17-year-old Nadia Turner is trying to cope with her mother’s suicide by partying, drinking and crashing her father’s beloved truck. In church, she meets the pious and shy Aubrey, and the two become unlikely best friends. Nadia begins an affair with Luke, the son of the local pastor. She gets pregnant, has an abortion, and moves away to attend law school. Aubrey and Luke stay in their hometown and eventually get married. At first glance, The Mothers is a conventional coming-of-age story, with a relatively cliché set-up, but it is remarkable not because but “despite Bennett’s thrumming plot, despite the snap of her pacing”. Its strength lies in the delicate creation of haunting and ambivalent characters that stay with the reader long after the novel has ended. With an ease that is noteworthy and without making their race the central topic of the novel, all the characters, if not explicitly stated otherwise, are Black.
The primacy of the maternal is evident in the numerous mothers that populate the text – something that was also observed in the works of Toni Morrison (cf. Eckard 2002, 34), Bennett’s author crush and a writer that prompted the renaissance of motherhood as a literary subject. The first characters we encounter are even addressed as “the Mothers”: The gossipy church ladies, who sit at the very front of Upper Room Church and know everything about everyone. Resembling the ancient Greek chorus, they narrate the beginning of each chapter with a seemingly omniscient authority. But whereas the chorus traditionally provides inside knowledge and serves as a manifestation of the ideal spectator (Schlegel 1846, 70), it is far removed from any moral superiority in this case. Their perspective is revealed as flawed by counteracting their views with passages that are actually focalized through the characters. The “unripe secret, plucked too soon, stolen and passed around before its season” (Bennett 2016, 2) clashes against the true feelings and secrets of the characters, revealing the unreliable nature of the Mothers’ narration. Apart from debunking their limited knowledge, the novel also showcases the social power of the elders. At the end of the novel, their gossip even leads to the downfall of the whole church – the institution that bestowed upon them their social capital in the first place. Representing not only church communities, but society as a whole, their depiction serves as a pointed social critique: They exemplify the suffocating atmosphere of small-town America, the unjust difference in the treatment of the sexes, and the harsh judgment black women face if they fail to perform their maternal duties. The ladies view themselves as caring maternal institutions that continue to pray for the lost members of the Upper Room Church but they never intervene to help the struggling and motherless Nadia. But in the end, the power structure is reversed: “We will never know why she returned, but we still think about her. We see the span of her life unspooling in colorful threads and we chase it, wrapping it around our hands as more tumbles out.” (Bennett 2016, 275) Long after Nadia has moved on, they speculate about her life, but now they are pushed to the sidelines, left to mourn their former relevance.
It is not the figurative mothers who lie at the center of the narration but Nadia and Aubrey, who are grappling with motherhood in vastly different, yet surprisingly similar ways. Nadia starts off as the girl who has got it all: She is intelligent, pretty, and destined for greatness. But after her mother Elisa’s suicide, this identity is taken from her – transformed from promising to tragic in the blink of an eye. Motherless, with a father who is unable to address their loss, Nadia quickly learns that a woman is expected to prioritize her loved ones. The church condemns Elisa Turner’s suicide and openly criticizes her under the guise of sympathy. This causes her daughter to feel shamed and ostracized. Attempting to hide her pain from everyone, she ends up “as an unpregnant woman” (Bennett 2016, 93) and unable to cope with her decision to have an abortion. During the course of the novel, Nadia can seem impulsive and selfish from the outside. When she finally returns after years, she, for instance, publicly lashes out at her father for removing the images of her mother, even though she had left her father and their home. (Bennett 2016, 182f.) The internal focalization shows us, however, how fragile and caring she is: “[Nadia] had been the one who held it together. She’d answered the door when the Mothers visited with food, while her father disappeared into the darkness of his bedroom” (Bennett 2016, 43). In her quiet desperation to appear strong, she begins to blame herself for her mother’s suicide: Nadia imagines that her existence was the sole reason why her mother, who had also been pregnant at a young age, could not attend college, was unable to move away, and finally decided to end her life. She begins imagining “versions of her mother’s life that did not end with a bullet shattering her brain” (Bennett 2016, 97) and in all these scenarios, Nadia was never born; she unconsciously justifies her decision to abort by erasing her own existence. The lingering trauma of abortion is usually reserved for the most rabid of anti-choice activists, but Bennett masterfully avoids passing judgement. Nadia aborts and moves on to become successful, but the novel acknowledges the cost of this decision. This ambivalence hints at a more profound realization, namely that a decision may be painful and right, traumatic and necessary.
The character of Aubrey is crafted in opposition to Nadia: Plain, devoted to God and family-centered, she immediately wins over the socially conservative Black Christian community upon moving to California, “and within a year, she seemed like she’d always belonged” (Bennett 2016, 71). Aubrey lives with her older sister Mo and Mo’s girlfriend Kasey who take over the parental duties:
Both girls had been abandoned in the sand. But only Aubrey had been found. Only Aubrey had been chosen. […] Monique and Kasey’s love for Aubrey hung in their eyes, and even though it wasn’t meant for Nadia, she inched closer, […] Nadia wanted to be nowhere else but here, in a house where everyone was wanted, with a family where anyone could leave but nobody ever did.Bennett 2016, 79
Mo comes closest to the archetype of the devoted, selfless mother, as she not only takes in her little sister, but lovingly cares for her, allowing Bennett to implicitly make a statement about the ability of same-sex couples to be loving parents. Mo is the only adult that speaks to the teenagers about controversial topics like suicide (83) or abortion (96). Nadia, who soon spends every night at Mo’s house, envies Aubrey for her relationship with her sister. The reader knows, though, that Aubrey did not leave her mother because they fought, but because her mother allowed her boyfriend to rape Aubrey for years. Here lies the root of Aubrey’s desire to please and fit in: She believes, if she had been better, if she had been good enough, her mother would have chosen her and protected her. So, for both Aubrey and Nadia the abandonment by their mothers results in guilt and shame, but their methods of coping are vastly different and these differences draw them to each other. Nadia craves dependability and care, longing to be pure and absolved of having an abortion. Aubrey seeks strength and protection, envying Nadia for her independence and bravery. They play off each other, hurt each other and become unlikely surrogates for each other. When Nadia leaves her behind, Aubrey starts dating Luke and desperately longs to have a child but struggles to get pregnant. Her history as a rape survivor and her feverish desire for motherhood cause problems in the relationship. When she finally expects a child, her life comes crushing down after she finds out that Luke and Nadia are having an affair. Aubrey tries her hardest to come close to the image of pure and loving womanhood that is advocated within her community and her church. Her struggle is not rewarded and does not lead to the easy and safe life she was implicitly promised by the church community. Instead, she ends up hurt by the two people she loves most when Luke cheats on her with Nadia. In the end, she breaks with the image of the perfect all-sacrificing mother when she moves out and confronts Luke and Nadia. She does not long for others approval anymore, but draws her strength from herself and her unborn child – becoming a mother on her own terms.
Brit Bennett’s The Mothers is not explicitly feminist, but it showcases gender inequality and the countless challenges of motherhood without being preachy or obvious. It achieves this subtle social commentary through two things: Firstly, it combines the seemingly omniscient, judgmental voice of “the Mothers” with the internal perspective of the characters. This narrative duality of the traditionally outward glance on motherhood and the modern subjective narration from an individual, female point of view unmasks the hypocrisy and dangers of society’s judgement of mothers. Secondly, the novel showcases a large ensemble of diverse maternal figures – some mothers in the conventional sense, some ‘unpregnant’, some stepping up because Nadia and Aubrey’s birthmothers abandoned their children. Even in modern takes on motherhood, being a mother is often longed for, valued above all and absolutely central to the female identity (cf. Garrett 2021, 2f.). Bennett makes motherhood central to the novel, but she does not equate it with womanhood, allowing Nadia to remain childless and showing through Aubrey that a child and a husband are no guarantee for happiness and stability. The Mothers “lives up to its title, never once allowing readers a simplistic view of the maternal pain at its center”. It avoids the traditional declarative mood (cf. Sheehy 2014, 4) that clearly says what a mother is and what a mother is not, what a mother must do and should not do. Aubrey’s mother is present but fails to protect her daughter, while Nadia’s mother decides to leave her child behind to fend for itself. No decision is depicted as better – both are painful and unjust in their own right. The novel does not separate into good and bad mothers or good and bad choices. It is easy for readers to get frustrated by the decisions of the ambivalent characters, but because we know about their struggle, their fragility, we are able to accept their flawed nature without dismissing them as humans. This ambivalence grants Brit Bennett’s mothers the dignity and the complexity that women have been denied throughout literary history time and time again.
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About the Author
Johanna Decker (née Mast) is a PhD candidate in the graduate program Authority and Trust (GKAT) at the Heidelberg Center for American Studies (HCA). Her research focuses on places of thin trust and their usage within contemporary American Novels. Get in touch via e-mail.