Three powerful literary takes on motherhood

Top Stories

Three powerful literary takes on motherhood

Few books capture the rollercoaster of emotions that come with motherhood like these.

By Elizabeth Toohey, The Christian Science Monitor

  • Follow us on
  • google-news
  • whatsapp
  • telegram

Published: Fri 27 May 2016, 12:00 AM

Last updated: Fri 27 May 2016, 2:00 AM

In classic literature, good mothers are few and far between. Early novels centred 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. Here are three other 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.
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 humour.
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. "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 mum: negotiations over teeth brushing to how much TV he can watch.
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 not entirely accurate. Nelson's memoir is a meditation on bodies and identities in flux. Pushing back against the tendency to sequester mothers into a sentimental realm, Nelson explores what 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 labour 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 move with ease from the philosophical to the surreal.
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."
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.

More news from