In a Raft of New Books, Motherhood From (Almost) Every Angle

Jacqueline Rose

“There seems to be something about having the word ‘girl’ in the title of a book that guarantees huge sales.”

The critic Jacqueline Rose noted this trend in a 2015 review of the thrillers “Gone Girl” and “The Girl on the Train” — as well as a fashion, she said, for breezy misogyny sold to women as entertainment.

The girls are mostly gone now. It seems they’ve been replaced, improbably perhaps, by mothers, if this vertiginous pile of memoirs and novels on my desk is any indication. There is a sudden flurry of fascination with my people (full disclosure: a small, surly child thrashes in her sleep just to the right of that pile), and I’m not yet persuaded it’s an entirely positive development.

But first, the books — radiantly specific dispatches from almost every corner of motherhood. There are memoirs of sudden pregnancy (“And Now We Have Everything: On Motherhood Before I Was Ready,” by Meaghan O’Connell) and struggling to conceive (“An Excellent Choice: Panic and Joy on My Solo Path to Motherhood,” by Emma Brockes); accounts of postpartum depression (“Things That Helped,” by Jessica Friedmann) and postpartum euphoria (“The Motherhood Affidavits,” by Laura Jean Baker); novels about whether to have children (“Motherhood,” by Sheila Heti), novels about mothering someone else’s children (“That Kind of Mother,” by Rumaan Alam), even novels about killing children (“The Perfect Nanny,” by Leila Slimani, and “The Perfect Mother,” by Aimee Molloy — part of a genre grouped under the ghastly moniker “mom thrillers”).

And then there is Jacqueline Rose’s own new book, “Mothers: An Essay on Love and Cruelty,” a sort of Rosetta Stone for the moment that examines the particular mix of fascination and dread that mothers engender.

Rose is a calm and stylish writer whose rangy essays in the London Review of Books on violence and identity, #MeToo, the trial of Oscar Pistorius and other subjects have become indispensable reading during the current reckoning around power and sexuality. She has written at length about Sylvia Plath, Hannah Arendt and Marilyn Monroe, as well as several books on Zionism and the conflict in the Middle East. Her specialties are personalities and philosophies that attract (sometimes court) extreme idealization and revulsion. These larger-than-life figures bear our projections and our fears, she says, and allow us to maintain a fantasy of innocence in our own lives.

Credit...Jonathan Ring

How appropriate, then, is this turn to motherhood — that site in the culture “where we lodge, or rather bury, the reality of our own conflicts, of what it means to be fully human,” Rose writes. “It is the ultimate scapegoat for our personal and political failings, for everything that is wrong with the world, which it becomes the task — unrealizable, of course — of mothers to repair.”

These aren’t original points; this scapegoat argument in particular is one that has been made about every minority group you can imagine (it’s also the premise of Toni Morrison’s superb “Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination”). But “Mothers” is a useful synthesis of and loving engagement with many of the writers who have shaped our thinking on motherhood — Morrison, Simone de Beauvoir and Adrienne Rich, whose unsurpassed “Of Woman Born” (1976) is a template for Rose. “Mothers” follows the same arc, arguing for the radical potentialities in motherhood, how women’s initiation into the relentless, often invisible labor of caretaking produces not the solipsistic, bourgeois creature of myth but something close to the ideal citizen — more responsive to the community and naturally inclusive.

Mothers “are not in flight from the anguish of what it means to be human,” Rose writes. She quotes Julia Kristeva: “To be a mother, to give birth, is to welcome a foreigner, which makes mothering simply ‘the most intense form of contact with the strangeness of the one close to us and of ourselves.’”

Isn’t it pretty to think so? Recent books on motherhood, however, frequently and sometimes unwittingly, illustrate a different phenomenon: how motherhood dissolves the border of the self but shores up, often violently, the walls between classes of women.

“Some problems we share as women, some we do not,” Audre Lorde wrote in an essay addressed to white feminists in 1984. “You fear your children will grow up to join the patriarchy and testify against you, we fear our children will be dragged from a car and shot down in the street, and you will turn your backs upon the reasons they are dying.”

Rose acknowledges this issue: “Solidarity among mothers, across class and ethnic boundaries, is not something Western cultures seem in any hurry to promote.” But so many of these books (almost all of them are by white, middle-class women) seem wary of, if not outright disinterested in, more deeply engaging with how race and class inflect the experience of motherhood. Thrillers and horror, the genres that serve as our cultural unconscious, are left to pick up the slack; “mom thrillers” so often hinge on the anxieties of child care and racial privilege.

These omissions are especially troubling because the rift between mothers is only growing. The fastest growing pay gap is between black women and white women. And research shows that regardless of class, black mothers and babies are more than twice as likely to die than their white counterparts — a gulf that has grown since slavery, and which researchers attribute to the lifelong stresses of enduring racism.

“Look at me,” the author of every new book on motherhood asks us. We should — and how could we not? Each testimony is valuable. But it’s with a strange pleasure that the reader will realize that so many of the taboos these writers hope to shatter — about the ambivalence of motherhood, for example — are, by now, familiar. The real work, the daring work, might be for these mothers to look at each other.

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