In most societies and cultures, women are born to be mothers. What's interesting and equally appalling about this role is that women are expected to be naturally good at it — without any conversations or training. And if a woman is not a natural or is not interested in motherhood, it seems to somehow make her less of a woman to some eyes.
The recent Maggie Gyllenhaal film The Lost Daughter (based on a 2006 novella of the same name by Elena Ferrante and available on Netflix) has restarted a conversation on social media on motherhood, the complexities of the role, and the judgement and guilt that comes along with it. Mothers have spoken about how they felt pigeonholed in this role, and society stopped seeing them generally as women after they gave birth. Their professional achievements too were either not recognised, or came second to their identities as mothers. They spoke too of the loneliness and anxiety that motherhood brings with it. The un-glamorous aspects of the role that nobody discusses. The sleepless nights, the postpartum depression, and how your body becomes unrecognisable to you.
In literature, too, mothers are usually seen only in relation to their kids. Jane Austen’s Mrs. Bennet, JK Rowling’s Molly Weasley, two famous literary mothers, rarely have a personality outside of their roles as mothers. There's hardly any exploration of how motherhood might have disrupted and often completely changed the lives of these women.
Few books explore motherhood with much nuance or with sensitivity to the trauma often experienced by mothers.
Everything Here is Under Control, by Emily Adrian (2020)
Carrie and Amanda are best friends, so much so that when Carrie gives birth when she's 18, it is Amanda who is in the room with her, not the baby's father. Almost 13 years later, when Amanda gives birth and can't cope with the challenges of motherhood, she finds herself back at Carrie's house with the baby. In the first two chapters of the book itself, the reader is introduced to the struggles of motherhood – both physical, as shown in the scene where Carries gives birth, and the emotional – Amanda can't deal with the feeling of not being a good enough mother.
"The baby has driven me a little bit crazy," she says. She adds that at one time, she would have believed that an infant was crying due to hunger or pain,"and not because he has specific designs on ruining his mother's life." She doesn't believe it any longer.
The book, in no way, is only about motherhood. It deals with issues like family, race, and of course, friendship. Yet, it gives a very nuanced look at motherhood and at the world through the lens of someone who has just become a mother.
Where Shall We Go This Summer, by Anita Desai (1975)
In Anita Desai's novella, Sita, a young, pregnant mother, finds herself back in her childhood home with two of her four children. Perhaps the pregnancy makes her restless and sensitive, but when she is back home, she can look back at the events of her life with more clarity. The book explores Sita's relationship with her father and her siblings, her husband, and her children. Through the lens of motherhood, we are shown her boredom and restlessness, the moments when she cannot understand or reach out to her children. For example, she has no idea how to handle her teenage daughter, Maneka's, outbursts or her tearing of her drawings. Again, while this book isn't about motherhood specifically, it paints a compassionate portrayal of a mother who is not satisfied merely with her role and life as one.
The Mother of all Questions by Rebecca Solnit (2017)
The Mother of All Questions by Rebecca Solnit is an essay published for the first time in Harper's Magazine. Essayist and feminist scholar Solnit writes about a talk she was giving on Virginia Woolf, where people started asking her about why Woolf didn't have children. It sparked an observation that irrespective of what women do and how much they achieve, the motherhood question is one they can't escape. Using examples from her own life and her choice not to have kids, Solnit writes about how women are expected to find happiness and love only in their romantic relationships and in their children. "People lock onto motherhood as a key to feminine identity in part from the belief that children are the best way to fulfill your capacity to love, even though the list of monstrous, ice-hearted mothers is extensive. But there are so many things to love besides one's own offspring, so many things that need love, so much other work love has to do in the world," she says. It is a clinically honest look at the motherhood question, one that Solnit approaches with precision.
Sylvia Plath's poems and plays on motherhood
Sylvia Plath wrote multiple poems about the experience of motherhood. They are found in several of her works, across years and collections. The poems explore the struggles of motherhood along with the awe inspired by the very entry into the world of a little human. In Morning Song (1961), written after the birth of her daughter, Frieda, she talks of the finiteness of life, made more clear to her after her pregnancy. She compares her daughter to "a fat, gold watch". In Three Women (1962), a radio play, Plath's protagonists are all dealing with pregnancies and the act of giving birth. Not only does it explore the complexities that each woman faces, but there's also an exploration of the different kinds of motherhood and the different choices that mothers are forced to make. In Barren Woman (published posthumously), the image of emptiness persists through the poem, in a bid to perhaps show the loneliness and emptiness of people who can't conceive but are expected to.
Mothering a Muslim, Nazia Erum (2017)
Conversations and literature around motherhood are usually about the physical changes of the body or emotional upheaval after giving birth. Nazia Erum’s book is not about that. Instead, it is about the discrimination Muslim children face in schools across India: even in urban, highly privileged settings.The book weaves in the complications of being there for your child while they face institutionalized discrimination. It's not something anyone trains mothers to do, yet it is to them that kids turn to after consistent bullying and taunts. How do you explain to your child that he is discriminated against because of his name? How do you even begin to understand it yourself? It is this confusion and this pain that are present in every page of Erum's book. In one instance, a woman receives a call from her son in boarding school. He has been bullied in school and he calls to ask if they are really Pakistanis and terrorists. "Raiqa became even more incensed," the book says. "Had he lost his mind, she bellowed into the phone. How could they be terrorists? They came from an aristocratic family. How could anyone say this to him? The situation was absurd and deeply painful. At a loss for words, Raiqa reassured her son that she would visit him as soon as possible and continue the conversation in person, and ended the call. Then she broke down and cried."
Shreemayee Das writes on entertainment, education, and relationships. She is based in Mumbai, and posts as @weepli on Instagram and Twitter.