Claire Fuller's novel Swimming Lessons--a literary mystery about a mother who is presumed dead, until her aging husband thinks he sees her outside the window of a bookstore--is a novel partly grounded in the difficulty of being a parent. Parenthood, as it turns out, is hard, so surely some people will be ambivalent about it. The beauty of fiction, of course, is that it allows us to explore the more extreme versions of this ambivalence in ways that won't actually harm real, feeling children--and the fictional exploration turns out to be quite compelling (and provides wonderful plot twists).
In preparing to write Swimming Lessons, Fuller sought out examples of ambivalent mothers in fiction. She shared her experience with us, as well as some of the thoughts that led her to write Swimming Lessons, which we picked last February as a Best Book of the Month. The book is being published in paperback today.
Looking for Ambivalent Mothers in Fiction
by Claire Fuller
What’s it really like to be a mother of young children? Joyful sometimes, and satisfying occasionally, but what about the repetitiveness, the frustration and the isolation? My children are nearly grown, but I still remember taking my son around the supermarket when he was a baby and chanting in my head, “This is my life now, this is my life now,” to try and accept it. The daily monotony was difficult when they were young and I was at home full-time. There were many happy days of course, but I didn’t take instantly to motherhood in the way I’d hoped I would when I was pregnant.
When I was writing my second novel, Swimming Lessons, I started looking for similar experiences in fiction: books which had an ambivalent mother at their heart. In my story, Ingrid, like most if not all mothers, struggles with the day-to-day grind of bringing up her children, and longs for adult connections. She didn’t plan to be a mother, and now it has happened she’s not sure she enjoys it and feels guilty for having these thoughts. She’s lonely and isolated, and her guilt continues to grow until she can’t bear it any longer and takes drastic action. Of course, this is a novel, Ingrid is fictional, and very few mothers are as extreme as her, but I continued to search novels for other women who weren’t sure motherhood was for them. I discovered a good number of memoirs about what it’s really like to bring up children, as well as many tell-it-like-it-is self-help books, but in fiction it seemed as though all mothers had an instant bond with their child. They were never bored, or irritated, or guilty about wishing for some time alone.
Occasionally I did come across brilliant books that touched on ambivalent mothers, but obliquely. They were often from the point of view of the (adult) child, such as in My Name is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout, and Good Behaviour by Molly Keane. These are both wonderful novels that show the terrible impact “bad” mothers have on the lives of the protagonists, and the great story-telling is such that the reader has huge sympathy for the grown children. But these women are of course seen through the daughters’ eyes, so that the mother becomes not simply ambivalent or frustrated with her own life, but cold, unloving, and even malicious. Good mother, bad mother; it’s easy to be black or white about these parents, because we don’t always understand their motivation.
Some novels do dwell on the unhappiness of a woman finding herself pregnant. The conception is an accident, but the woman keeps the baby and gives birth. What happens then, when the child is delivered, is love at first sight. I’m sure for some women this is how it happens, but it isn’t always like that. And admitting it seems to be one of the last taboos: that sometimes love for your child grows slowly.
I did in the end find a handful of novels with mothers who find their new situation difficult. In After Birth by Elise Albert, Ari loves her child but also craves time alone from him, while in The Awakening by Kate Chopin, Edna Pontellier is “fond of her children in an uneven, impulsive way” and ultimately has no compunction about leaving them. And then of course, there’s We Need to Talk About Kevin by Lionel Shriver. After Kevin murders nine people in his school gym, his mother Eva considers how much she is to blame for her son’s actions. Even when pregnant she “was mortified by the prospect of becoming hopelessly trapped in someone else’s story.” Interestingly, nearly all of the discussions about this book are not about the horrific actions of Kevin, but how much his mother is to blame and whether she loved him enough.
Eva is also an extreme. Luckily there aren’t many mothers who have to answer this question. And I’m sure there must be more novels I’ve still to discover about ambivalent mothers, mothers who admit that sometimes they’d like their children to vanish just for an hour. Real mothers. I’m going to keep reading.