It’s not often one of my usual “motherhood” novel picks are page-turners. I am fascinated by books about the realities of motherhood, particularly when they are contrasted with novels of the mid-20th century (and still today) that paint only rosy pictures of pregnancy, childbirth, and childrearing. It’s a good thing, since it is essentially my PhD thesis. I am constantly examining what makes a “good” mother, why some women want children and others don’t, and why sometimes we don’t even ask ourselves if it is indeed something we want.
In The Push, Ashley Audrain presents all of these questions in a heart-pumping thriller. In it, Blythe comes from a long line of terrible mothers, and worries she isn’t cut out for it. But her dreamy husband desperately wants kids, and reassures her that she’ll be a wonderful mother. Unfortunately Blythe can’t bring herself to voice her fears, she gives birth to a girl, and fails to connect with her. Throughout the novel, Blythe constantly changes her mind about who is to blame — her daughter or herself. Is she just a bad mother, or is there something off with her daughter? When she works up the courage to voice her concerns, her husband isn’t interested.
This plot line roughly mirrors a lot of contemporary novels about motherhood. The doting father and husband who can’t imagine his wonderful wife won’t be a great mom (because if a woman is loving and nurturing it is expected she will want to put those attributes to work in a traditional family).* But then events unspool that force the reader to wonder if — in spite of her own terrible mother — Blythe is not the problem in her relationship with her daughter. It’s difficult to imagine a child under ten being manipulative, but Audrain writes it convincingly, beautifully balancing the terror of some of these moments with a mother’s disbelief that her child could do anything hurtful.
While this is an exciting read, it is an integral part of the foundation for changing the way we think about motherhood. Do bad mothers beget bad mothers? Not necessarily. Do unprepared and/or unwilling mothers make a devastating impact on their children? Absolutely. Is that impact insurmountable? No.
What’s important is that Audrain addresses these questions in a non-judgmental, compelling way. We begin the novel by questioning the mother’s devotion, particularly due to the fact that Blythe’s mother and grandmother apparently suffered from mental illness. But as the novel moves forward, it sows doubt. This forces us to recognize that whether or not the child is the “problem” (and in this case, the explanation is certainly an outlier), the mother deserves a space to speak honestly about her experiences. Four stars.
More literary examples of this type of novel include Motherhood by Sheila Heti, Dept of Speculation by Jenny Offill, Empty Houses by Brenda Navarro, and of course the nonfiction A Life’s Work by Rachel Cusk.
*This is why the comment “You’d make a great mom” is so problematic. Just because someone has the skills to mother doesn’t mean she wants to.