Searching for Complexity: Motherhood in Fiction

July 19, 2017 | 4 7 min read

Summers are hard. Every June I swear I’m going to get a full-time office job so I can justify sending my kids to a day camp for the entire summer break. Every July I Google “cities that have year-round school.” Every August I try to climb out of the hole the sweltering days of the previous two months hammered me into—days of Alabama heat and my children fighting with each other and asking me what they can eat and needing me to take them places.

Several summers ago I began to slip into a bad headspace where I thought I was too much for my husband, where I thought I was not enough for my kids, and where I wondered how in the hell am I going to make it another day. I met with my therapist and told her I’m just too messy and too complicated to be a good mom. She said, “No. You’re a complex mom. And you recognize your complexity.” In that moment I embraced the “complex mom” label. It helped when I found myself playing the comparison game with other moms around me who seemed like naturals—who seemed to handle the meals, playdates, fights, errands, decisions, and everything else so much better than I. But even with the comfort my label provides, it’s still lonely at times.

So I’m on a quest to surround myself with additional complex mothers. I’m going to seek them in novels, in stories I can enter during these months when my own complexity seems to shine brighter. The women I’ll turn to can’t hear me when I talk back to them, but they can be my companions.

Three books I’ve read recently provide several examples of complex mothers. With strong writing, compelling plots, and emotional depth; Fierce Kingdom by Gin Phillips,
Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward, and Lucky Boy by Shanthi Sekaran explore the theme of motherhood. While the women in these novels face very different circumstances, their complex humanity shimmers through narratives that examine elements of family, love, and loss.

coverFierce Kingdom’s main character, Joan, is not afraid to tell her four-year-old son, Lincoln, the truth. Even though she gives every ounce of her energy to protect him from harm, she won’t lie to him about the nature of evil. During Joan and Lincoln’s time trapped in a zoo that’s being terrorized by young men, they come upon an elephant who has been shot. Joan considers her options. Phillips writes:

She could tell him that the elephant is asleep. It is probably the kinder answer, but she does not want to say it. It is somehow insulting to him to lie straight to his face when he has made it through these hours with her, jawbone to jawbone, hand to hand, and also she wants to say the words to someone and he is the one who is here.

“It’s dead,” she says.

“Oh. Did the men kill it?” he asks.

“Yes.”

Phillips portrays Joan with a significant amount of respect for her son even though he’s a young child. This approach to motherhood is messy. It would be easier for her to lie to him and help create an illusion of safety—especially when Joan and her son are in danger. But Joan’s high regard for Lincoln’s personhood nudges her to be truthful.

While Joan and Lincoln are dodging those intent on harming others, Joan has an opportunity to help another mom and her crying infant. Phillips writes:

The mother and baby are thirty or forty feet away from where she and Lincoln are huddled. Joan could easily call out to them. She could tell the woman that the men are likely close by. She could warn her to stay outdoors, to not set foot in any of the exhibit halls because the men are hunting there. She could share this hiding place, which she is beginning to believe is as shielded and safe and unexpected as any place in the zoo.

But after Joan thinks through it a bit more Phillips continues: “She does not call out. She does not say a word.” Joan’s primary goal is to protect Lincoln. Joan weighs the potential consequences of inviting the woman and her baby to join them in their hiding place and she decides it’s not worth the risk. She doesn’t worry about doing the right thing for anyone else. Without apology, she does what’s best for her own child. Watching Joan’s story unfold from this decision is further proof that Phillips has created a multidimensional character. Joan’s experiences in the zoo form her into someone who might make more compassionate choices.

coverIn Sing, Unburied, Sing, Jesmyn Ward weaves a web of unhealthy dynamics between Leonie and her children—her 13-year-old son, Jojo, and her toddler daughter, Kayla. Leonie is addicted to drugs and hyper-focused on her children’s dad, Michael, who’s been in jail for a couple of years and is being released. She fails her children in many ways for many reasons, but all is not as it seems. During a trip to pick Michael up from the jail where he’s been incarcerated, Kayla gets sick and vomits several times. While they are stopped at a gas station, Leonie decides to do what her mom taught her to do and forage for something that can help Kayla heal. Ward writes:

If the world were a right place, a place for the living, a place where men like Michael didn’t end up in jail, I’d be able to find wild strawberries. That’s what Mama would look for if she couldn’t find any milkweed…

But the world ain’t that place. Ain’t no wild strawberries at the side of the road. It ain’t boggy enough up here. But this world might be a place that gives a little luck to the small, sometimes shows a little mercy, because after I walk awhile down the side of the road out of sight of the gas station…I find wild blackberries, Mama always told me they could be used for upset stomach, but only for adults. But if there was nothing else, she said I could make a tea and give it to kids.

Even though Leonie is in a hard place—strung out, consumed with Michael, and inattentive to her children, something in her wants to bring restoration to her sick child. She tramples over weeds and brush to find the blackberry bush. She follows through with her plan and boils it at the attorney’s home, adding sugar and food coloring so Kayla will drink the tea.

After Michael is out of jail, they all go to Michael’s parents’ house to introduce them to Michael’s children for the first time. Michael and his dad get into a fight and Leonie has a choice to make. Ward writes:

…and part of me wants to go grab Jojo’s hand and pull them out this house and leave them fighting. And another part of me wants to open my mouth and laugh, because it’s all so ridiculous, all of it, and I look over at my son and I think for sure he’s smiling, for sure he can see how stupid all of it is, but he ain’t looking at them tussling. He’s looking at me, and I see a flash of something I ain’t never seen before. He’s looking at me like I’m a water moccasin and I just bit him, just sank my teeth into the bone of his ankle, bit it to swelling.

Even though it’s uncommon for Leonie to go out of her way to care for her children, she approaches her son who sees her for who she is—a mother who would put her children in this situation—and she pulls him and Kayla out of the house. While Michael and his dad are still hitting each other, she opens the door and takes her children down the porch steps and into the car, away from danger.

coverTwo of the mothers in Lucky Boy—Soli, a birth mother, and Kavya, a foster mother—face harrowing circumstances at different points throughout the book. Their relationships with their child provides comfort—but Sekaran doesn’t sugarcoat their roles as mothers. While Soli is separated from her son, Ignacio, her thoughts turn to him. Sekaran writes:

She comforted herself by remembering Ignacio, cataloging her memories of his body—the birthmark on his chunky thigh, the sprouting of two teeth, how he liked to chase the broom when she was sweeping. When she couldn’t stop herself, she thought of all the times she’d put him on the floor and ignored his cries, when she had dishes to wash or onions to chop, when his twenty-pound heft was just too much for her, when all she wanted was to move without impediment, to be free to lie down on a sofa with a glass of cool water and the slow meander of her thoughts.

Sekaran paints a picture of a loving mom who also wants breaks from caring from her son. Soli is separated from her son and would do anything to be reunited with him, but even in her grief there remains a realistic portrayal of the complexities of motherhood. Soli adores her son, but she still wants some autonomy. She nurtures him, but she isn’t able—and doesn’t want—to hold him every second of every day. She desires physical and emotional respite.

Sekaran presents mothers who are fragile and needy but also ferocious protectors and providers. And her plot produces opportunities for additional ambiguous and conflicting layers. Sekaran creates a situation where one can’t help but ask “Which mom should I pull for?” She plunges her readers into that question writing, “Kavya was aware, of course, that there was a mother out there who had missed [Ignacio’s first steps]. But the thought of this woman, angel or devil, whoever she was, sent a chill through her. She grew hollow and painfully cold at the thought of another woman wanting what she’d come to think of as hers.” Because readers have the perspectives of both Soli and Kavya, their responses to the question of who to root for may be complicated. With Sekaran’s excellent characterization of both women, one can build a sold case to support either outcome. That tension—and the story—wouldn’t exist with a narrative full of simple, flat mothers.

Joan, Leonie, Soli, Kavya, and other fictive mothers’ complexities place them in muddled gray areas. In the midst of difficult circumstances or bad choices or what feels like an inability to care for their children well, complex moms—in fiction and in life—do what they can in the moment, have opportunities to grow in wisdom, and sometimes become even more tangled up as time passes. While I make my way through these summer months and my own gray spaces, I’ll keep these moms and their stories nearby. And maybe this summer won’t be so lonely after all.

Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

lives in Birmingham, Ala., with her husband and their two children. She is earning an MFA in creative writing from Seattle Pacific University, and her work has appeared online at Ploughshares and The Washington Post. Find heron Twitter at @charlottedonlon.

4 comments:

  1. For some of the best-written mothers in recent fiction I’d go with The Corrections (Franzen), The World According to Garp (Irving), and Black Swan Green (D. Mitchell). For more classical choices, of course Lolita (Nabokov), and let’s not forget that Molly Bloom is a mother in Ulysses (Joyce). Joan Didion does yeowoman’s nonfiction work regarding her own motherhood. For a truly masterfully written mother character, there is the greatest American play, of course (O’Neill’s “Long Day’s Journey Into Night”). Though I guess if you want to trump ’em all you would pick Medea (Euripides version, not the cross-dressing half-a-billionaire black guy movies).

    As for the writers whose work Donlon elucidates, Jesmyn Ward has always sounded like pabulum for the identity politics set, and Gin Phillips seems like the author might just be giving props to a fellow Southerner or friend, the book has more than a whiff of chick-lit, that non-literaryvibe , though Phillips probably makes good sweet tea. Shanti Sekharan is whining about politics and the evils of perceived “racism” on her Twitter too (so sad, these young writers’ need to constantly virtue-signal; they’re actually addicted to it I think), but that doesn’t inherently mean she’s a bad writer. There at least looks like there’s a potential for literary cred there. The prose quoted above is very well-written but it’s only a paragraph. Anyone here read Lucky Boy and have a strong opinion about it?

  2. @Sean H
    That’s a great list of recommendations. I’m going to start with Black Swan Green. I agree with you on Didion–Blue Nights is stunning. You might be surprised by Fierce Kingdom. I consider it literary fiction although “literary thriller” might be more accurate. It’s not chick-lit.

  3. Oh Sean H. Jesymn Ward is the real deal. I’ve avoided Lucky Boy as the writing (when I browsed it) seemed too earnest and somewhat juvenile. Mothers in recent fiction that have impressed me as being well written are in Lucy Wood’s “Weathering” and the mind blowing “Fever Dream” by Samantha Schweblin. Cheers.

  4. Honest & nicely done, Ms. Donlon. @SeanH, did you seriously just relegate Gin Phillips and her work “back to the kitchen?” Fuck off.

    “Gin Phillips seems like the author might just be giving props to a fellow Southerner or friend, the book has more than a whiff of chick-lit, that non-literaryvibe , though Phillips probably makes good sweet tea…”

    Moe Murph

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