When I write fiction, at least a first draft of something, I try not to think too much. Or maybe it’s that I try to keep my thoughts small: words, images, rhythms, a character’s particular way of holding a key. I try not to think about the symbolic meaning of said key—if keys keep showing up, I try not to think about why. In revision, sure. The keys will have to go. But for the first draft I willfully maintain a half-state of ignorance. This is how I was able to write basically the same short story twice. (I like to think the second “version,” published years later, is better.) It’s how I build parallels and thematic arcs into my work before I recognize them as such and risk overdoing them. It’s how I got many drafts into my first novel, The Little Bride, before I realized—when my editor brought it up, as a simple matter of fact—that the two central mother figures in the book leave their husbands and children. They don’t say goodbye, or leave notes, or send word of where they’ve gone. They just disappear, and don’t come back.
Initially, I was drawn to Celeste Ng’s debut novel, Everything I Never Told You, by its premise: the book tells the story of the Lees, a multiracial family in 1970s Ohio reeling from the mysterious death of their middle child, Lydia. I found myself reading late into the night, fascinated by Ng’s imperfect characters working their way—imperfectly—through grief, moved by her restrained yet startlingly emotive prose, in awe of her masterful use of an omniscient narrator who switches points-of-view mid-scene as soundlessly as Marilyn Lee opens the door to her daughter’s empty bedroom. Then, mid-book, I found myself holding my breath as the narrative flashed back to one summer, years ago, when Marilyn cooked her family’s favorite meals, dug out her textbooks from her long-abandoned college career, and without a word moved an hour away to Toledo, where she rented an efficiency apartment and attempted to start again as a student.
Eventually, Marilyn returned. The family moved on, not speaking of her disappearance—when we meet them at the beginning of the book, we hear nothing of it. Marilyn’s great defection has been silenced. But of course it hangs over them, as it hung over me. Ng’s portrait of ambivalence is heart-breaking: “often, when she opened her books, Marilyn’s mind whirled. Equations jumbled and rejumbled, hidden messages jumping out at her. NaOH became Nath, his small face wide-eyed and reproachful…” Marilyn begins calling the house to listen silently to her family’s voices, to get just enough of them to shore herself up—not to face a lover or a boss, but herself.
Literature is full of disappearing mothers. Many of them die—think of all the orphans. A significant number commit suicide, including Anna Karenina, Emma Bovary, Edna Pontellier, and Helen in Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping. Others are forced away by war (Amy Tan’s The Joy Luck Club, Amy Bloom’s Away), or oppressive governments (Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale). Other mothers only imagine killing themselves, or leave for a couple hours (Laura Brown in The Hours does both) only to pretend neither happened. Less common are the women who are neither psychically wrecked nor physically threatened but simply and unbearably torn between motherhood and selfhood, tormented by their feeling that the two can’t coexist. These are characters like Marilyn Lee, or the narrator in Alice Munro’s story “Nettles,” whose separation from her husband costs her her daughters, or Leda in Elana Ferrante’s The Lost Daughter, whose explanation for her three-year abandonment of her young daughters speaks to the central, wrenching paradox all these authors explore: “I loved them too much and it seemed to me that love for them would keep me from becoming myself.”
Why so much motherly abandonment? It makes for good conflict, of course. It can help define characters and set plots in motion. Most importantly, it’s an act that even in 2014 remains, in many ways, the ultimate taboo.
Granted, plenty of literary fathers leave, too. But when Rabbit goes running, when Francis Phelan tragically drops—and kills—his newborn son and leaves town in William Kennedy’s Ironweed, a reader (at least this reader) feels sorrow, disappointment, grief, a certain amount of anger, but not shock. Their leaving, it seems, in these and countless other stories, is part of their condition. Whereas when a mother leaves, we assume she must defy her very nature.
Celeste Ng –– who was kind enough to correspond with me, via email –– wonders if this assumption lies partly in our—limited—notions of what’s “natural.” She points out: “Plenty of animal mothers leave their offspring as a matter of routine. Harp seals abandon their pups early on. Cuckoos notoriously lay their eggs in other birds’ nests and abandon them—tricking other birds into raising a chick that isn’t theirs. Even cute, cuddly, pandas often have twins and then abandon the one that seems weaker. And many animals, when stressed or starved, abandon their young—or eat them.”
Our tendency to forget this, Ng says, shows up in the first stories we’re told. “Look at the classic children’s book Are You My Mother? The baby bird goes looking for his mother, and because he’s never seen her, he thinks a cat, a dog, a cow, a hen, a plane, a car, and even a boat might be his mother. So from a very early age, we get the idea that without a mother, you have no real sense of self—you have zero idea who you are or what you’re supposed to do in your life. I’m being a bit facetious here—and I’m not saying that we’re wrong about how important mothers are, either—just that mothers hold a very revered place in our culture and our psyche. Maybe that’s why this plotline appears so often in literature. Losing the one person who’s supposed to nurture and protect you in your most vulnerable years—what a fundamental fear.”
This fear belongs primarily—and primally—to children. Which may be why telling the story of a mother’s leaving not from a child’s point-of-view (Where’d You Go, Bernadette, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time) but from the mother’s can feel risky. Writers are all too aware—however hard we may try to ignore it—of the reading public’s impatience with “unsympathetic” characters, and it can be tempting to put sympathy before truth. Ng says that in an earlier, “melodramatic” draft of Everything I Never Told You, Marilyn’s frustrations with her life led to a breakdown and visit to a mental hospital, until Ng took the leap and rewrote her as “a stronger character, with particular desires, who made the choice to leave her family.”
It’s striking, too, that Marilyn bolsters her resolve to leave by thinking of her mother’s old, spine-cracked Betty Crocker cookbook, while in The Hours, Laura Brown urges herself on—and ultimately comforts herself—with Mrs. Dalloway. Emma Bovary, of course, chain-reads romance novels. It’s as if the authors of these books, knowing the challenges they face in portraying mothers who call it quits, brought in iconic texts as units of cultural precedent, backsplashes for the mothers to fling themselves against, asking what they want, and facing what they are.
A mother abandoning her children is an inversion of the orphan tale. It may even feel to some readers like a perversion. It’s a story that’s easy to read and say, without thinking, “I can’t imagine.”
And yet, most of us can. What parent hasn’t at some point longed to flee, even for a day? Parents who are passionate about their work perhaps experience this more acutely. I know I’m guilty of frequent mental abandonment, whether I’m wrestling with a plot problem as my daughter performs “Let it Go” or jotting notes in magic marker for the novel I’m now revising though I’ve promised to draw a tree. I’ve come to accept this as part of the deal, part of my commitment to being both a mother and a writer: I go away in my mind so that I can stay.
I should mention. That novel I’m revising? It begins with a teenage mother leaving her baby in a pear orchard. Don’t ask if I was thinking, when I first wrote this opening scene, about its resonance with my first novel, or all the other novels in which mothers disappear. I wasn’t. But I am now. And I’m thinking about how maybe my cultivated first-draft obliviousness is a little like the trips I take in my mind as a mother: a benign and necessary neglect. If you read the latest woo-woo about parenting, you know that “they” are now recommending we leave our kids alone more, not alone alone, but with enough space that they can figure things out, take risks, make mistakes. Maybe I’ve just known, all along, that my work needs space, too. In any case, I intend to keep up my willed inattention, and let all of us—the kids, and the books, and me (me!)—grow strong, and a little wild.
Image Credit: Irina.