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Ode to bad mothers

Motherhood is hard. Immersing myself in the spectacular fails of fictional matriarchs helped me realize I’m not alone in my struggles — and I’m not totally blowing it, after all.

"Medea," by Frederick Sandys, circa 1866-1868.Wikimedia Commons

I was once what literature might depict as a bad mother. For a six-month period, I had a depressive episode so acute I don’t remember much of my daughter’s second year. My family and I had moved from New York, a city I loved, because I’d gotten the kind of job you don’t turn down. In my new home, I felt isolated. I missed my younger siblings in New York who helped watch my daughter when I worked or needed a break. I had let my license expire, so I couldn’t drive. I could barely keep up with my obligations at work. And when I got home, I drank. I gained 20 pounds. I ran up credit cards on frivolous purchases. I look back on pictures from this period and feel nothing but shame, despite seeing my and my daughter’s smiles in photos where we cuddle, visit the park, celebrate her third birthday.

In Kate Chopin's 1899 novel, "The Awakening," Edna Pontellier is at sea in marriage and in motherhood.Wikimedia Commons

I had a supportive partner who stayed at home with my daughter during this time and picked up the slack until I got help. I began therapy, got an evaluation from a neuropsychologist, started to exercise and to meditate. I came back to myself and, in turn, came back to my daughter. But like Edna Pontellier, the protagonist in Kate Chopin’s 1899 novella of marital and maternal ennui, “The Awakening,” I still attend to my daughter in an “uneven, impulsive way.” I struggle to play with her, to look up from my phone when she calls for me. I have dark fantasies in which, like Frida Liu in Jessamine Chan’s 2022 dystopian novel of motherhood, “The School for Good Mothers,” I lose my daughter in spite of my best efforts to do better.

Reminded during my struggles of the bad mothers in literature I have come across over the years, I was moved in my work as an English professor to design a course around books that traffic in the tropes used to characterize bad mothers: abandonment, unbridled sexuality, rage, neglect. I decided to pair contemporary novels with canonical ones. I assigned everything from literature from antiquity to novels published in the last year.

Through these texts, I hoped my students and I could explore the institution of motherhood and interpret and challenge the narratives we tell about mothers — that they should be domesticated, affectionate, saintly channels of grace, mercy, and love. I hoped to complicate ideas of what good and bad mothers look like and to compel my students — and myself — to examine the narratives about motherhood that we inherit, if not inhabit.

We began the course with Adrienne Rich’s quintessential study of motherhood and womanhood, “Of Woman Born,” published in 1976. We moved on to literature about the experience of Black mothers, reading Langston Hughes’s “Mother to Son,” a poem published in 1922, and Jamaica Kincaid’s “Girl,” a short story based on Kincaid’s own relationship with her mother growing up.

In a section devoted to maternal rage, I assigned Euripides’s “Medea,” a play from antiquity that haunts all bad mothers in literature, because Medea does the unthinkable: She kills her children. I paired that with Rachel Yoder’s “Nightbitch,” published in 2021, in which the nameless mother, an artist, transforms into a dog in order not to be subsumed by her maternal role. She never harms her son during her “night(s) of violence,” but, like Medea, she is motivated by “a flame of rage that flicked in her chest,” a flame mothers are supposed to snuff out, not fan.

For a section on sexuality, we read William Shakespeare’s “Hamlet,” in which Hamlet’s mother, the queen Gertrude, is described as having a “rank,” “gross,” “unweeded garden” of a body, and Kristen Arnett’s 2021 novel “With Teeth,” told from the perspective of Sammie, whose lesbian partnership does not inoculate her from feeling suffocated by the constraints of motherhood that women in heterosexual partnerships feel.

Finally, my students and I discussed abandonment. Our texts — “The Awakening” and “The School for Good Mothers” — were published more than a century apart. While in the latter a mother abandons her daughter for a few hours and spends the rest of the novel trying to atone and win her child back, in the former, a mother abandons her two sons forever, swimming out to sea and drowning herself.

I saw myself in the mothers I offered up to my students for interpretation, no matter their crimes. But my students were thinking deeply about motherhood from the perspective of being mothered. Somehow, I hadn’t anticipated this. I hadn’t considered how their lived experience as children would color their interpretations of the books and make them vastly different from mine as a mother.

A Victorian engraving of Medea with Jason and the golden fleece. Euripides's heroine is literature's bad mother to end all others.Archivist/Adobe

The author, educator, and social critic Gloria Jean Watkins, better known by her pen name, bell hooks, believed that it is productive to link lived experiences to academic discussion to show students “how experience can illuminate and enhance our understanding of academic material,” as she wrote in her 1994 book “Teaching to Transgress.” With hooks in mind, I practiced being vulnerable, “being wholly present in mind, body, and spirit,” so that my students might become comfortable making similar connections and taking similar risks.

Drawing upon my lived experience in a class on so-called bad mothers felt more dangerous as the semester progressed. This was especially so in our discussion about “With Teeth,” in which Sammie, bitten by her son, bites and scars him in turn. Sammie looks at her boy, Samson, “with a mixture of love and revulsion.”

I identified with Sammie, with her implied mental illness, with her abuse of substances, with her struggle to know a child who feels more and more distant from her as the days pass. I, too, have, in difficult moments, wondered if something is deeply wrong with my child.

So when a student said, “I think this novel is meant to teach us that just because some people can have kids doesn’t mean they should,” I felt as if I’d been slapped. I struggled to keep my expression neutral, and the discussion moving forward.

That evening, indignant, I relayed this experience to my husband. “Well, your student is right,” he responded. “I believe that, too.”

Edwin Austin Abbey's "The Queen in Hamlet," 1895.Wikimedia Commons

“I’m not trying to make the argument there are no bad mothers,” I told my students (and myself) after that particular class. I still don’t know if I fully believe my own argument. The fact of being a bad mother often seems tied to a woman’s desire to escape the stifling expectations of motherhood. Abandonment and infanticide — there is no debating the bad mother in those scenarios. But what about the mother who escapes into an affair — or her studio to make art?

While I was teaching about bad mothers, my daughter abruptly decided to sleep in her own bed. For years, we’d talk and cuddle during the hour I lay down with her as she drifted off to sleep. I’d wake up over the course of the night with her skull in my spine and shove her back over, put a pillow between us. But my eyes would open in the mornings, and I’d watch her blurry face come into focus. I’d touch her cheek lightly, smell her hair.

“When are we going to cuddle now that you’re sleeping in your own bed?” I asked her as innocuously as possible one day in the drop-off line, after it was clear she was committed to this separation.

“I’m sleeping in my own bed now, Mommy,” she responded with an eye roll.

I immediately thought of a scene in Celeste Ng’s 2017 novel “Little Fires Everywhere,” in which Mia Warren thinks about how, as her child grows into a teenager, touch becomes more rare: “It was the way of things,” Ng writes, “but how hard it was. . . . It was like training yourself to live on the smell of an apple alone, when what you really wanted was to devour it, to sink your teeth into it and consume it, seeds, core, and all.”

When my daughter dismissed my question about cuddling, I wanted to devour her, return her to my body. I was reeling from loss. What is the relationship between my body and the body of my daughter now? I’m told that this growing independence is evidence of good mothering, but I can’t help but feel the pain of rejection.

In “The School for Good Mothers,” a mother named Helen is reported by a therapist for “coddling” her 17-year-old son. “Apparently, coddling is a subset of emotional abuse,” she says. “I zipped up his jackets. I liked tying his shoes for him. It was our special thing. I made him go over all his homework with me. Sometimes, I combed his hair. I helped him shave.”

I grimaced reading these lines — but I understood.

As a mentally ill mother, I know that my daughter will learn — if not inherit — struggles. That she, like her mother, might fight addiction, depression, mood swings, and emotional regulation. Perhaps I should’ve thought more deeply before I had her about what it would mean to bring a child into this world.

But how to explain that having her motivated me to work on myself? How to explain that from growing my daughter in my body, to nursing her, to sleeping beside her for years, to trying to model the kind of self-love I want her to experience, I became a better person?

In “Nightbitch,” the mother thinks, Yes, she was a bad mother, a horrible one. She felt another cry coming on, and rose to feed herself, for she had forgotten to do so while remembering to feed everyone else in the house. . .

I saw my own self-flagellation in these lines, the way I deprecate myself and sacrifice my own needs to care for my family. So did my partner, who requested to read this piece before I submitted it for publication.

“I just worry you’re too hard on yourself,” he told me.

Over the course of the semester, it was often comforting to see these mothers fail their children in ways I had managed to avoid: I haven’t killed my child, as Medea does. I’ve never called my daughter a “slut,” as the narrator in Jamaica Kincaid’s short story “Girl” does. I didn’t plot to kill my husband and then marry his brother shortly after his funeral, as Gertrude does in “Hamlet.” I haven’t transformed into a dog and killed my family’s cat, as the mother does in “Nightbitch.” I’ve never had an affair and then drowned myself, like Edna in “The Awakening.” I’ve never bitten my child, let alone scarred her with my teeth. I’ve never left my child unattended for hours, as Frida does in “The School for Good Mothers.”

It’s almost as if the only way to bear the expectations that accompany motherhood is to find a mother doing the worst that can be done and to feel good about yourself in comparison. But these judgments do nothing to create a less poisonous world for mothers. Bad mothers in literature neglect their children because they can’t turn away from their own desires. They cannot efface their own selves in service of their children’s needs. It follows that these flawed women would teach me about my own needs and how to perform the impossible balancing act of negotiating them with those of my child.

About the experience of encountering these bad mothers, one after another, this semester, I can say this: Being a good mother means seeing our children as autonomous and separate from ourselves. Doing so means that they will see us, their mothers, in the same way. I learned that motherhood is blood, animality, and beauty — that our children can be the most painful and miraculous things in the world. And I learned that even so-called bad mothers are very likely doing the best they can.

Alicia Andrzejewski is an assistant professor of English at the College of William and Mary.