Updated: Jan 26, 2021
Why has the absent mother become the subject of intense fascination in recent popular and critically acclaimed fiction?
There’s something about a mother who deserts her children that is uniquely disturbing to the popular imagination. She is a figure of mystery, her motivations shrouded in obscurity and begging to be deciphered. She stands apart from the missing father--a phenomenon that is not as ripe for literary intrigue because a father who leaves in favor of his own independent existence does not represent the rejection of ‘nature’ that the missing mother embodies.
Examining this abdication of the maternal has become a trend in popular, critically acclaimed literature as of late. Brit Bennett’s debut novel The Mothers, Delia Owens’ 2018 bestseller Where the Crawdads Sing, and Ann Patchett’s 2020 Pulitzer Prize Finalist The Dutch House all grapple with the distinctive trauma of a mother who chooses to leave her children, both through death and abandonment.
In The Mothers, Nadia’s mother’s suicide looms over the entirety of the novel. It becomes a subject of fascination with the town, with church mothers mythologizing the hours preceding her death, trading stories about her peculiar behavior, and spotting her for one last time at the church. An interrogation of her mother’s motives recurs in Nadia’s mind as she struggles to grapple with the aftermath, left with a caring but slightly disconnected father. To Nadia, her mother’s death becomes fused with her very identity as a mother, wondering if her birth inspired the chain of events culminating in her mother’s death. Her mother’s suicide becomes entwined with her mothering identity because the two must be reconciled--the act of suicide violates the total devotion to her child that dominant mothering ideology demands from women with children. This is the tension that makes absent mothers a subject of preoccupation--mothers who ‘leave’ their children reject this tenet of motherhood and represent a danger to the nuclear family by jeopardizing the ‘natural-ness’ of motherhood. It is notable that The Mothers is a novel concerned with Black mothering, as it cements the tension created by the absent mother as one that crosses racial boundaries.
Where the Crawdads Sing
The disappearance of Kya’s mother in Where the Crawdads Sing can be similarly categorized as a mysterious and wholly devastating event. Fleeing from an abusive husband and leaving her children behind, this ‘absence’ jump-starts the events of the novel. Kya is initially left with no knowledge of her mother’s whereabouts, receiving only a letter that she is unable to read that is subsequently burned by her father. It is the escape of her mother that inspires a broader family exodus, and Kya remains in the family shack as her siblings leave her, one-by-one. By the time her father fails to return home from one of his trips away, his desertion has long felt inevitable. While Kya is ultimately left on her own without both parents, it is her mother’s absence that is the most confounding, with readers left shaking their heads at the “kind of mother” that would leave her children in an abusive home. It is her mother’s defection that leads to the family’s disintegration, forcing her mother to shoulder a substantial portion of the blame for Kya’s isolation. Her father’s abuse made the home unlivable, but it is her mother’s departure that results in her seclusion. In Where the Crawdads Sing, we see the extremity of the consequences of a mother who leaves her children. The book treats Kya’s mother with compassion but cannot escape the fact that Kya’s solitary existence, ostracization, and (spoiler!) murder of Chase flow as consequences from the instigating trauma of her mother’s desertion.
The Dutch House
Elna Conroy’s absence in The Dutch House highlights the particular mystery of a missing mother that is present in both of her predecessors. The book’s narrator, her son Danny, knows little about his mother save for her rumored flight to India and that she detested their decadent, elaborate house. The questions left by her void are present in the reader’s mind throughout the novel, with her absence, like that of Nadia and Kya’s mothers, requiring an explanation. A mother who leaves her children is an aberration, defective in natural instincts, and therefore requiring more study than her fatherly counterparts. Danny eventually receives this explanation when his sister falls ill, finding his mother at her bedside after a 40-year disappearance. Her justifications are selfless to the point of narcissistic self-obsession, telling her son that she was unable to live in such an ostentatious house when the global poor--to whom she has dedicated her life--needed her. With this rationale, she embodies yet another trope of the absent mother: selfishness. Despite the altruism that has characterized her life, her belief that ‘the poor’ needed her more than her own children singles her out as a selfish person, inflating her sense of self-importance to the detriment of the nuclear family. Any parent who leaves their children could reasonably be met with accusations of selfishness, but is the absent mother that demands the lengthy examination, needing to be analyzed in a critically lauded bestseller.
The missing or dead mother has long been a trauma ripe for exploration in mass media--from Disney movies, to these three novels, to recent Pulitzer-Prize winners The Goldfinch and All the Light We Cannot See. As we are met with a barrage of novels that emphasize the particularities of a maternal betrayal, it is incumbent upon readers to examine the ingrained assumptions that make these stories uniquely fascinating, from the devotion demanded from mothers, their perceived centrality in the ‘stable’ family, and the assumed ‘natural’ nature of these instincts that identifies mothers who deviate as a singular, unexplainable threat.
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