If You Liked x, Read y: Mother Guilt Edition

May 5, 2016

From Ayelet Waldman’s Bad Mother to Arleen Paré’s Leaving Now (Caitlin Press), non-fiction and fiction alike reflects the anxieties of modern mothers to be “good mothers”. With Mother’s Day coming up, we try to deconstruct this harmful narrative with a little help from our friends (books, duh).

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As we gear up to celebrate great moms on Mother’s Day this Sunday, let’s take a brief moment to ask ourselves, “great in contrast to what, exactly?” Mothers literally labour to get us here – whether through themselves or through arduous adoption processes – and then spend every waking hour (which is a much bigger proportion of the day, incidentally, than it was before children) caring for us.

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And yet, mothers are consistently judged for their choices. You fed your child Wonderbread? You let them walk home from school, alone? Their “screen-time” exceeded 45 minutes yesterday? It’s these kinds of pearl-clutching questions that author Ayelet Waldman addresses in her best-selling memoir, Bad Mother: A Chronicle of Maternal Crimes, Minor Calamities, and Occasional Moments of Grace. In her book, Waldman dismisses the litany of criticisms that have been launched at her before and since becoming a public “bad mother” – including when a woman screamed “Let me at her!” at an Oprah taping.

Arleen Paré’s Leaving Now from Caitlin Press is a literary exploration of what Waldman observes: that a mother’s love is seldom enough in an environment of extreme scrutiny. Set at the height of second-wave feminism in the 1970s and 1980s, it examines the heartbreak of a mother who chooses to leave her husband to live with another woman, and her abandonment, however brief, of her child in the process. As she struggles with her decision, she’s met by Gudrun, the five-hundred year old, almost forgotten mother of Hansel and Gretel. Paré's prose – herself a winner of the Governor General's Award for Poetry – is as beautifully sad as the story:

See, she says, I’m still here.

No, I say to the empty space in front of me, I can’t see you. I feel foolish, answering a disembodied voice, talking to nothing-really-there.

Of course, she says. Ja, sometimes I still forget. I am invisible in kitchens.

This strikes me as odd, because I’m always worrying about own invisibility, how much I can or can’t be seen. If we go outside, to a park maybe, she says, you will see me. This occurs in kitchens. Ja, mainly now in kitchens.

Gudrun offers her own fabled tale of abandoning her children to the woods, and through it the anguished young protagonist attempts to heal.

 

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Craving more Bad Mothers? Check out Margaret Christakos’ piece, " Daring the Bad Mother Narrative ."


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