Absent, controlling, refrigerator, suffocating, meddling, neglectful or just plain sadistic, there are plenty of bad mothers to be found in film and fiction. The worst are the monsters who never question their own actions, who discipline, pimp, thwart or criticise with narcissistic abandon.
Many writers have explored their relationships with their own mothers – Mrs Ramsay in To the Lighthouse, Mrs Morel in Sons and Lovers – or heightened the drama of a female character’s plight by giving her children – Madame Bovary, Anna Karenina – but surprisingly few narratives unravel the trials and tribulations of being a mother.
Mrs Bennet in Pride and Prejudice and ‘Marmee’ March in Little Women are honourable exceptions where we get to see the ambitions and mistakes, the forbearance and grief that generally goes with the job.
Most of us – we hope – are ‘good enough’ mothers, but I suspect that most of us have feared at one time or another that we are bad mothers, that our struggles with the role will inflict lasting damage. Sometimes we resent our children’s demands and long guiltily for escape. But our relationship with the growing and changing individuals who are our children are often the most intense of our lives.
Where is the body of fiction that deals with the conflicts and passion of parenthood? In The Art of Fiction Henry James asked why the novel had to be be about ‘adventures’ and not about ‘matrimony, or celibacy, or parturition’. It’s a good question, and one I’ve tried to answer in my new novel, The Bad Mother.