When Mother Leaves the Room

Anne Enright in The New York Times:

MomEvery year on Mother’s Day the lists appear: Bad Mothers in Fiction, Monstrous Mothers in Literature, 10 Worst Mothers in Books We Love. There are a few Most Wonderful lists, but these mothers are not from books generally recognized as great or enduring works. The two most famous are Caroline Ingalls in “Little House on the Prairie” and Marmee in “Little Women” — it’s a bonnet thing perhaps, though a good straw poke does not save Mrs. Bennet in “Pride and Prejudice” from the charge of foolishness. This makes you a bad mother too, apparently. Perhaps there should be an exam. Who could pass it? To be ordinary in any way — weak, fallible, occasionally drunk or desiring, all of these make you a liability to your fictional children’s fictional well- being. Thank goodness reality is not like that.

It’s a given that adulterous women make poor mothers; this is both sin and punishment for Emma Bovary and Anna Karenina, who lose not just their children, but their proper maternal instinct. First, and perhaps forgivably, they fall out of love with their husbands, but this leads them, somehow, to fall out of love with their own progeny. The perversion of the natural order becomes horribly perfect in Waugh’s “A Handful of Dust,” when Brenda Last blurts “Thank God” when she hears her son has died, and not, as she had supposed, her lover of the same name. When desire is in the air, motherhood becomes problematic. This despite the fact that sex causes motherhood. It is a fact worth stating sometimes that sex, in itself, cannot turn you into a whore, no matter what the nuns told you then or pornography tells you now, but it really can turn you into a mother. After which, of course, you are never allowed to have sex again.

More here.