'Mothers, Fathers, and Others' addresses the realities of motherhood
In one of the essays in Mothers, Fathers, and Others, Siri Hustvedt recalls a harrowing incident in which her unbelted toddler daughter Sophie nearly fell out of her stroller as they were descending on an escalator.
Hustvedt, traveling with her family through an airport, was exhausted — a situation all too familiar to harried mothers of toddlers. Her husband, the writer Paul Auster, was trailing behind. Hustvedt quickly grabbed Sophie and a disaster was averted. But a passerby who saw the mishap gave her a look of disgust that remains etched in her mind.
"In his eyes I saw myself: a monster of negligence, the bad mother," Hustvedt writes.
To talk about motherhood in any way other than the fulfilment of one's life's vocation is to invite social scorn. So it's a credit to Hustvedt that she has taken up the indignities of motherhood as a major theme in her new, engrossing book of essays.
A prolific novelist and essayist, Hustvedt has established a reputation for writing across the fixed borders that separate science from the humanities. Her last collection of essays, A Woman Looking at Men Looking at Women, pursued its subject down intersecting paths of personal reminiscence, neuroscience, psychoanalysis, philosophy, literature and the visual arts. Sometimes her cerebral approach can seem dry and extravagant, but now Hustvedt has combined the lively and tactile with more wide angled philosophical questions about perception and reality. Mothers, Fathers, and Others sifts a wide range of memory, experience and disciplinary perspectives into essays that bring into focus the profound contradictions of motherhood. These contradictions, Hustvedt asserts, are eclipsed by the cultural idealization of mothers as the model of self-sacrificing nurturance.
Hustvedt seeks to reclaim the messiness of motherhood. Aren't we, she asks, all mixed up, a melange, a mess? But misogyny denies the ambivalence of motherhood. It cleaves the complex reality of femininity into fixed moral categories of good and bad. "It is an ugly fantasy about power and control, and it distorts truths about shape-shifting dynamic human beings, about how we grow and mingle with one another, and how we spawn both people and ideas," she writes. The notion of the good mother, Hustvedt observes, is a straitjacket. Literally a garment used to restrain psychiatric patients, the metaphor captures the punitive rules for how a mother should feel or act. These norms cause shame and guilt in mothers who, for complex reasons, struggle with child rearing.
The most memorable entries in this collection are Hustvedt's reminiscences of mothers in her extended family. She writes about her grandmother, Tillie, a second generation Norwegian immigrant whose story was suppressed by Hustvedt's father in his record of the family history. Tillie was irascible and wild; the rumor was that she had stolen from a store. But Hustvedt searches for the reality of her grandmother's life beyond family obfuscations and finds it in her remembered image of her hauling metal buckets of water in her home in rural Minnesota: a beleaguered woman in an unhappy marriage and under financial stress. This is Hustvedt revising the Freudian family romance with its usual emphasis on father-son conflict. Her musings foreground feminine experiences in the family drama.
Hustvedt also writes about her mother Ester, an unconventional Norwegian woman who had served prison in Mysen during the Nazi occupation. Like Tillie, Ester cannot be fitted into any neat category. "My mother is not 'The Mother,' an archetype or cliché that inevitably shows up when mothers are invoked, a person squeezed into male/female hierarchies or the cult of the Great Mother or the Virgin Mary or Mother Nature or the mother of soft-focus advertisements in parenting magazines," Hustvedt writes. Ester's portrait, full of vibrant colors and shadows, is startling in its sincerity. We learn that this devoted mother had an extramarital attraction to another man. Purists might be outraged, but this book reminds us that moral outrage at women who are perceived as wild is the fuel of misogyny.
Essays on Jane Austen, Emily Brontë and Louis Bourgeois open windows on different aspects of femininity that push against stereotypical expectations. I enjoyed the Bourgeois essay immensely. Hustvedt draws our attention to Bourgeois' subversive representation of maternity in "all its darkness, light, and fog." Weird, baffling, comic, Bourgeois' vision of pregnancy and childbirth is a perfect example of the messiness of motherhood.
Elsewhere, she traces patriarchal fantasies of paternal birth from the ancient Greeks to the modern science of genetics and the idea of the artificial womb. What this usurpation of female birth does, Hustvedt argues, is to annihilate the maternal role during pregnancy. She illuminates how fantasies are entwined with scientific knowledge. Anthropological insights from Mary Douglas provide the context for understanding Western cultural horror at indiscriminate mixing. Hustvedt delves into misconceptions about the sterile womb, showing us that in fact embryology is about mixing. She reclaims the role of the placenta and the cervical plug in gestation from misogynist imaginings of feminine impurity and pollution. In her hands, gooey body organs and excretions are objects of profound philosophical and medical wonder.
Other essays in the volume give us Hustvedt's reflections on her father, mentors, her intellectual gestation and an assortment of other topics. She recounts her memories in a seamless weave of associations and allusions that mirror the shape-shifting nature of her subject. And there's a twist in her story too. For a book about promiscuous mixing, Hustvedt conjures a deep, symbiotic relationship with her husband, Paul Auster. She writes touchingly of her wish to be burned and buried on top of or underneath her husband depending on who dies first.
Mothers, Fathers, and Others makes a fascinating companion to Motherhood: A Manifesto, Eliane Glaser's recent book about the pernicious cult of the perfect mother. The two books brilliantly capture the joy and pain of motherhood: elation and depression, wonder and weariness, love and hate for the offspring. They introduce you to the reality of motherhood and make a strong case about child rearing as a shared responsibility of couples and society at large. Read them.
Sharmila Mukherjee's writing has been published or is forthcoming in The Seattle Times, The Los Angeles Review of Books, The Star Tribune and The Washington Post. She holds a Phd in English from the University of Washington, Seattle.
Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.