These tiny people, they’re not about you. They are not for you. They do not belong to you. They’re under your care, is all, and it’s your job to work at being a decent human being, love them well and a lot, don’t put your problems on them, don’t make your problems their problems, don’t use them to occupy empty parts of yourself.
What chance, then, for mothers who are almost babies themselves? The Wacky Man by Lyn G Farrell starts with Barbara, from Lancashire, meeting Irishman Seamus at a church do. She likes him, but she’s put off by the coldness and coarseness of his family when they travel to Ireland for his sister’s wedding. Yet she’s excited when her dad agrees that she can stay with his sisters in Manchester after a dance. She’s somewhat less enamoured when she realises that he’s got her drunk in order to have sex with her. When they find out she’s pregnant, her parents, and especially her father who sees “love as a matter of possession”, are reassured by Seamus’s offer of marriage. In the hospital, a new mother of twin boys, all she wants is to go back to the life she had before (p39):
Barbara feels like she is one of these babies strewn across the ward, needing to hold onto the comfort of a mother. She feels her heart beating, and its rhythm, thump-thump-thumping away, makes her feel that she is being controlled from the inside out. You don’t live life, she thinks, life lives you … She’s nothing now but a receptacle for her husband to empty himself into or babies to be pulled out of.
Barbara copes through a fug of antidepressants and a cultural commandment to keep up appearances. It’s not a great place from which to nurture a fragile new human being, especially when she feels as needy as a baby herself.
The picture is similar for Emilie in The Gustav Sonata by Rose Tremain. Exhausted and depressed, partly through the deprivations of her own childhood, she neglects her baby (p146):
Sometimes, she lets him scream. She’s so tired, she can doze through the horrible noise. She tells herself that nothing bad is happening to him; he’s just a bit hungry, or wet, or just plain bad-tempered … She imagined motherhood would cure the sorrows of the past and make her contented and proud. But it isn’t like that. She nurtures the terrible thought that this Gustav is the wrong Gustav; the baby she lost was the rightful son, with whom she would have found a thrilling maternal bond.
Emilie’s rationalisations of her behaviour are understandable, bizarre as they might be. I imagine both she and Barbara being highly motivated to forget, or disconnect from, how they felt in those early months of motherhood. So it’s interesting to come across a fictional mother who does remember, perhaps triggered by the comparable vulnerability of old age. In Prosperity Drive by Mary Morrissy, Edel is unwell (with something undefined but seriously disabling) and her daughter, Norah, has moved in with her. Having fallen at the top of the stairs, Edel is sure Norah is aware what’s happened (p4):
She thinks she understands why lately Norah has refused to come running. Payback. When the girls were babies and woke in the night and she was an exhausted young mother, she would often lie in bed just listening. She would be wide awake but resistant to the drowsy peeved wails of Norah or Trish … She’d tell herself that it was only laziness that kept her horizontal, or the hope that it was one of those cries that might die away rather than rev up into something more hostile and aggrieved, but she knows, too, there was sadism in her refusal. Let them cry for a bit, she would think, why don’t I just let them cry.
This blatant acknowledgement of the hatred of a mother for her baby is unusual, I think, although the psychoanalyst and paediatrician, Donald Winnicott, in his classic paper Hate in the Counter Transference, argues that the hatred is not only normal, but the inevitable companion to love. But the mother who lacks the support to contain these feelings is at risk of becoming depressed and leaving her baby to cry.
In my own novel, Underneath, Steve’s mother, Marjorie, who was grieving for her husband when he was born, and cannot create the conditions in which her son will grow to feel secure. She also connects to her hatred in later life but, in this case, others are able to pass it off is due to her dementia. In this scene, Steve has come to visit her in a care home where she now lives, alone for the first time (p137-8):
Mum seemed to grow another inch as she hitched herself up in the chair. She didn’t look straight past me like she had when I’d come with the twins. She didn’t avert her gaze towards someone more alluring, as she had when I introduced her to Liesel. She focused on me, and nothing but me, from my trainers to my cropped black hair. Then she let out a scream that made even the rapper on the radio pause. “Get out! This is a ladies’ waiting room.”
Alexa’s cheeks were flushed as she patted Mum’s hand. “Marjorie! That is no way to speak to your son when he has travelled all this way to see you. What will he think of us?”
“Get out of here! Get out of my life!” Alexa lumbered to her feet and turned to me. “I do not know what has got into her. She is normally so friendly.”
“Perhaps I should go?”
“No,” said Alexa. “I will settle her. She has confused you with someone else.”
The goldfish swam down the tank and back again. The Malaysian care worker escorted a resident from the room, a dark patch spreading across the back of her skirt. The rapper stabbed the air. “Do you see that handsome man in the navy shirt?” said Alexa.
“You need your eyes checked, girl,” said Mum, “if you call that handsome.”
“Have you seen him before?”
“Of course I have. Didn’t I have to look at his ugly mug every day of my life for eighteen long years?”
An old man coughed. Alexa shook her head. “Listen, Marjorie, how about a song? Rock-a-bye baby on the tree tops …”
Spittle gathered in the corners of Mum’s mouth. Pulling away from Alexa, and pushing against the arms of the chair, she shuddered to her feet. The stringy sinews stood out on her forearm as she raised her fist. “I never wanted that baby,” she screamed. “Horrid little squirt killed my husband!”
Have you come across any other fictional depressed mothers – or do you avoid them?
You can read more stories underneath the story of Underneath, including others on the blog tour by clicking the link.