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20th March 2023

Mother and child: Exploring the complexity of Mother’s Day

As much as Mother’s day can be a day of celebration for some, for others it can be one of the hardest days of the year – with that in mind here are some books to explore the harder side of Mother’s day.
Mother and child: Exploring the complexity of Mother’s Day
Photo: Josh Applegate @ Unsplash

14Given the recent passing of Mother’s Day, I started thinking about novels about mothers. More specifically, novels that explored mother-daughter relationships. Relationships that are intense, sometimes painful and so complex. Most women I know tend to have a dynamic like this with their mothers. It’s truly something else to be your mother’s daughter and to experience the love we have for each other. 

Even though Mother’s Day is a day of love and appreciation for your mother, I feel as though most of us have internalised some of their pain and anger leading to an interesting relationship. Here are three book suggestions that explore these.

Warning: Spoilers and discussion of sensitive topics.

You Exist Too Much

Zaina Arafat’s fascinating debut follows an unnamed young American-Palestinian woman who has a deep quest for love. This longing she has is so intense that she describes it as a ‘love addiction’. Arafat’s protagonist is a bisexual Muslim woman who tells her story of many destructive and self-sabotaged relationships. She’s a dynamic, likeable, complex woman and her journey was a frustrating one to read. 

After each relationship fails, she describes it as an endless cycle with these unattainable men and women, there is a complex and intricate link back to Palestine or her mother. 

She mourns her homeland as she speaks about how Palestinians were exiled and the question of whether the country is even on the map makes it difficult for her to form an identity. Migrating to America at twelve years old and feeling like she never belonged here, she tries to find comfort and a sense of longing in strangers’ arms instead. 

She has a complex relationship with her mother who is unsympathetic to her daughter’s mental health, telling her that her sensitivity is just her simply existing too much. Arafat’s protagonist also being bisexual causes a lot of issues as her mother is a religious woman who is homophobic.

Her mother has outbursts of hysterics, seems lost in a country that is so different culturally and fails to understand her daughter. She longs to be accepted by her family but also longs to be who she desires to be. Their relationship is non-existent and she feels no connection in America, and so she goes from country to country.

The internal conflict and the otherness she experiences lead to more self-destructive habits such as substance abuse. Wherever she goes, she has a fickle romance that ends and leaves her feeling even more of a void. She finds herself in group therapy, wanting to discover why she always wants what she cannot have. Why does she desire the unattainable?

The novel ends with a touching realisation. It’s heartbreaking, but also so hopeful that it truly moved me. She realises her mother’s struggles have been passed onto her, and they are both lost in a country that they don’t belong to. There is an unattainable yearning and need for a mother’s love which she realises she cannot fulfil through these relationships.

There’s a quest for a homeland that may not even exist and is slipping away and it appears that perhaps she can’t find a home in other people’s arms either. Yet, she’s still hopeful that she will find the love she deserves and I truly believe it for her.

Sharp Objects

Gillian Flynn’s moody thriller debut follows the protagonist, Camille, who goes back to her hometown to write a report regarding the recent murder of a young girl. As the murder mystery unfolds, her return to her hometown triggers deep wounds from her childhood. 

One of the major wounds is family. Haunted by her sister’s death as well as living with her mother who she has a complex relationship, leads her to go back to indulging in self-destructive habits.

Her mother, Adora, also has a young stepdaughter called Amma who Camille had not yet met. Amma is a Lolita-esque character that the protagonist describes in a provocative way which was at times uncomfortable to read. Camille cannot help but feel envious of the relationship as her mother coddles Camilla as Amma always tends to become ill, and Adora is always ready to aid with ritualistic and intimate moments involving medicines, oils, and homemade remedies. 

Camille highlights her rocky relationship with her mother, as she refused her mother’s attention and care when she was younger. However, her mother was never affectionate, leading her to wonder if her mother had even loved her. It leads to the cutting and provoking line “I just think some women aren’t made to be mothers. And some women aren’t made to be daughters.’”

It is then later revealed that it was Adora who killed Camille’s sister by making her ill, to then medicate her for attention and adoration. This leads Camille to believe Adora is the murderer. 

Interestingly, where Camille refused to have Adora’s medications and attention, Amma was aware of what her stepmother was doing and enjoyed being taken care of. She even longs for ritualistic medications as that is how she was raised.

This shows how her mother’s actions can be so detrimental to her young daughter’s development. It has led to her finding comfort in that harm and made her indulge in pain, as she explains to Camille “a child weaned on poison considers harm a comfort.”

The novel also explores how Camille, even as an adult, is afraid of how her mother continues to affect her. She takes in Amma, and when taking care of her she contemplates if she enjoys taking care of Amma for her own selfishness or does she want Amma to become better. Is the harm a mother does generational? Is she her mother’s daughter?

Transcendent Kingdom

Transcendent Kingdom is truly a favourite of mine. A quiet novel exploring loss, religion and philosophy through a family that has come apart.

Gifty is a talented PhD candidate researching and experimenting with reward-seeking behaviour on mice by getting them addicted to sugary energy drinks. Her parents had migrated from Ghana. Moving to Alabama had been hard for the family, leading her father to abandon them and go back to Ghana as the struggles of a black man in America had been too much for him. Her beloved brother Nana tragically passed away from opioid addiction, inspiring her research on addiction.

This then only leaves Gifty and her mother living with each other as she grows up. They only have each other, except Gifty’s mother was emotionally absent so she grew up feeling isolated, leading her to become a hyper-independent and guarded woman.

Her mother becomes ill from grief and Gifty tries to help support her whilst also trying to navigate her own life as a young woman- a situation that many daughters of immigrant parents can resonate with.

The novel explores many questions from family to larger scale things such as philosophy and intellectualism but also doesn’t really answer them. It leads Gifty and the reader into a state of rumination.

As her mother’s mental health deteriorates, she comes to live with Gifty. As mother and daughter live together once again, Gifty is reminded of her childhood and the troubling memories that she can no longer avoid. She narrates about how her older brother was so loved and talented, how her mother was so callous and cold, and the struggles she experienced as a first-generation young black girl in Alabama. 

Religion was a big part of Gifty’s childhood, with her describing faith as an intense and real experience which she has now given up on due to the losses and pain she has experienced. It does not offer the answers she desires, and cannot give her the comfort she longs for. 

She turns to science instead for clarity but she only realises that both science and religion are  ‘‘valuable ways of seeing, but ultimately both have failed to fully satisfy in their aim: to make clear, to make meaning.” As she does her research she asks the question, “Could it get a brother to set down a needle? Could it get a mother out of bed?”

There is aching desperation in this novel as we witness the world through Gifty, where everything seems to be blurred and conflicted. 

There is a moment in the novel when her mother disappears and Gifty is in a state of desperation trying to seek her. She prays and pleads quietly to a sky that she believes is empty. Except who can she rely on? Can science or religion help her? What if it is neither? If that’s the case, will they still be okay?

As much as Mother’s day is a time for celebration for some, for others, it can be one of the hardest days of the year. These books explore the harder side of the relationship and hopefully can provide both insight and comfort for those that find Mothers day a tricky time.

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