My mom was a stay-at-home, bake-from-scratch, children-come-first mother. It was a wonderful way to grow up, but I never considered following in her footsteps. And then I had a baby. I was walloped, overtaken by biology, my fierce attachment to my daughter immediately overwhelming. I could do little else but obsess about her well-being. What had become of me? What had become of my drive to write?
Motherhood is complicated, at times baffling. These three books about mothers with daughters made me feel I was not alone in my bewilderment, and perhaps I was even doing better than I thought.
By Carol Shields, paperback, 352 pages, Harper Perennial, list price: $13.95
Unless, Carol Shields' last novel before her death, is the story of Reta Winters, 44, cheerful and comfortable in her life as a translator, an author, the wife of a doctor, and the mother of three teenage girls. But when she learns that her daughter Norah has dropped out of college and is sitting on a Toronto street corner with a sign that says "Goodness" around her neck, Reta's sunniness falls away. She is utterly perplexed by her daughter. Any efforts to speak to Norah are met with silence, which inspires anger in Reta at the men who have carved out a world for themselves, one she convinces herself Norah is rejecting. But at the novel's poignant heart is a mother who can't accept that she doesn't understand her own child.
Amy And Isabelle
By Elizabeth Strout, paperback, 303 pages, Random House, list price: $15
In the second book, Amy and Isabelle, Elizabeth Strout's first novel, a mother is so confounded by her daughter's actions that she erupts in rage. Isabelle Goodrow and her shy 16-year-old daughter, Amy, live in the small mill town of Shirley Falls. When Amy is discovered having a love affair with her math teacher, Isabelle is stupefied. How could the daughter she thought she knew do this? In Isabelle's anger and embarrassment, she lashes out at Amy, fueled by the shame of her own past. Isabelle struggles to navigate her conflicted maternal feelings in this compelling portrait of an intertwined and ultimately resilient relationship.
Anne Sexton: A Biography
By Diane Middlebrook, paperback, 528 pages, Vintage, list price: $17.95
Perhaps the saddest in this collection of mystified mothers is the poet Anne Sexton in Diane Middlebrook's Anne Sexton: A Biography, a deeply moving story of a gifted and self-destructive woman. Sexton's confessional poetry was maverick in her day, a woman speaking about her life in her own voice. But she was also trapped in tradition, a suburban housewife and mother to two daughters, a role for which she was hopelessly unequipped, clouded by mental illness, alcohol, pills and a craving for attention. Sexton could never quite reconcile being a mother with her life as a poet — and with her suicide, she gave it up all together.
Despite having given birth to them, our children may be, at times, unfathomable. I am now the mother of two young daughters, and I would like to think that the stronghold of motherhood has relaxed its grip on me some. I tell myself that I am a less anxious parent than I used to be, that I have regained perspective — at least until the girls are teenagers.
Rae Meadows is the author of Mothers and Daughters. She lives in Minneapolis, Minn.
Three Books... is produced and edited by Ellen Silva with production assistance from Rose Friedman, Lena Moses-Schmitt and Amelia Salutz.