I wrote The Astonishing Return of Norah Wells, the story of a mother who walks out on her young family, when I was pregnant – and edited it when my little girl was a newborn. I was living the emotions of the two women at the heart of my story: Norah, The Mother Who Left, and Fay, The Mother Who Stayed.
Many books have accompanied me on the journey to understanding motherhood and why mothers stick it out and why mothers leave. Perhaps the most influential has been Rachel Cusks’s, A Life’s Work. I remember sitting in a coffee shop sobbing as I read her reflections on motherhood. Here was a woman who understood what it meant to be a mother and what it meant to be a writer and the tricky nature of getting those two characters to cohabit.
A mother leaving her family is one of society’s greatest taboos. I have been inspired by novels and plays that imagine the lives of women who stay with or walk out on their children In Ancient Greece, the all-male audiences of Euripides’ Medea quaked at the prospect of a mother’s ultimate abandonment of her children through filicide. A few years ago, Lionel Shriver’s We Need To Talk About Kevin asked the starkest of questions: what happens when a mother doesn’t love her child?
A Doll’s House was a direct inspiration for my writing of The Astonishing Return of Norah Wells. It is amazing to imagine that a bearded, nineteenth century, Norwegian playwright, and a man at that, could write about a woman needing to leave her young family to find herself. And have a read of these lines spoken by Rita in another of Ibsen’s plays, Little Eyolf:
I can’t go on just being Eyolf’s mother. And only that. Nothing else. I won’t, I tell you! I can’t!
Ibsen understood what it meant for a woman to be defined and so, to some extent, defined by motherhood.
Perhaps every generation of mothers believes that they have it hardest but I suspect that my generation finds it hardest of all. Not because it is harder, but because we were brought up with a big promise: that we could have it all. That we could have our high flying jobs and our social lives and our love lives and our creative lives – and be mothers too. I do not doubt that some of those mothers who do walk away do so out of a sense of betrayal, that life had not delivered. And so the question of what it means to be a mother, and whether a mother ever has the right to walk out on her family, is more pertinent than ever.
Mothers Who Left:
- A Doll’s House by Henrik Ibsen
It is said that when Nora slammed the door at the end of A Doll’s House, walking out on her husband and small children, the whole of Europe shook. Theatre critics ordered Ibsen to re-write the end of his play in which Nora walked out on her family. The world was not ready for a mother walking out on her children. Yet Nora had to leave to be free. It is my ‘what if’ imagining of a scenario whereby Nora returns to her family, years later, that sparked my own novel, The Astonishing Return of Norah Wells.
- Ladder of The Years by Anne Tyler
Tyler’s prose is gentle. It is perhaps this gentleness that makes the decisions of her characters all the more shocking. In Ladder of The Years, we follow a frustrated mother and housewife, forty-year-old Cordelia Grinstead, taking her family to the seaside. Dressed only in a swimming costume and bathrobe, she walks away from them, literally – down the beach. And she keeps going. The abruptness of Cordelia’s departure – and the fact that those around her do not understand her actions once she has left – inspired me as I crafted Norah’s departure in my novel.
- Where’d You Go, Bernadette by Maria Semple
A gorgeous, quirky book about 15-year-old Bee girl who goes on the journey of a lifetime to find her missing mother, the bonkers, talented and mischievous Bernadette Fox. I loved this on a personal level, not because my mother left – she most definitely stayed – but because my mother, like Bernadette, is slightly off beat.
- Pieces of My Mother: A Memoir by Melissa Cistaro
A moving memoir about how Melissa Cistaro’s mother drove off one summer without explanation. It takes 35 years for Melissa to see her mother again, and to question her about why she left. I love how Cistaro brings together the story of her coming of age through an exploration of what drives mothers to leave their families.
- We Need To Talk About Kevin: Lionel Shriver
I umed and ahed about whether to put this in the Mothers Who Left or Mothers Who Stayed category. Eva was a reluctant mother to begin with (another taboo). On the one hand, she sticks it out, and I mean really sticks it out, and is now forced to confront whether her reluctance or ambivalence causes her son’s actions. On the other hand, Eva abandons her son in the most radical way of all: she fails to love him.
Mothers Who Stayed:
- A Life’s Work by Rachel Cusk
A truthful account of how hard a woman (who loves her children very much), finds it to be trapped by the demands of motherhood, when this was published in 2001, it caused shockwaves. Female readers and critics were particularly harsh: one columnist suggested that social services should take Cusk’s children into care as she was obviously incapable of looking after them. One line, which expresses the paradox of motherhood perfectly, will always stay with me: ‘I am not complete when I am with them; I am not complete when I am without them.’
- Room by Emma Donoghue
One of my favourite novels of all time. And perhaps it’s cheating to give ‘Ma’ a credit for staying as she didn’t have a choice: she has been held hostage in a room with her son, Jack, now five, since before his birth. But what makes this novel so extraordinary is that she stays, not just because she has to, in a physical sense, but because she wants to give her son a life, no matter how limited that life might be.
- The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver
Narrated by five women, it tells the story of how the fiercely zealous Nathan Price drags his wife and four daughters to the heart of the Belgian Congo in 1959. It’s one of those books that made me seethe with rage: Just leave him! I wanted to yell at Orleanna Price, the mother. But she stayed – for him and for her daughters. Stoically protecting her daughters through Nathan’s doomed and crazy mission. Orleanna is one of literature’s great mothers.
- Not Without My Daughter by Betty Mahmoody
I was thirteen my father walked out on my mother. I read this just weeks later. I remember sitting for hours, gulping down the extraordinary true story of Betty Mahmoody and her four-year-old daughter, Mahtob. Arriving in Iran from the USA, Betty is shocked by how women are treated in Iran. She is desperate to return home, but her increasingly aggressive husband will only let her go home if she leaves her daughter behind.
- Beloved by Toni Morrison
One of the most incredible novels of all time, though I imagine a few raised eyebrows at including this novel in the mothers who stayed category. Despite the ultimate separation between mother and child – Sethe kills her baby daughter, Beloved – Beloved remains as close, if not closer, to Sethe than any living character. And, unlike Medea, who killed her sons out of revenge, Sethe kills Beloved to save her from a life of poverty, rape and slavery.
And here’s my contribution to this wonderful canon of books on motherhood: