The Sunday Magazine

What makes a 'good mother'? Writer Ashley Audrain explores the dark side of motherhood

In her debut novel, The Push, writer Ashley Audrain takes those taboo feelings about motherhood — the doubt, the loneliness, the way you suddenly dislike your spouse — and cranks them all the way up.

Psychological thriller The Push explores the motherhood taboos we still won’t talk about

Canadian writer Ashley Audrain, whose debut novel The Push has been generating buzz, says she wants to create space for honest conversations about motherhood. (Alex Moskalyk)

If you're a mother, is it everything you expected? If you have a mom, does she live up to your idea of what a mother should be? 

In her debut novel, The Push, Canadian writer Ashley Audrain takes all those feelings about motherhood — the doubt, the loneliness, the regret — and cranks them all the way up. 

"Because there is so much fear and anxiety in motherhood, and because it's such an unexplored kind of territory — the darker side of it — we see a lot of tropes of motherhood in fiction and even on the screen," Audrain said in an interview with The Sunday Magazine host Piya Chattopadhyay.

"And I really wanted to explore a character who was going through a very real, very dark experience." 

The book follows Blythe as she becomes a mom to a daughter that she doesn't bond with, then a son that she does, and confronts who her children are and what they are capable of. 

Audrain has called her novel a "psychological drama told through the lens of motherhood," and has generated a lot of buzz, drawing comparisons to bestsellers like We Need to Talk about Kevin and The Perfect Nanny. 

She spoke to Chattopadyay about some of the themes she tackles in her book: what a mother is, what our culture thinks it should be, and what happens when things don't go according to plan. 

Let me ask you a basic question which you have been asked many times in your life before, and so have I: Are you a good mom? 

You know, it's a great question. 

It's a terrible question.

Yes, it is. I mean, it's funny. I thought a lot about what makes a good mother in writing this book and even that term good mother. 

Of course, we would all like to think we are good mothers. And I can honestly say there are days when I feel like a good mother, and there are days when I feel like a very bad mother. And I think that that's quite normal. 

I think that that's a typical motherhood experience, whether we like to acknowledge that or not.

I say it's a terrible question, but I asked it intentionally, and it's a question that I think a lot about. Felicity Huffman, the actor, many years ago, was asked in an interview if she's a good mom, and her response was, "I can't answer that because you're never allowed to say no." It was a moment of realization for me that we're not allowed to say that we even feel like we're not good enough, that that's the pressure that's put on all of us. 

Exactly, and I think that there's so much expectation put on us to be society's idea of what a good mother is. And I thought a lot about why that is. Why do we expect women to be good mothers? 

I think that we make such a strong connection between womanhood and motherhood, and in doing that, we create this sort of expectation that motherhood must come naturally to us. It must be a natural desire for women to want to be a mother. 

The Push is Canadian author Ashley Audrain's first book, but the domestic thriller is already expected to be one of the biggest books of 2021. (Viking Canada)

The other reason I bring it up, of course, is because you wrote it in the first few pages of your book. Your main character, Blythe, says we all expect to have and to marry and to be good mothers. Why does she think that? 

Well, I think we're sort of trained to speak about motherhood and think about motherhood in a way that assumes that every woman will be good at it. And in writing this book, I realized how many times I have said to somebody who is pregnant, "Oh, you're going to be such a great mother" or "Oh, you're going to be such a natural" when someone's pregnant and, say, holding another baby. And we don't think twice about saying that to women. 

And I think that we use that language sort of almost without thinking. It's just ingrained in us. But we don't really think about what that's really saying to a woman, or the pressure and the expectations that that is implying. 

You really get your readers to get into the head of a character who doesn't instantly bond with her child. Why did you want to take us into that part of her, into someone who doesn't instantly bond with their child, and just let that feeling fester? 

We've come pretty far in terms of what we do talk about with motherhood, [like] postpartum depression and that experience. But I think the bigger taboos that still exist are those longer-term problems.

The bigger taboos in motherhood that we don't talk about are the mothers who don't like their children, the mothers who can't find that love down the road, even after the hormones have settled and all the changes in their body, chemically and physically, have settled. 

There are mothers who regret the decision to have a child and will never speak about that, and then there are mothers whose child has done something that they can't forgive, and that is the case of Blythe. That is where she is at. 

She is at a place where this is not a short-lived experience. This is her life. She's desperate to find the kind of motherhood experience that she wants to have, and she just cannot. And those, I think, are the things that we really cannot talk about. 

You're kind of damned if you do, damned if you don't as a mom in 2020, trying to walk through this world and trying to just be honest about it. I want to ask you who your book is for. What are you trying to add with this book to the conversations that we do and don't have about motherhood? 
 
I really hope that The Push leaves readers understanding the importance of creating space for honest conversation with the women and the mothers that they hold dearest in their life, because I think ultimately, that's what this comes down to, is that … whether you want to acknowledge it or not, these feelings are there. 

These challenging experiences of the mothers in your life are real. And unless we create opportunity and space to talk about that, to have a conversation about that, to make all of that OK, we're doing the women that we love the most a disservice. 

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

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