his father and the trained nanny [...]. The nanny that Ricardo had insisted on from the moment she had given birth, making her feel useless and inadequate, in a way that must have contributed to her breakdown. (36)As the above quotation indicates, Lucy's abandonment of her child is ascribed to a temporary cause, and since "The doctors said that she was well again now" (18) there is no reason for the reader to believe it will affect her ability to be a "loving mother," a "good mother" in the future.
What does one have to do, though, in order to qualify as a "good mother"? Lucy seems to convince her husband that she's a good mother at least in part by how she picks up the baby and changes his nappy:
She almost laughed as she laid Marco on his back on the brightly coloured changing mat. This was something she knew how to do.and how she feeds him:
'Let's get you cleaned up ...'
Unfastening the sleep suit, removing the dirty nappy, cleaning, was the work of moments. And she enjoyed it - doing this simple task for her baby. Even when Marco waved his arms and legs wildly in the air, wriggling so that it was a struggle to get the nappy on and fastened, she couldn't hold back the soft chuckle of appreciation of his life and energy. Forgetting about the dark, watchful man behind her, she bent her head and blew a loud raspberry on his exposed stomach, revelling in its soft roundness, the uncontrollable giggles that burst from him in response. (115)
She was looking down at Marco, laughing softly as the little boy squished his banana in his hand, obviously revelling in the mess he was making and the feel of it between his fingers. And Marco was watching her, his wide smile a beam of delight as he held up the sticky mess for her to see. (118)Obviously one has to interpret Lucy's happiness in these scenes in the context of her previous separation from her baby. Having feared she might never see him again, it's entirely understandable that she should feel delighted to have the opportunity to spend time with him. It's also important to remember that the book is about a heroine who had "Post-natal psychosis" (171). Nonetheless, what is depicted for the reader are scenes which present motherhood as a source of joy.
The depiction of motherhood in Angela Thirkell's High Rising (1933) is rather different. In part this is because of the very different circumstances in which the two mothers find themselves, but I think it may also reflect different attitudes towards motherhood. It should also be noted that Thirkell's novel is more "romantic fiction" than "romance" since the central protagonist, Laura, is not involved in a romantic relationship (she does get involved in a bit of matchmaking for others). She's a forty-five year old author and widowed mother-of-four who, at the beginning of the novel, is collecting her youngest from boarding school. I wonder how many modern heroine-mothers would choose this option for their children? Clearly the many billionaire/sheik etc heroes could easily afford to educate their children this way, and some have been to boarding schools themselves. Maybe the ages of the children in romances play a part in how schooling choices are depicted in the genre, but I wonder if nowadays more people feel that children should stay with their parents. The heroine of Janet Evanovich's Smitten in fact broke up with her husband over this issue rather than over his infidelity:
"It turned out we had different expectations about marriage. Paul expected me to close my eyes to constant indiscretions, and I expected him to be faithful to me."For Laura, and other mothers of her class and era, sending children to boarding school would have seemed entirely normal, and although she may wonder, "as she had often wondered with the three older boys, why one's offspring are under some kind of compulsion to alienate one's affections at first sight by their conceit, egotism, and appalling self-satisfaction" (4) she does love her sons. It seems unlikely, however, that she would respond with joy to a sticky mess, no matter how much a child was "revelling" in it. This is a woman who admits to feeling rather "exhausted" after bringing up so many children:
Lizabeth waved it away. "Actually, I could have lived with that. What finally drove me out of the marriage was when he insisted that the boys go to boarding school. Paul had political ambitions. He wanted me to be a perfect hostess. He found the children to be a burden." (24)
When for about a quarter of a century you have been fighting strong young creatures with a natural bias towards dirt, untidiness, and carelessness, quite unmoved by noise, looking upon loud, unmeaning quarrels and abuse as the essence of polite conversation, oblivious of all convenience and comfort but their own, your resistance weakens. (21-22)And when she has finally got her son into his bed after his first day home for the holidays, she
shut the door and reeled downstairs. [...] Oh, the exhaustingness of the healthy young! Laura had once offered to edit a book called Why I Hate my Children, but though Adrian Coates [her editor] had offered her every encouragement, and every mother of her acquaintance had offered to contribute, it had never taken shape. Perhaps, she thought, as she stood by Tony's bed an hour later, they wouldn't be so nice if they weren't so hateful.The ways in which heroes respond to mothers also vary. Amanda Vickery describes one depiction of motherhood thus:
There lay her demon son, in abandoned repose. His cheeks, so cool and firm in the day, had turned to softest rose-petal jelly, and looked as if they might melt upon the pillow. His mouth was fit for poets to sing. His hands - spotlessly clean for a brief space - still had dimples where later bony knuckles would be [...] she tucked the bedclothes in, kissed her adorable hateful child, who never stirred, and turning out the light left the room. (39-40)
When Samuel Richardson singled out the breast-feeding mother in Sir Charles Grandison (1753-4), one of the most popular novels of the century, he presented a traditional duty in a haze of beguiling limelight. Witness the scene when the once naughty Lady G. is surprised with her babe at the breast by her estranged husband:Heroes in modern romances may not express themselves in quite these words, or feel "rapture" of exactly the same kind, but they too often react extremely strongly to motherhood:Never was a man in greater rapture. For lady Gertrude had taught him to wish that a mother would be a mother: He Threw himself at my feet, clasping me and the little varlet together in his arms. Brute! said I, will you smother my Harriet - I was half-ashamed of my tenderness - Dear-est, dear-est, dear-est Lady G. - Shaking his head, between every dear and est, every muscle of his face working; how you transport me! - Never, never, never, saw I so delightful a sight! (Vickery 93-94)
Her body was preparing itself for the birth of their baby and the thought of that was a massive turn-on. (Williams 107)There are, of course, plenty of romances involving pregnant heroines who become involved with a new man, but occasionally I've come across characters who would rather not begin a relationship with a woman who's a mother. In Janet Evanovich's Smitten, for example, the hero hesitates before kissing the heroine:
'You're very sexy, pregnant,' he whispered.
'No, I'm not.'
'You are to me. [...] We men are simple creatures [...] Evidence of our virility can't help but prove satisfying. Call it a weird macho thing.' (Williams 108)
He didn't want to come on too strong or too fast and frighten her away. And he didn't want to make working conditions awkward. And besides that, she was a mother. He'd never before been involved with a mother. In his eyes motherhood was in the same category as a PhD in physics. It was outside his sphere of knowledge. It was intimidating. And the thought of bedding someone's mother felt a smidgeon irreverent. Not enough to stop him, he thought ruefully. Just enough to slow him down. (17-18)The heroine herself seems to have some preconceptions about what is, or isn't, suitable for a mother to do, but by the end of the novel she appears to have revised at least some of them:
She was in a suggestive position on the trunk when he returned. "Do you think this is undignified for a mother?"So, is this novel grappling with the madonna/whore dichotomy? According to Caroline Myra Pascoe:
He pulled her panties down. "I think this is perfect for a mother." (176)
Images of motherhood in western society have most often ignored maternal sexuality, notwithstanding the sleight of hand that this entails. Anne Summers in Damned Whores and God's Police noted:The modern romance genre, however, provides a reader with plenty of sexually active mothers and mothers-to-be. I suspect that the portrayal of mothers and children varies not just across time (and cultures, classes and many other social variables), but also across different genres. Jennifer Weiner, who writes women's fiction, thinks thatIt is conveniently forgotten that married women must have sexual intercourse in order to reproduce: a general Australian puritanism has managed to convince itself that mothers are not sexual creatures and female sexuality is either denied or relegated entirely to the Damned Whore stereotype.
even though there are blogs and books and first-person essays about the everyday exhaustion and dreariness and frustration of motherhood, the prevailing cultural view is still that motherhood comes with this rose-tinged blissful glow.You might get rather a different view of children and childrearing from the horror genre, however. John Patterson at the Guardian suggests that
The most interesting evil-kid movies seem to rise up from the subconscious of their creators. Stephen King has said that he wrote The Shining when he was drinking a lot to numb his bleakest feelings about family life, and evil and/or seriously scary kids proliferate across his work in that period: Danny and the chopped-up Grady Twins in The Shining; Drew Barrymore in Firestarter; the dead child in Pet Sematary; Isaac in Children Of The Corn. David Cronenberg had a five-year-old daughter when he made his 1979 gyno-horror movie The Brood, with its murderous mutant children, and David Lynch memorialised his complicated feelings about fatherhood with the monstrously deformed baby in Eraserhead. Whereas most kid-slaying horrors play nakedly to the taboo, these films have a sense of anxiety, dread and profound ambiguity about parenthood that often makes them richer as works of art.Those examples were all created by fathers, whereas romances are far more likely to be written by women. Is that just a coincidence? And does the romance genre, as a whole, represent motherhood and children in an idealised way or is it relatively realistic?
- Evanovich, Janet. Smitten. 1990. London: Bantam, 1991.
- Pascoe, Caroline Myra. Screening Mothers: Representations of motherhood in Australian films from 1900 to 1988. PhD thesis. University of Sydney, 2006.
- Thirkell, Angela. High Rising. 1933. Osney Mead, Oxford: Isis, 2000.
- Vickery, Amanda. The Gentleman's Daughter: Women's Lives in Georgian England. New Haven: Yale UP, 1998.
- Walker, Kate. Kept for Her Baby. Richmond, Surrey: Harlequin Mills & Boon, 2009.
- Williams, Cathy. The Italian's One-Night Love-Child. Richmond, Surrey: Harlequin Mills & Boon, 2009.
With thanks to Kate Walker for sending me a copy of Kept for Her Baby, Tumperkin for giving me The Italian's One-Night Love-Child, AgTigress for providing me with a copy of Smitten and Sunita, who recommended Angela Thirkell's novels. The illustration came from Wikimedia Commons.