The Other Side of Motherhood

Many young girls were raised to look forward to motherhood. As they grow up, it is inculcated into their system that one of their primary duties in life is to bring a new life into the world. They are made to believe that motherhood is the essence of being a woman. Society raised them to believe motherhood is a rite of passage, a seminal and defining moment in their lives that they must look forward to. In some cultures, motherhood is even considered a sacrosanct event in a young woman’s life that ceremonies and week-long celebrations ensue the delivery of a child. Indeed, many women relished this new phase in their lives. Motherhood redefined their lives and who they are. They bask in their role of raising their child, in sharing a part of their lives to his/her growth and development. However, this is not always the case.

Ashley Audrain’s The Push, introduces the readers to Blythe Connor. She met her husband, Fox, while they were studying in college. They were a picture perfect couple who support each other’s dreams and aspirations; Fox was studying hard to be an architect while Blythe wanted to be a successful fiction writer. By 26, they got married and everything started to unravel when the couple got pregnant with their first child. When Blythe finally delivered Violet, Fox, who have always dreamt of having a child with Blythe, was ecstatic. It was a moment he was looking forward to. Blythe, on the other hand, was filled with skepticism. Doubts filled her mind, making her question her abilities of raising her own child.

To look after their daughter, she had to hold back on her dream and stay at home whilst Fox pursued his dream of becoming an architect. However, contrary to how most new mothers felt, Blythe struggled to feel even a scintilla of love towards her daughter. Fox tried to assuage her doubts by reassuring her of her abilities of being a mother. For a while, Blythe nearly believed him: “Your unconditional belief in me felt magical. I desperately wanted to prove to myself that I was as good as you thought I was.” His assurances did not prevent the formation of an abyss between mother and daughter. It was unsurprising that Violet showed more affection towards her father than her mother. Still, Blythe was stuck with the duty of looking after their daughter who proved to be no easy child. Violet’s stoic veneer belie a manipulative, cunning, and, even a frightening persona. These characteristics, however, did not deceive her mother.

“Before we were conceived, we existed in part as an egg in our mother’s ovary. All the eggs a woman will ever carry form in her ovaries while she is a four-month-old fetus in the womb of her mother. This means our cellular life as an egg begins in the womb of our grandmother. Each of us spent five months in our grandmother’s womb and she in turn formed within the womb of her grandmother. We vibrate to the rhythms of our mother’s blood before she herself is born.”

~ Ashley Audrain, The Push

With Violet turns into a spiteful child, Blythe was forced to grapple with the question of nature-nurture. Was Violet raised or born this way? Blythe echoed a series of increasingly serious incidents to her husband who was quick to downplayed her anxieties. Fox adored his daughter who returned the favor by showering him with more affection. Things started to look up for Blythe when she was pregnant again. The birth of their son, Sam, ushered a reform in Blythe’s emotional balance. Sam brought with him the sun that brightened Blythe’s days. It was a turning point for her; he was her world and she made sure that he is looked after. There was a bond between mother and son that was lacking in Blythe’s relationship with her first child. Just when everything was going right, tragedy strikes, leaving Blythe devastated and shell-shocked.

The Push was related through a second-person perspective. The narrative takes the form of a letter, Blythe’s letter to her husband: “This is my side of the story.” Detailing her experiences and struggles as a mother, Blythe offered the readers a different vantage point from which to observe motherhood. Piercing the veil of of greatness and life-defining moments motherhood was often shrouded in, Audrain gave an intimate peek into the darker side of motherhood – the doubts, the insecurities, and the fears. Blythe’s story was an exploration of women’s fear that they won’t live up to society’s lofty standards of maternal perfection. These were also not easily assuaged by any forms of assurances or votes of confidence, even from the ones we often seek comfort from. Is one expected to measure up to these standards in order to be called a good mother? It was a quandary Blythe, and many women find themselves in.

One can’t help but ask what has caused Blythe’s anxieties and casted doubts on her abilities to be a mother? Through flashbacks that accentuated the main storyline, the readers were given glimpses of Blythe’s matrilineal history. What was unveiled was a history of abusive mother and daughter relationships dating to Blythe’s grandmother, Etta, in the 1930s. The stars aligned for Etta when she married the love of her life, Louis, the son of the town doctor. Unfortunately, tragedy soon ensued, and Etta was left to raise her daughter, Cecilia – Blythe’s mother – on her own. Etta, stuck in the past, was unable to love her daughter or provide the nurture or attention her daughter required. Cecilia grew up virtually motherless. Old wounds die hard and this trauma played a seminal role in the estrangement between Cecilia and Blythe.

How can one be a good mother when one doesn’t have a good role model? Cecilia did give a caveat to her daughter which created a deep impression: “One day, you’ll understand, Blythe. The women in this family…we’re different.” It manifested in gap between Blythe and her daughter. There is, of course, a term to refer to this inability by mothers to provide the needed nurturing and attention to their children. Behavioral analysts referred to it as “attachment disorder”. However, the novel was not preoccupied with the psychoanalytic facets. Audrain provided vivid and concrete details of abuse that Blythe would overhear from Cecilia’s conversations with her husband. As the past threatens to destabilize Blythe’s present, the readers are reminded how the past always figure in the present.

“I looked up and felt nothing for you—not love, not hate, not anything in between. Is this what the end was supposed to feel like? There are people who work through it, who fight for one another, who do it for the children. The life they thought they needed. But I had nothing to fuel the fire. Nothing to give.”

~ Ashley Audrain, The Push

A multilayered narrative, the novel also broke down the pressures and expectations society place on the shoulders of women. The Connors were the archetype of traditional family setup. Without preamble, Blythe took in her role as the house wife once Violet was born. Also without prior agreement, Blythe was expected to sacrifice her dream in order to look after their children. The patriarch, stably employed, was the breadwinner. His role in rearing the children commences once he goes home. The birth of a child can also test the strength of relationships; it can either strengthen it or it can manifest the cracks. At one point, Blythe ruminated on this drastic change: “That was the only thing you cared about. You wanted me alert and patient. You wanted me rested so I could perform my duties. You used to cared about me as a person – my happiness, the things that made me thrive. Now, I was a service provider. You didn’t see me as a woman. I was just the mother of your child.”

Contrasting the concept of a “bad mother”, the novel also tackled the concept of a “bad seed”. Bad seeds are a familiar concept, sensationalized in several films and television series. These contrasts then give the readers various lenses upon which to observe the case of Violet. Was she the product of a multigenerational curse? Or was she a victim of Blythe’s incompetence as a mother? Could it be that Blythe’s paranoia pushed her to the edge of sanity? Blythe can also be seen as a woman wrongfully dismissed as hysterical because of her gender and her instincts are often untrusted. It did not help Blythe’s case that she was an unreliable narrator. She was locked in an endless loop of doubts and certainty. One moment she was pretty sure that her mind was not playing tricks with her. The next moment, her mind tells her otherwise.

One of the novel’s finer facets was Audrain’s writing. She managed to produce an immersive and atmospheric narrative that echoed Gothic elements. The Push was both a riveting and intense drama that was also thought-provoking. She managed to explore the bonds of mothers and daughters whilst underscoring the darker realities of motherhood. The world of literature is brimming with narratives about neglectful mothers and unreliable narrators like Blythe. Audrain managed to hold her candle because of her keen understanding of the situations woven into the novel’s lush tapestry – the exasperation mothers feel towards difficult children, and how the female voices are often discounted in the confusion and pandemonium.

The Push was a multilayered and multifaceted narrative that weaves mystery and an riveting psychological drama. One of its finer layers was its multigenerational character study. The novel painted the vivid portrait of a mother who was both a victim and was her own worst enemy. What resonated deeper in the narrative was its veritable depiction of Blythe’s internal struggles and experiences. Despite her unreliability, one still can’t help but empathize with her plight. Women who are undergoing through the same challenging times can easily relate with Blythe’s story for her story was presented in a manner that was bereft of judgment. Audrain, a mother herself, gave justice for fellow mothers and women like her. However, what was lacking was the voice of the other characters.

“But looking at a photograph of oneself is not proof of an affair. And asking a question about a type of flower is not proof of an affair. These are, though, the kinds of things that fester in a person’s mind until she no longer feels loved; they are the happenings that took us from a place we could have survived, even in the grave face of death that nearly killed me, too, to the place we simply could not come back from. These things became too heavy and too hurtful, habitual abuses in what once felt like the safest place in the world.”

~ Ashley Audrain, The Push

In her bold debut novel, Ashley Audrain challenged the unrealistic standards society placed on women and mothers. Audrain, in a suspenseful albeit thought-provoking manner, managed to explore seminal themes about the dynamics of families, with emphasis on the complexities of relationships between mothers and daughters. In the ideal world, women are expected to be good mothers and that they will bear equally perfect children. Mothers are also expected to form ideal relationships with their children. However, this is not always the case because along the line, the world is brimming with “bad parents” and “bad seeds”. The incorporation of elements of suspense and mental health to the well-layered narrative added an absorbing element of psychological drama. You might be wondering what was the origin of the title. The push represents a pivotal moment in Blythe’s life that made her question herself but, at the same time, gave her a bigger voice.

Ratings

81%

Characters (30%) – 22%
Plot (30%) – 25%
Writing (25%) – 21%
Overall Impact (15%) – 13%

Ashley Audrain’s debut novel, The Push, was a title that was listed by several book readers as a book to look forward to in 2021. This blurb was a major catalyst in the addition of the book to my own 2021 Books I Look Forward To List. Thankfully, I did not have to wait long to have a copy of the book. I do like to read psychological fiction every now and then for it gives an intimate profile of the character. It was one of the reason that despite the novel’s Gothic atmosphere, I managed to enjoy it. It also gave me deeper insights into the fears, anxieties, and struggles that women experience vis-à-vis motherhood. Although I did initially thought of the novel as a horror novel (a genre I avoid), I was glad I pushed through with it. It was not a challenge making a connection with Blythe although I wish that the other characters also rendered their voices to the story.

Book Specs

Author: Ashley Audrain
Publisher: Viking
Publishing Date: June 2021
Number of Pages: 303
Genre: Psychological, Mystery, Thriller

Synopsis

Blythe is determined to be the warm, comforting mother to her new baby, Violet that she herself never had.

But soon, Blythe becomes convinced that something is wrong with her daughter – she doesn’t behave like most children do. Or is it all in Blythe’s head? The more her husband dismisses her fears, the more Blythe begins to question her own sanity.

Then their son, Sam, is born – and with him, Blythe has the blissful connection she’d always imagined with her child. But when their lives are changed in an instant, Blythe must face the truth.

The Push is a tour de force you will read in a sitting, an immersive novel that will challenge everything you think you know about motherhood and what happens when women are not believed.

About the Author

Ashley Audrain was born in 1982 in Newmarket, Ontario, Canada.

Audrain was a graduate of Media, Information & Technoculture program at Western University in London, Ontario. Prior to pursuing a career in literature, Audrain worked in public relations before working as the publicity director for Penguin Canada, currently an imprint of the Canadian division of Penguin Random House. In 2015, she had to retire from her post at Penguin Canada due to the health crisis of her youngest child. She then turned to writing, an occupation she could undertake in the comforts of her home. This paid off and in 2021, she published her debut novel, The Push.

She currently resides in Toronto, and, along with her partner, is raising her two young children. She is also currently working on her second novel.