Good mothers with bad thoughts: A review of ‘The Push’ by Ashley Audrain

Are you a good mother? It’s a question that I’ve asked myself many times over the last 15 years, and the answer has changed more times than I’d like to admit.

It was just past seven on the morning of April 24th when the warm, wriggling body of my daughter was placed on my chest. A Monday; the start of a new week and the beginning of my life as a mother. Her waxy, wrinkled skin felt alien on my breast, and as she scrunched her eyes, adjusting to this new world of light and sound she squawked, loudly. The sound rattled down my spine, terrifying me to the very marrow of my bones.

A mother’s heart breaks a million ways in her lifetime.

Ashley Audrain, The Push

Motherhood is a role saturated with expectation and judgement; from society, from your own family and friends, from the random stranger in the shops who tells you to cover up your swollen breasts that are feeding your child or chastising you when the milk flows from a bottle instead. It can be the most rewarding job a woman will ever experience, but the truth is that while many mothers are comfortable with this new role in life, some struggle under the weight of the expectations and responsibilities. Doubt over our mothering abilities, isolation, and fear of losing the essence of ourselves as we take on the role of mother – these are all things that are not often openly discussed.

In her debut novel, The Push (Penguin UK), Canadian author Ashley Audrain takes those secret anxieties held in the breath of mothers and crafts them into a thrilling psychological drama that thrusts the aching doubt and crushing weight of expectations onto the page for the world to witness.

The book follows Blythe Connor as she becomes the mother to Violet, a daughter that she doesn’t bond with, and later to a son that she does. Blythe is determined to be the warm, comforting mother to Violet, but in those exhausting early days of motherhood seeds of doubt over her abilities as a mum grow within her, fed by an inter-generational history of ‘bad mothers’: her own mother abandoned her after 11 years of wavering between intentional cruelty and hollow detachment. Her grandmother was equally cold and callous, and Blythe begins to fear that she is next in her family’s line to fall well short of society’s (and her own) expectations of what makes a ‘good 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

Coupled with her own self-judgement is the growing concern that Violet is not quite the innocent child her husband Fox believes her to be. An incident in the playground makes Blythe question if there might be something dark brewing in her daughter, echoes of the cold detachment her matriarchal lineage have passed through the women in her family. Blythe’s instincts are screaming something is wrong. What happens when no one will believe her? Fox tells her she is imagining the behaviour that Blythe is fearful of, and the more he dismisses her, the more she begins to question her sanity.

When Blythe has her second child, a son named Sam, the blissful connection she’d craved is immediate, and we see Blythe transform into the selfless, loving mother who sacrifices her wants and needs for those of her children. We begin to see the heartfelt affection for Sam start to knit together bonds of warmth and love between Blythe and Violet, until one life-altering event unravels these connections in an instant. The fallout from this event cracks open her family and leaves Blythe devastated, isolated and paranoid, and fearful of what she thinks she may have created as a result of her failings as a mother.

Cover of The Push by Ashley Audrain
Cover of The Push, Ashley Audrain

As I read The Push, I can admit I was having my own doubts about Blythe’s motives. Could she be using Violet’s behaviour as a scapegoat for her own doubts and regrets of motherhood? The feelings were startlingly, shamefully, familiar to me. As mothers, we are tasked with being an amalgam of protector, disciplinarian, and friend. Behavioural problems in our children, as we’re often told through the disparaging looks down the noses of those around us, are a direct reflection of the quality of our mothering, and here I was reading Blythe’s story and casting the same judgements. Was I perpetuating the same unfair judgements that I rally against when I see others do it? Or was I simply seeing my own shortcomings and insecurities as a mother in Blythe’s actions? I think I know the answer, and it unsettles me.

These are thoughts I never let leave my lips. These are thoughts most mothers don’t have.

Ashley Audrain, The Push

I was never a ‘kid person’. I preferred Matchbox cars to dolls and although I loved reading The Babysitters Club as a child, I secretly loathed the thought of having to do any babysitting myself. When the time came for me to have children, it was a decision I felt almost on the peripheral of. It was something I felt I should do, not something I necessarily yearned for. Now a mother of two young teenagers, I can easily say I wouldn’t have it any other way. Motherhood has been the best experience of my life, but it certainly hasn’t been the easiest, and the battle for the most part has been within myself.

In an interview with the New York Times, Ashley Audrain says her goal when writing The Push was to ‘explore the expectation society puts on women to have a certain experience of motherhood, for it to look and feel one way. I wanted to hold a mirror up and make people realise how important it is to ask different questions of women they love, to have new conversations with the mothers in their lives.’ I would go further with this and say that it is vitally important that as a society we not only critically examine what it means to be a mother, but on an individual level we need to look inward and be cognisant of the many ways we enforce society’s expectations of motherhood on ourselves. The judgement we cast upon ourselves and other women damages us all.

We need to give ourselves, and each other, a break.

Blythe’s story in The Push is a potent reminder that we can love our children with every fibre of our being, and still have days when we wish we didn’t have the responsibilities that come along with being a mother. It doesn’t make us bad mothers, it makes us human, and it is that ‘in-between space where most of us live’, says Audrain, which needs to be brought out into the light of this world.

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