Mother’s Little Helper

I am a huge Carol Goodman fanboy.

I am having the best time reading my way through her (fortunately) deep backlist, and each book is unique and smart and intelligent and thoughtful in the best possible ways. I love books that make me think, and ones that inspire me.

I’ve never wanted kids–as one can imagine, this was a point of contention with my parents–primarily because I knew I would be a terrible parent, and having that much responsibility over the development of another human being (and the endless repercussions that come from being a bad parent) is something that has always terrified me. I can barely make time for my cat–and certainly don’t make as much time as he would prefer–and I can ignore his demands. Sure they make me feel guilty (“one day when you have to have him put down you’ll remember all these times you couldn’t make time for him”), but while you can feel pretty sure that you aren’t scarring your cat for life emotionally by ignoring his demands for a lap to sleep in, you cannot have that kind of certainty with a child. I was lucky that I had good parents who loved me; I’ll always be grateful for that, but I recognized early as a child that I was far too selfish and self-absorbed to have children and to raise them properly. I have nothing but the most profound admiration for anyone who chooses to have children and raise them–primarily because the worry and fears and concerns never let up until either you or the child are no longer around.

I also know that the worst thing anyone can ever do is criticize a parent for their parenting style. There’s no right or wrong way to raise a child or parent; no one really knows what they are doing and babies don’t come with a manual. I know from personal experience how an off-hand remark from someone, not even intended as shade or critique, can leave emotional scars that can last a lifetime (what is it about our brains that make the horrible things stand out while we forget the good things quite easily?). I know that women especially are vulnerable to the fear of being a bad mother, and that insecurity which results from that fear can often be exploited.

Carol Goodman doesn’t shy away from these sorts of fears; she builds entire novels around them, and around the things that society has done to women. In The Other Mother, the roots of the story lie in two women who meet in a support group for mothers suffering from post-partum depression, which must be terrifying for women who experience it.

She’s crying again.

I don’t know why I say again. Sometimes it seems as if she’s done nothing but cry since she was born. As if she’d come into this world with a grudge.

“We’re almost there, sweetie,” I call to her in the backseat, but she only cries louder, as if she can recognize my reassurance for the lie it is. The truth is I don’t know where we are or how far we are from our destination. The last time I looked at the map app on the new (cheap, pay-as-you-go) phone, it showed our location as a blue dot in a sea of endless green. As if we’d fallen off the map of the known world. When we crossed the river there was a sign that said WELCOME TO THE LAND OF RIP VAN WINKLE. I feel as I’ve fallen asleep and woken to an unrecognizable world–only who sleeps with a crying six-month-old?”

“Do you want your ba-ba?” I offer, even though she just finished a bottle half an hour ago. I root around in the diaper bag on the passenger seat but find only an empty bottle. Hadn’t I made up two at the last gas station? Or had I been distracted by the woman in pressed corduroy trousers and Burberry jacket who’d eyed me microwaving a bottle with that why-aren’t-you-breastfeeding-don’t-you-know-bottles-will-rot-your-baby’s-teeth-and-lower-her-IQ look. She was holding the hand of a toddler who had an iPhone in his other hand, his eyes glued to the screen.

Well, that’s an opening, isn’t it?

One can never go wrong with opening a crime novel with someone arriving someplace new, because it immediately pulls the reader into the story. What do we learn from these opening paragraphs? We have a mother and baby going somewhere, not sure where she is going or how to get there, so that in and of itself–the destination–is a mystery we need to get to the bottom of almost immediately, as well as who is this woman, who is this child, and why does she seem so determined to escape whatever it is she has left behind? Because that is the undercurrent of this opening–she’s taken her baby and fled and is heading for a sanctuary, one she isn’t so sure of, but might just be her only hope. We also get some characterization here–she’s a mother, probably a new one, who is terribly insecure and uncertain of her mothering skills, questioning herself all the time as to whether she is a good mother or not. Ultimately, we will discover that the theme of the book is mothering and mothers; both good and bad ones, as well as the fact that most everyone falls somewhere in between on that scale.

But what we actually have here is two mothers; Daphne and Laurel, both new mothers, both from different ends of the economic scale, both with incredibly different marriages. The one thing they share is post-partum depression and an insecurity about their mothering. They both love their daughters (ironically, Chloe and Chloë–the wealthier Laurel using the umlaut, because of course), and strike up a friendship. As they become friends and their lives become more entwined–something happens that causes Daphne to take her baby and run. As the story unfolds, bouncing back and forth between past and present, along with occasional peeks into each woman’s journal (which they are required to keep as part of their group therapy) shows us two vastly different women as well as two women whose original suspicion of the other gradually develops into something more–trust, love and friendship, while both deal with horrible husbands. There is a HUGE twist that comes about midway through the book, and therefore the second half of the book changes dramatically from the first, racing along like a runaway train with the reader turning the pages (or impatiently waiting for the audio artist to keep talking) to a denouement that is both earned and deeply satisfying.

Another terrific work by one of today’s strongest and best (and smartest) authors.

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