The Sins of the Mother

By Fran Bigman

In November 2011, I was surprised—probably naively—to see a familiar plot playing out in an episode of my mother’s favourite TV show, the acclaimed Parenthood. The show features four adult siblings and their children; one of the siblings, Adam, has a pre-teen son, Max, with Asperger’s syndrome.

In this episode, ‘Missing,’ Adam’s wife Kristina has made the agonising decision to return to work after having an unplanned third child. The moment she does, Max goes missing. Adam rushes home after getting a call from Max’s sister, who was forced into babysitting. He calls Kristina 26 times, but she’s in a meeting, and there are shots of her phone lying ignored on her desk while her disoriented son makes his way through San Francisco. The show has won plaudits for its depiction of Asperger’s, but here it emphasizes his mother’s negligence.

I had noticed this pattern before in midcentury films—woman ‘neglects’ her family, either by working or having an affair (or both), and her child suffers in a manner cruelly calibrated to the magnitude of her ‘sin’. In Brief Encounter (1945), Laura almost has an affair and returns home to find her son sick. In Mildred Pierce (also 1945), the title character is busy opening a restaurant after kicking out her cheating husband. After work one day, an investor in the restaurant invites her over, and the scene fades out with them kissing. Mildred returns home to find her younger daughter dying of pneumonia; since her husband couldn’t reach her, he brought the child to his mistress. The girl’s death intensifies Mildred’s commitment to her only remaining child, spoiled Veda. This subplot is handled similarly in the 1941 James M. Cain novel and 2011 television mini-series.

I had also traced this mother-punishment plot back as far as Aldous Huxley’s 1928 novel Point Counter Point, in which Elinor Quarles contemplates an affair with a British Fascist, Everard, to spite her withdrawn, intellectual husband. Huxley does not allow her to feel lust, stressing that when Everard kisses Elinor, ‘she felt herself turning cold and stony.’ On the day she decides to go through with the affair, she learns via telegram that her young son Phil is ill. As she rushes to his bedside, she thinks, ‘The choice had been made for her…at poor little Phil’s expense… She reproached herself for not having realized that he was working up for an illness.’ Huxley excruciatingly details little Phil’s end:

The child began to scream…like the scream of a rabbit in a trap. But a thousand times worse…She felt as though she too were trapped…by that obscure sense of guilt, that irrational belief (but haunting in spite of its irrationality)…that it was    all…her fault, a punishment, malevolently vicarious…

The details themselves come from a story of real mother-guilt; Huxley borrowed them from his friend, the writer Naomi Mitchison, whose son died in 1927 from meningitis. In a 1979 memoir, Mitchison wrote, ‘I still wince…thinking if I had taken more trouble at the beginning when he first got ear-ache.’

Parenthood demonstrates that this plot hasn’t gone away, just softened. In the 1920s, thinking about adultery was enough to get your child ‘killed off’. In the 1940s, it depended on whether the woman went through with it. In ‘Missing,’ the child is safely returned, as in another contemporary depiction, Lucy Caldwell’s novel The Meeting Point (2011). Ruth moves with her missionary husband, Euan, to Bahrain, where she begins an affair with a nineteen-year old. She has decided to run off with him when one day, in order to see him, she leaves her young daughter with Noor, a teenage neighbor, not realizing that Noor knows of the affair. Noor kidnaps her daughter, leaving an accusatory note. Although the child is recovered safely, the episode is used to moralistic ends; Ruth realises her husband and child ‘are all that matters.’

In ‘Missing,’ adultery is displaced onto working as a reason for the mother’s absence, but these two ‘sins’ continue to coexist in contemporary depictions of negligent mothers. Alice Munro’s new story, ‘To Reach Japan,’ both colludes in and challenges the mother-punishment plot, but the enduring image is that of the abandoned child. Greta, the married mother of said abandoned child (Katy) and an aspiring poet, meets a journalist at a literary party in Toronto and can’t stop thinking about him. On a train with Katy to Toronto, where they will stay while her husband Peter travels for work, Greta leaves her daughter alone and asleep to have sex with a younger man she has just met on the train. She returns to find the child missing and panics, fearing death and kidnappers, but soon finds Katy between the train cars.

One could imagine a child being pleased at the adventure, but Katy is a moral register; she says, ‘You smell a bad smell.’  Greta thinks that if someone else had found her, ‘she would have been spared the picture she had now, of Katy…helpless…Not crying, not complaining, as if she was just to sit there forever and there was to be no explanation…no hope.’ Greta chastises herself:

Even before the useless, exhausting, idiotic preoccupation with the man in Toronto, there was…the work of poetry…That struck her now as another traitorous business—to Katy, to Peter, to life. And now, because of the picture in her head of Katy alone…that was something else she, Katy’s mother, was going to have to give up…a sin.

In the end, Greta is met at the station by ‘the man in Toronto’ (the journalist from the party); when he kisses her, initially she feels shock, but then ‘an immense settling.’ This could be read as a challenge to the standard line: Greta will leave her dull husband who does not take literature seriously for an intellectually stimulating relationship with a journalist. She will be able to have a fulfilling love life with a man who is not the father of her child; she will be able to have a life outside the home as a poet, and yet this will be compatible with motherhood and the health and wellbeing of her child. Earlier in the story, in fact, Greta seems to directly criticize the sins-of-the-mother plot. Reflecting on the early 1960s, when the story is set, she says that, at this time, ‘having any serious idea, let alone ambition…could be seen as suspect, having something to do with your child’s getting pneumonia.’  Yet it seems impossible for the story to free itself from the trappings of the sinning-mother plot. The image of Katy alone and helpless stays with the reader, as well as Greta, and the story ends with an ambivalent image of the little girl: when the journalist kisses Greta, ‘she was trying to hang on to Katy but at this moment the child pulled away….She didn’t try to escape. She, Katy, just stood waiting for whatever had to come next.’


Fran Bigman is a PhD candidate at Peterhouse, Cambridge, in the Faculty of English, researching abortion in British literature from 1907 to the liberalisation of UK abortion law in 1967. She is currently working on abortion as a male turning point in male-authored narratives from Harley Granville-Barker’s 1907 play Waste – one of the earliest mentions of abortion in British literature – to the four different versions of Alfie radio play, stage play, novel, and Michael Caine film – produced between 1962 and 1966. Another chapter focuses on the 1930s writings of Naomi Mitchison, a birth-control-clinic volunteer and novelist who was ambivalent about both birth control and abortion.