Monday, September 19, 2022

The Feminist Multiplicity of Motherhood: A Review of Hanne Ørstavik’s Love

 Note: I wrote this review specifically as part of an assignment for a course I took this past summer with a visiting professor, Rita Felski. Thus, the review does assume an audience that is somewhat familiar with the book, since I knew Dr. Felski had already read it. Anyway, still thought it was a good piece of writing, so I wanted to share it here.

            “You know, when you’re a mother, you won’t be able to read all the time like this. You’ll have to actually pay attention to your children!” My mother repeated this refrain to me often as an adolescent, when she would become annoyed with my seemingly endless freedom to bury my nose in a book and become lost to the world. I was a voracious reader then, plowing through several books a week in a way she saw as irresponsible. I would stay up late to finish books, I would read through my (really quite boring) school classes, I would have read through dinner if my mother would have allowed it. I’m sure it was pure jealousy, her own wish to abandon her responsibilities as a mother and a housewife and a full-time working elementary school teacher and just get lost in a good book like me, get lost in any sort of activity that was purely for her own pleasure. But she was always too busy, so she contented herself with projections of my own future, when I would also be too busy to read, too absorbed in the roles of being a good mother.

            I still hear her voice in my head often, warning me that to be a good mother I have to put away my books and pay attention to my children, now that I have four children of my own. I also work full time, toiling away at a full teaching load of freshman composition as I struggle to finish my dissertation and graduate with my PhD. And like my mother before me, I have a husband to keep up a relationship with, and dinner to get on the table every night, and a house to keep (somewhat) clean. Yes, I am just as busy as she was.

            But I also still manage to read just over one hundred books for pleasure every year. Slower than my adolescent rate, but not by much.

            And I wonder, often, as any modern American woman with children will do, am I a bad mother?


            Hanne Ørstavik’s Norwegian novel Love, written in the late 1990s, explores similar questions about what it means to be a good mother, or a good woman. Translated into English by Martin Aitken in 2018, it is remarkable how much these issues still resonate in the culture of American motherhood two decades into the twenty-first century. Ørstavik’s tightly woven and relatively short plot revolve around the inner monologues of a single mother, Vibeke, and her almost-nine-year-old son, Jon, during their divergent adventures one fateful and perilously cold evening. After coming home from work and indulging in various self-care activities, Vibeke decides to venture out in search of books, entertainment, and possibly the companionship of a man (any man will do). Unbeknownst to his mother, Jon also ventures out in hopes of giving his mother time and space to make a surprise cake for his birthday, which is the next day. Vibeke’s inner monologue reveals not a single indication that she has any plans for her son’s birthday, let alone that she even remembers it is the next day, and this unforgivable fact, in concert with her general self-absorption, marks Vibeke as unquestionably a “bad mother.”

            And yet, when asked which of the two main characters I identify most with, it is not the son, who is clearly the more sympathetic protagonist. No, it is the mother I identify with most. Like Vibeke, I too wish I could “read all the time, sitting in bed with the duvet pulled up” (7). She gets through at least three books a week, sometimes four or five. My two books a week seem tame in comparison. Like Vibeke, I also like painting my nails deep shades of red. I too enjoy the sensuality of a bath and little rituals of self care. A damning line from the novel comes after the dinner scene, when Jon is chattering endlessly about something. “Can’t you just go, she thinks to herself. Find something to do, play or something” (17). This line is pointed to by critics as evidence of just how terrible she is as a mother. But I have this exact same thought about my own children at least twenty times a day. Please, can’t you just stop talking to me, stop needing me? Just give me a moment to think my own thoughts? I see myself reflected back to me in so much of Vibeke. Does this mean I am a bad mother?

            This book was one of a spate of Norwegian novels written during the final decade of the twentieth century that offered examples of “bad mothers” or broken families as part of an exploration of the relationship between critical feminism and motherhood. Early feminism had a complicated relationship with motherhood. On the one hand, the roles of motherhood were so defined by the institutions of patriarchy that choosing not to have children seemed the only way to be a true feminist. Influential feminists like Simone de Beauvoir and Jeffner Allen called for a complete rejection of motherhood, arguing that “motherhood is dangerous to women because it … denies to females the creation of subjectivity” (Allen 315). On the other hand, women keep choosing to have children (and rationally, some women must have children to propagate the species), and such women’s lived experiences cannot be discounted in the great feminist project of caring for and about all women. But the question remains, both for feminism and this novel, what makes a good mother? What makes a bad one? And can you be a feminist, individual woman and a good mother at the same time?

            One could make a surface argument that Vibeke embodies a fully liberated feminist woman. She apparently has left Jon’s father because, according to Jon, who repeats the phrase as if he’s heard it many times before, “She was too young to be tied down” (56). She only reads books by female authors (a fact noted in passing that could be interpreted as either very feminist of her indeed, or rather weak-minded of her, depending on which female-authored books we’re talking about). And she seems like the type of woman who, unlike the model mother figure of the oppressive patriarchal order, is peculiarly free of self-sacrifice. She is her own woman. She pursues her own pleasure. If it weren’t for the fact that she is painted as a little silly and foolishly bad at reading people and relationships, Vibeke could be the heroine of some other novel, the free woman escaping the bounds of expectations placed upon her by society and the patriarchy.

            But she is not a heroine here. In this novel, her silliness is inexcusable, her self-absorption bordering upon the criminal as it leads to the serious neglect of her son. The neglect is not so much in how she is unaware of her son’s location, nor of his seeming self-assumed freedom to enter the houses and cars of strangers, nor her own failure to secure a babysitter before she leaves for the evening (here is a feature of the novel that does not translate well to current American culture, where we helicopter and hover over our children to the point that even in the safest of suburban neighborhoods, children up to age fourteen are not allowed to be left on their own[1]—Americans must take care to remember that even as historically recent as the nineties children were routinely left home alone for several hours at a time with no one blinking an eye; and as for Jon’s encounter with strangers, it is also important to note that he is neither harmed nor endangered by any of these strangers, they do not cause the tragedy of the book). No, the true neglect is in how little Vibeke thinks of her son at all. The inner monologues reveal that Jon thinks of his mother all the time, while she thinks of him rarely. That is the essence of Vibeke’s “badness” as a mother.

            But it is also the essence of where this book fails, both in terms of Vibeke’s character development, and as a feminist (or anti-feminist?) text addressing the issues of motherhood. In setting the liberated and self-focused Vibeke up as a “bad mother,” the sub-text seems to suggest that a good mother would be the opposite of Vibeke. A good mother, in contrast, would be self-sacrificing. A good mother would not go out in search of her own pleasure, she would devote herself to the care and pleasure of her child. A good mother would not have gone to the fair; rather, a good mother would have stayed home and made that cake for her son. This has been the narrative of motherhood writ large for the past century, if not more, and this is the patriarchal institution of motherhood that feminism has continued to grapple with. When you become a mother, you cease to become an individual, you cease to become a woman with needs and interests and desires. You must subsume all of that in service of your children. So my mother told me (both in words and by example), and so this book seems to be telling its readers. This is what good mothers do.

            But I would like to propose an alternate possibility for what it means to be a good mother, via an alternate imagined version of this character of Vibeke. It doesn’t substantially change the plot of this story, and indeed, may not change the outcome of the tragic ending. In my version of this story, Vibeke still leaves the house to go to the library in search of a good book. She even still goes to the fair, and possibly even on that terrible date with Tom (the man she meets at the fair). But in my version, in between all the other thoughts she has, Vibeke also thinks of her son. She thinks of what books she might pick up for her son at the library along with her own. She thinks of how her son might enjoy the fair and when she might be able to bring him back to it. She thinks of Tom in terms of how he might get along with her son. She still has her moments of annoyance and frustration with her son (heaven knows we all do), but alongside those, she has her thoughts and feelings of affection. At the very least, she remembers the birthday, and thinks of picking up a cake at the store in the morning. And while these individual thoughts might not change the specific course of the plot as it stands, I suspect that they would indicate a fundamental change in the character of Vibeke that would ripple out into the thoughts and actions of her son, and possibly make the tragic outcome one of pure accident, not neglect.

            Not a single one of these thoughts requires any self-sacrifice on her part, or rejection of her individual self in the service of her son. She is still allowed to be a completely individual woman. She is still allowed to indulge in her own needs and desires. She is even allowed to be a little silly and bad at reading men. But here’s the thing about women that any fully realized feminist ideology recognizes: we are capable of multiplicity. We are capable of multiple identities, we give attention to multiple areas of our lives. We can love reading, we can seek out companionship and excitement, and we can think about our children. While I am in no way espousing the doomed platitude that women can “have it all,” I am absolutely saying that a woman can be an individual person and a good mother. At the same time.

            Because after all, being a mother, just like being a partner or a friend or a daughter, is far less about the “roles” society has assigned to that title, and far more about what matters in any relationship: paying attention and showing love. It does not follow that the attention paid must be all consuming. In fact, in any other relationship, paying all consuming attention is generally considered dismally unhealthy. In any other relationship, it is recognized that a fully whole and individual person who takes care of themselves is far better able to show up for the other person. So it is in motherhood. Vibeke fails as a mother not because she takes care of herself and seeks to fulfill her own needs. She fails as a mother because she forgets her multiplicity. She forgets she can pay attention to both herself and to her son.


            And yet, I still find myself pondering the question, am I a bad mother? Am I paying enough attention to my children? Perhaps those questions can only be answered by my children themselves and their future (and in one case, current) therapists. But here’s what I do know: sometimes I ignore my children so I can finish the book I’m in the middle of, or work on my dissertation, or I send them to bed early so I can carry on an uninterrupted adult conversation with my husband. But sometimes, I put my book down so I can shoot the breeze with my oldest son, or I leave the dissertation mid sentence to comfort the crying baby, or I sacrifice date night with my husband so we can have game night as a family. I’m not perfect about the balance. There are times I feel frustrated about the lack of time and attention I’m able to pay to my work and my hobbies and my adult relationships. There are times I feel frustrated about the missed moments with my children. But I still give some time and attention to each of these things in turn, because each of these parts of my life is better for the attention I pay to the other. I am a happier mother, happier to spend time and attention on my children, when I’ve already had some time to do other things just for myself. And I’m a happier woman, happier in my career and my hobbies, because I’m grounded in relationships that bring me foundational purpose. My children give my life purpose and meaning, my work and hobbies give my life interest and satisfaction. I devote attention to my identities as a woman, as an academic, as a reader. And I devote attention to my children. Both/and. Is it enough? I don’t know. But I do know I’m happier than I would be without my children, and happier than I would be if I never allowed myself the time to read for pleasure.

            And also, I’ve never forgotten my children’s birthdays. So at least there’s that.


Works Cited

Allen, Jeffner. “Motherhood: The Annihilation of Women.” Mothering: Essays in Feminist Theory, edited by Joyce Treblicot, Rowmann and Allanheld, 1983, pp. 315-30.

Ørstavik, Hanne. Love. Translated by Martin Aitken, Archipelago Books, 2018.


[1] Every state has different laws and age limits, but in the most extreme case of Illinois, it is illegal to leave children unattended before the age of fourteen. See https://www.ilga.gov/legislation/ilcs/fulltext.asp?DocName=070504050K2-3