Motherhood in Barbara Kingsolver's Unsheltered

While I had a few issues with Barbara Kingsolver's newest novel, Unsheltered, her thematic employment of the obstacles that come with motherhood were interesting. The book is divided into two sections, one the present, focusing on the struggles of main character Willa's family, and then the past, which is centered around a young science teacher named Thatcher Greenwood, a man who desperately wants to introduce Darwinian studies into a conservative town. Motherhood is definitely more obvious in Willa's sections, although there are definitely subtle, underlying maternal threads in Thatcher's too. 

My attention was first drawn to the role motherhood plays when I double-took after reading the line "A mother can be only as happy as her unhappiest child" (Kingsolver 56). I ruminated over this one for awhile, running different scenarios in my mind (I even put up a poll on Instagram, which garnered split results). While I definitely grappled with this, Willa really seemed to live it. Her oldest son, recently widowed, with a newborn, and unemployed, was struggling to find his way and she also believed her younger daughter, Tig, was floundering (she was not; she was thriving by her own personal standards but just not living up to traditional ones established by society). Willa had lost her job in journalism, was living in a dilapidated house, and was charged with caring for her grandchild and dying father-in-law. More than anything, though, Willa seemed to define herself by her children. Were they successful? Were they engaged? Were they interacting with her in the way she felt they should? Were they interacting with each other in the way she felt they should? Where they happy? She took their happiness so personally, which she really had no control over, as they were both grown. And yet because she had not control over anything else in her life she returned to what was innate: caring for her children. 

While not as prevalent, the storyline set in the past also had a great deal of maternal undercurrent. Thatcher's wife, Rose, is prim, proper, and spoiled, despite their total lack of resources. Meanwhile, Thatcher starts spending more time with the woman next door, Mrs. Treat, who ends up being a self-taught scientist who is more successful than Thatcher. Mrs. Treat defies societal pressures, happy to be separated from her husband and to live alone with her insects and plants. Rose, however, struggles to get pregnant and ends up miscarrying. The whole Darwinian focus of this section becomes even more important, in those regards. Rose's baby was not fit and could not survive, just as Rose and Thatcher's marriage struggles as well.

I don't want to give anything away, but Willa makes some progress and there's a great deal of upheaval within the past story as well. And while I have been finished with the novel for a few weeks, I still think about the quote I opened with often. Can a mom really only be as happy as her most unhappiest child? If I have to choose, I choose no. My child is insanely important to me- I'd run into a burning building to save him, throw my body in front of a freight train to push him out of the way, and fight off ten men twice my size on his behalf. But when it comes to matters that are not life and death I disagree (notice I said "life and death"- if he was ill or injured or missing my unhappiness would be equal to or surpass his). I am an individual- I am not defined by motherhood. It is a huge part of who I am, but I lived thirty years of life before him. I wasn't just waiting for a baby- I was learning, doing, growing.... living. You have to diversify your investments in every way, I guess. My family is at the top of the pyramid, of course, but there are so many other parts of my life that help me be who I am. While I will always want the best for Sawyer, I'm not going to wrap my life up into his so much that my happiness depends on his. That's simply not fair to him, either. That's so much pressure.

So while this book maybe wasn't the best I've read this year, it was still really solid in terms of story and writing, and clearly thought-provoking. 

1 comment:

  1. I don't think Kingsolver originated that quote... Jackie Kennedy among others, but I've heard it before!