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Lonely Moms: The Politics of Communication with Other Women

A review of The Other Mother by Gwendolyn Gross (Shaye Areheart Books)

By Mary Ladd

You might be tempted to say this book is about the mommy wars, a battle of superiority between the working mom and the stay-at-home variety. But that would be simplifying. The two main characters in The Other Mother do struggle with issues about the proper roles of motherhood; they also struggle against the identities of women who have no children and those who have fully-grown children. At its core this book is about a woman’s identity in conflict with the ideas and opinions of any other woman, mommy or not.

Primarily, these characters struggle with their life decisions and their charged emotional interiors which often swing out of their control, their jealousies sabotaging their fundamental need for intimate companionship with their neighboring women.

Gwendolen Gross serves up a delicious vocabulary in The Other Mother, obviously delighting like a poet in her book’s descriptions. There were a few spots in the beginning that seemed very dense with detailing; but as the book progressed, certain elegant passages began to stand out.

When Amanda describes the multi-continent upbringing of her husband, Aaron, she says: “the cultures of his childhood wove through his perspective like a gold thread in an ordinary gray suit.” In another example, Thea comments on her home by saying “the house creaking with the memory of living wood.” Gross is also a naturalist as she works through the seasons and the scenes, which are full of suburban plant and animal life.

The main characters, Thea and Amanda, who share first-person narration duties, couldn’t be more different. Their distinct childhoods have made inevitable demands on their lives. In a sense, although the characters are fully free-thinking, they have become who they were raised to become, Thea the homemaker and Amanda the working mom.

The book opens with dead animals being dropped ominously on suburban doorsteps, an occurence which comes to represent a culmination of the ultimately paranoid emotional drama going on between the two mothers.

Gross then tracks the women through their day-to-day lives. Amanda tries to find some peace despite the physical and mental upheavals in her work/new motherhood existence. We watch her flounder with new mom stuff while navigating her highly competitive work environment as a children’s book editor. Meanwhile, Thea is adjusting to the fact that her children are growing up and becoming independent individuals who are wandering beyond her protection. This creates a need to re-cultivate her own identity so she will know who she is and what she wants after her children leave her full-time care.

Eventually, Amanda and Thea’s well-intentioned attempts to connect with each other over the neighborly fence turn into an ever-increasing divide caused by misunderstandings and miscommunications. But these two women, despite their irrepressible moments of judgment and contempt, never stop trying to feel sympathy for the woman they see on the other side. They deeply want to connect.

In the end they are pushed to the breaking point where we wonder who will snap first in the feuding tension.

In the real mommy wars, most moms seem to favor one side or another. Our author here resists this kind of didactic impulse with her story and has instead created two opposing, yet fully realized, characters complete with their pre-existing baggage involving their own mothers and fully-fleshed love relationships with their respective husbands.

In Gross’ resistance to choose sides, she reminds me of the deft way in which the early 20th-century writer Richard Wright handled his stories of racial prejudice. Stories of prejudice are handled so awkwardly so often, it’s easy to forget how difficult it is for an author to render both sides honestly without betraying their own prejudice.

Even with my minimal knowledge of this author’s life, (full disclosure: I attended graduate school with her), I was unable to nail down her bias. And this only works because her characters are fully animated, flawed but sympathetic. This takes a sort of delicacy in weaving these women into the fabric of the story until they finally breathe fully all on their own.

The Other Mother primarily studies what it means to be a woman who has children, the pull she feels between her responsibilities and her identity, her self-actualizing and her guilt.

But the book also moves beyond the competitive politics of the mommy wars. The characters represent the dilemmas all women face as they size each other up, regardless of their mommy status. This is evident when Thea attempts to reconnect with her childless, childhood friend.

Physically and emotionally, all these women yearn for connection with each other as friends and neighbors, as women with missing or aging or inadequate mother figures themselves, and as women with few permanent, female confidants in their complex and mutually lonely modern lives.

The Official Gwendolyn Gross Site

Other Book Reviews on Ape Culture

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