Michelle Bailat-Jones

Writer, Translator, Reader

It strikes me that one of the more fundamental issues explored in Sue Miller’s The Good Mother is how little control we actually have over our own lives. It all starts in our childhood – all that shaping and influencing that our families exert over us, our attempts to define ourselves within, or, in extreme cases, completely outside that framework, and then the relationships we start to build with teachers, friends, partners, children. Most of all with society. Miller really gets at the tension between those ties and the individual. How does an individual continue to be an individual in the constantly evolving development of those ties? How does an individual decide which of those ties are best cultivated, best respected, or, when necessary, best severed?


To explore these questions Miller creates a specific situation – she gives us Anna Dunlap, a recent divorcée with a young daughter, who finds herself falling in love, redefining her sense of self, exploring her sexuality for the first time, and learning to cope with the shifting demands of single motherhood and singledom. Anna eventually becomes embroiled in a horrible custody battle which requires she find a way to justify some of her choices to both society as well as to a number of her personal relationships. She is forced to question, nevermind make a public account, of her way of life, her thinking, her sexual experiences and her value as a mother.


The Good Mother made me consider how difficult, how dangerous it can be for someone to be a sexual being and a parent at the same time, especially without the sanctioned framework of marriage to help set some of the rules. Sexuality without established guidelines is threatening for many people. As Anna loses her right to privacy about her most personal thoughts and experiences, that reality is really put into glaring perspective. People love roping other people into their moral comfort zones because it is much easier to do this than genuinely step into someone else’s shoes, or engage in earnest conversation about these difficult issues.


The book was written in the 1980s, an era which I think concentrated a significant portion of its emotional energy on divorce. Was it always bad? Was it destroying our societies? Miller’s novel is a distinctly feminist look at divorce and it exposes some of the double standards which may, for all I know, still burden any divorce procedure. But it also takes a very serious view of divorce; it reminds the reader that children really suffer when their world suddenly splits into two, distinctly different universes. 


The quote on the very-cheesy front cover of my copy of The Good Mother reads:


To whom is a woman more deeply bound, the man she loves, or her own child?


Well, that doesn’t at all do justice to the question I think this book is really asking. The novel does put that difficult challenge before Anna, but it goes a lot farther in exploring whether Anna should choose between herself and her own child. This seems more universal to me because I don’t think a parent needs something as extreme as a custody battle or a new lover to become confronted with that essential question. How much of ourselves do we sacrifice, voluntarily or otherwise, to our children? Do our desires, or certain essential elements of our personality, necessarily take second seat once we’ve brought a child into the world? Is our happiness less important than our child’s?




9 Responses to “Sue Miller – The Good Mother”

  1. Becca

    You raise some very interesting questions about this book, which is one of my favorites. I read it when it was first published, and I was about Anna’s age with a young child of my own, and then re-read it last year, and my perspective was much different. Odddly enough, I was much less sympathetic to Anna on the second reading with a more mature viewpoint.

    I think the novel speaks to the delicate balancing act a parent must perform in maintaining their own life and privacy, but also doing what’s best for their child.

    I enjoyed reading your thoughts on this book. Have you read any of Miller’s other work? I also enjoyed While You Were Gone (I think that’s the title…)

  2. Litlove

    What an excellent review! I agree completely – the choice Anna must make is between her ability to develop, grow, experiment with her character, or remain ‘The Good Mother’, a fixed and enduring template of identity. I think the novel argues that culture is all about straitjacketing mothers, and that fathers are by no means held up to such rigid standards. I remember Becca saying when she reviewed it that she hadn’t been so sympathetic, but then I think Anna is a young woman still in the throes of self-development (and a late starter due to her family), and it’s exactly the serenity of a mature and experienced outlook that she lacks. How can she have one, when the experience that might give it to her is foreclosed?

    It’s always such a good discussion book, this one.

  3. Dorothy W.

    When reading the front-cover quotation, I was thinking — what about her own needs? What about her duty to herself? What a difficult question about what happens to a person’s identity and desires when that person has a child. This sounds like a great meditation on that topic.

  4. Logophile

    What a great review! It sounds like such an interesting book. I’ve not read any Miller so shall have to keep my eye out for her books now…

  5. Pete

    I was thinking the same thing as Dorothy when I read the blurb – what about Anna’s needs? And I like the point that Litlove makes about identity being something that can develop and grow rather than being static and enduring. I also think that if a divorce is handled well (on both sides) then it need not be so traumatic. But I suppose that’s quite an optimistic view. Great review – will look out for it.

  6. chartroose

    A most excellent review, as usual! I love this point you make:
    “People love roping other people into their moral comfort zones because it is much easier to do this than genuinely step into someone else’s shoes, or engage in earnest conversation about these difficult issues.”
    So true! Why are we so concerned about other people’s sexuality? Will we ever get over this, especially our puritannical attitudes about women’s sexuality?

    And the cover blurb, my God! Making women feel guilty because mommyhood is supposed to represent the pinnacle of female success and any woman who deviates from the norm is called a bad mother and a bad person. I just want to slap the guy who wrote that quote!

    Wow! I guess I needed to rant!

  7. verbivore

    Becca – what thoughtful comments. It is interesting to hear a mother’s take on this book. I had some qualms about Anna’s relationship and then of course, everything goes haywire for her. I have not yet read anything else by Miller but I have While I Was Gone waiting for me on the shelf. I’m curious to see what I will think of her other work.

    Litlove – you make such an excellent point – how is Anna going to develop a more mature outlook if she’s unable to explore her boundaries. I’m planning to recommend this book to my book club because I think it will give us a really good discussion.

    Dorothy – The cover quote is all wrong, what a shame they tried to sell the book that way. I’d love to know your own thoughts on this one if you do get a chance to read it.

  8. verbivore

    Logophile – It was Litlove and Ann Darnton who recommended Miller to me and I can’t wait to read her other works. I’d love to know what you think if you get a chance to read this book or one of her others.

    Pete – Divorce must be such a delicate affair. The book is especially interesting because it gives the impression that Anna and her ex-husband went about things as most mature, rational people would and really tried to make the divorce as easy as possible on their daughter. Of course this all backfires. I’d love to know your take on this book – especially because psychology and pyschological theories weigh heavily on all that happens.

    Chartroose – isn’t it just horrible how much time we spend worrying about other people’s sexuality? It struck me while reading this book that while Anna’s sexuality was up for discussion because of her custody battle, some people see their sexuality constantly scrutinized. That must be exhausting. Oh the cover blurb got me really irritated as well. I would LOVE to read your thoughts on this particular book, Chartroose.

  9. Smithereens

    I never heard of Miller before, it looks like a fascinating book and the questions you raise are quite touchy to me right now… Will definitely check it out!

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