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?