Throughout The Girl on the Train, the novel’s three main characters—Rachel, Megan, and Anna—all struggle with motherhood in different ways as they attempt to embody society’s idea of a good mother. Rachel feels like a failure as a woman because she cannot have a child. Megan, having botched motherhood once, now finds the idea of caring for a child repugnant and frightful. Anna, who uses motherhood as an outlet for her fears and anxieties about her marriage, smothers and over-parents her daughter, Evie, even as she ignores the dangers that her husband, Tom, poses to them. Through these women’s journeys, Hawkins suggests that there is no such thing as a perfect mother—and that to pursue perfection in motherhood actually pushes women toward dangerous behaviors.
Hawkins uses the character of Rachel to demonstrate how the pressure to perfectly embody maternal traits can inspire self-destructive behavior within women. Rachel longs terribly for a baby, and her inability to conceive a child has made her feel not only that motherhood is unattainable, but that a true experience of womanhood is incomplete without children. All she wanted while married to her now-ex-husband, Tom, was to become a mother. However, her struggles with infertility and the couple’s precarious finances meant that after only one round of in vitro fertilization (IVF), there were no options left for Rachel to become the mother she always dreamed of being. A lack of support from Tom both financially and emotionally left Rachel feeling responsible for her own infertility—a deep shame which led her to drink heavily in order to erase the pain of what she was going through. Buckling under the societal pressure to become a mother, Rachel began engaging in a destructive behavior that would certainly hamper any attempts at becoming pregnant or creating a healthy emotional environment for a potential child. Rachel’s self-destructive binge drinking, Hawking suggests, is a larger symptomatic response to the outsized expectations of maternal duty that society pushes upon women. In other words, the societal pressure to effortlessly become the perfect mother—not Rachel’s infertility—is what actually destroys her chances at becoming one.
Megan is the character with perhaps the most complicated relationship to motherhood and childcare in the entire novel. Throughout Megan’s arc, Hawkins explores how society shames and demonizes women who struggle with or fail at motherhood. Megan takes a job as a childminder, or nanny, to Anna and Tom’s daughter, Evie—yet she loathes childcare and resents the idea that she should, as a woman, have some natural predisposition toward maternal instinct. She dreads the idea of becoming pregnant herself and, seemingly without warning, quits her job with the Watsons when the pressures of caring for Evie become too great. Later on in the novel, as readers learn the truth about Megan’s past, her complex and painful relationship to childcare becomes more understandable. When Megan was just 19, she gave birth to a child whom she did not entirely want. The baby girl, named Libby, was born in a cabin in the woods. Megan hadn’t had any doctor’s appointments or taken any prenatal care throughout her pregnancy, hoping the baby might simply disappear—yet when the child arrived, Megan loved her fiercely. Tragically, however, when Megan took a bath with Libby sometime during Libby’s first year of life, Megan fell asleep—and Libby slipped into the water, where she drowned. By contextualizing Megan’s disdain for motherhood and childrearing through a backstory directly related to a profound, painful trauma in Megan’s past, Hawkins shows how difficult it is for women who have suffered the loss of a child to forgive themselves—largely due to society’s overemphasis of maternal dutifulness and perfect care. Megan failed her child, but because society demonizes women who make mistakes in motherhood, Megan feels that she is inadequate not just as a mother figure, but as a human being. Megan becomes pregnant again toward the end of her life and decides to keep the child—a radical act of reclaiming the idea that just because she is not perfect, she is still worthy of love, dignity, and the chance at experiencing motherhood once again.
Through the maternal, devoted Anna, Hawkins shows how even mothers whom society views as “perfect” can often fail their children in crucial moments. Anna’s life revolves around caring and expressing love for her infant daughter, Evie. Still, however hard she tries, Anna is not a perfect mother, or even one who does what’s right for her child. Anna is married to Tom, an abusive, manipulative, deceitful, and even violent man—but she overlooks his aggressions and lies in order to maintain the imagine of a perfect family. She is also inattentive to her daughter due to exhaustion at times. On one instance, a devastated Rachel sneaks into the house, picks up Evie, and brings her out into the yard without Anna noticing—a consequence of Rachel’s own unfulfilled longing for a child. Through Anna, Hawkins shows how even mothers whom society views as perfect examples of maternal duty, care, and responsibility can often fail their children in crucial moments. Anna is so locked into a prescribed idea of what maternal love looks like that she ignores the mistakes in her own parenting and caregiving, desperate to keep up an idealized front without taking the difficult, painful steps required of a truly good mother in the background.
In examining the judgment and pressures that three very different women experience as they wrestle with prescribed ideals of motherhood, Hawkins urges her readers to consider the painful—and even harmful—consequences of attempting to achieve perfection as a mother.
Motherhood, Duty, and Care ThemeTracker
Motherhood, Duty, and Care Quotes in The Girl on the Train
Maybe it was then. Maybe that was the moment when things started to go wrong, the moment when I imagined us no longer a couple, but a family; and after that, once I had that picture in my head, just the two of us could never be enough. Was it then that Tom started to look at me differently, his disappointment mirroring my own? After all he gave up for me, for the two of us to be together, I let him think that he wasn't enough.
I'm walking in the woods. I've been out since before it got light, it's barely dawn now, deathly quiet except for the occasional outburst of chatter from the magpies in the trees above my head. I can feel them watching me, beady-eyed, calculating. A tiding of magpies. One for sorrow, two for joy, three for a girl, four for a boy, five for silver, six for gold, seven for a secret never to be told.
I've got a few of those.
The thing about being barren is that you're not allowed to get away from it. […] My friends were having children, friends of friends were having children, pregnancy and birth and first birthday parties were everywhere. I was asked about it all the time. […] When was it going to be my turn? […] I was still young, there was still plenty of time, but failure cloaked me like a mantle, it overwhelmed me, dragged me under, and I gave up hope. […] I was wrong to suggest that we should share the blame; it was all down to me.
When I wake again, Tom's not at my side, but I can hear his footfalls on the stairs. He's singing, low and tuneless, "Happy birthday to you, happy birthday to you. . ." I hadn't even thought about it earlier, I'd completely forgotten; I didn't think of anything but fetching my little girl and getting back to bed.
"I fell asleep," I say, and then I can't say any more, because I can feel her again, no longer on my chest, her body wedged between my arm and the edge of the tub, her face in the water. We were both so cold.
She held up a newspaper with the headline WAS MEGAN A CHILD KILLER? I was speechless. I just stared at it and, ridiculously, burst into tears. […] Diane glanced slyly up at me and asked, "Are you all right, sweetie?" She was enjoying it, I could tell.
I had to leave then, I couldn't stay. They were all being terribly concerned, saying how awful it must be for me, but I could see it on their faces: thinly disguised disapproval. How could you entrust your child to that monster? You must be the worst mother in the world.
Megan isn't what I thought she was anyway. She wasn't that beautiful, carefree girl out on the terrace. She wasn't a loving wife. She wasn't even a good person. She was a liar, a cheat.
She was a killer.
"Did you hear what I just said?” he snaps, turning his back on me and striding back up the path towards the car. "You'd be a terrible mother, Megan. Just get rid of it."
I go after him… […] I’m yelling at him, screaming, trying to scratch his fucking smug face, and he’s laughing… […] It’s not even rejection, it's dismissal. […]
He's not laughing anymore.
He's coming towards me. He has something in his hand.
I've fallen. I must have slipped. Hit my head on something. I think I'm going to be sick. Everything is red. I can’t get up. […] Someone is speaking to me. Now look. Now look what you made me do.