In Michigan, Nadia meets her new boyfriend Shadi at a Black Student Union meeting. Surrounded by white people, she experiences “a sly type of racism” that runs throughout the university’s culture. She notices this all over campus, as white people make her walk “on the slushy part of the sidewalk” but then “champion the diversity of their school, how progressive and accepting it [is].” “In a way,” Bennett writes, “subtle racism was worse because it made you feel crazy. You were always left wondering, was that actually racist? Had you just imagined it?”
Throughout the novel, Bennett makes observations about race and the ways in which people treat Nadia according to the color of her skin. This is first apparent when she goes to the free pregnancy center and the nurse looks at her as if she’s “another black girl too dumb to insist on a condom.” Later, the dreadlocked nurse projects a similar sentiment onto her. Now, though, Nadia encounters “subtle racism” on an everyday basis, finding herself in a context in which people are constantly—and problematically—aware of her blackness. In a predominantly white environment, she experiences what it feels like to have her identity reduced to a single defining factor: the color of her skin.
Shadi is a skilled debater capable of besting seemingly anybody in discussions about equality. During Nadia’s sophomore year, he establishes a school paper “dedicated to reporting news about political movements in Palestine and Sudan and North Korea.” His interest in international affairs and human rights encourages Nadia to step outside her own boundaries by studying abroad in Oxford. When she goes to the passport office to have her picture taken in preparation for the trip, she realizes that her mother never left the country. “This would be her life,” Bennett notes, “accomplishing the things her mother had never done.” Unlike her friends, who are proud to be the first in their families to do something, she feels guilty; “How could she be proud of lapping her mother, when she had been the one to slow her down in the first place?”
The guilt Nadia feels about “lapping her mother” suggests that she is unfordable with the idea of venturing into uncharted territories. After all, mothers are usually the ones who show their daughters new things—they are the forerunners of their daughters’ lives. This, it seems, is part of what it means to be a caretaker. Because Elise committed suicide, though, she was never able to fulfill this role. Instead, she left Nadia behind, forcing the young woman to forge into the world on her own. In turn, Nadia experiences uncertainty when it comes to trying new things, compounded by the fact that she feels guilty because she secretly thinks she held her mother back, wondering all the while if Elise would have been happier if she’d gotten an abortion.
Immersing herself in college life, internships, and travel, Nadia finds excuses to avoid returning home. When she Skypes with Aubrey, she always says she’ll visit “soon,” though she never makes good on this promise. “At home, loss was everywhere,” Bennett writes. And though Nadia doesn’t like thinking about her father spending holidays alone, she can’t quite bring herself to return to California.
In her hometown, everybody knows Nadia as the wild party girl whose mother committed suicide. This identity doesn’t allow her to simply be herself, instead reducing her to one or two notable traits. This is perhaps why she avoids going home—“loss” is “everywhere” in California, but in Michigan she can leave behind all of these preconceived notions regarding her identity, allowing her to build a new persona that might more accurately represent who she is.
In the years following Nadia’s departure, Luke yearns to play football again. When he’s not working at Fat Charlie’s, he goes to the park and watches a semi-pro football team called The Cobras practice while he does pushups and pull-ups nearby. Eventually, the coach recognizes him from his days playing college football. Giving Luke his card, he tells him to reach out whenever his leg feels strong enough to play. Excited by this new prospect, Luke tells his parents the good news over their weekly Sunday meal, which they’ve started having ever since he moved out of the house and into his own small apartment. “Get a job, Luke,” Mr. Sheppard says upon hearing about the Cobras. “Listen,” his mother adds, shaking her head, “I know you love football but you got to be realistic now.”
Luke’s determination to get back into shape shows that he views himself as a premiere athlete. Unfortunately, his injury has thrown him off-track, keeping him from fully assuming his identity as a star football player. When the coach of the Cobras approaches him, Luke sees an opportunity to regain his self-image. Meanwhile, his parents question whether or not it’s worth it for Luke to throw himself back into football, since it’s clear the Cobras will only provide him with an ego boost but not a stable income. Whether he likes it or not, Luke’s body will someday keep him from continuing to play football, and he’ll have to give up his identity as an athlete—this is what Mrs. Sheppard tries to get him to acknowledge when she tells him to be “realistic.”
After working out together one day, CJ tells Luke that he’s heard Nadia is “living in Russia and fucking with some African nigga.” Luke isn’t thrilled to hear this—apparently, he obsesses over the idea of other men touching Nadia, and now he finally has a name to search: Shadi Waleed. On the work computer at Fat Charlie’s, he searches Shadi’s name and reads an article he wrote about soccer, then scrolls through his Facebook page until he sees a picture of Nadia lounging on his lap. “Her life had gone on like nothing had happened,” writes Bennett, “but Luke was stuck, wedged in the past.”
The fact that CJ tells Luke that Nadia’s in Russia when she’s actually in England shows that gossip is unreliable. This is important to remember, since The Mothers explores the ways in which people talk about each other and the impact this has on the stories they tell. Stuck in his hometown, Luke yearns to know more about Nadia’s new life. From this distance, he wrongly assumes Nadia has completely moved on from him and her abortion. Of course, readers know that this couldn’t be further from the truth, since Nadia constantly thinks about her abortion. As such, Bennett illustrates that looking at another person’s life from a distance often leads people to jump to false conclusions.
Luke joins the Cobras and discovers that he actually enjoys getting hit because it’s an outlet for his anger. Though he’s slightly younger than the other players, he finds his teammates have all experienced some kind of disappointment regarding their football careers. It isn’t long before he becomes friends with these men, most of whom have wives and families. At a party hosted by a player named Finch and his wife Cherry, Luke talks about how Nadia got an abortion and how she’s dating somebody else now. “I’m sorry, brother,” Finch says. “That’s some bullshit and we both know it. I love my wife more than anything, but I’d kill her if she got rid of my baby.”
Again, Bennett frames Luke as somebody who embraces and embodies the idea of externalized pain. This is evident by the way he takes pleasure in getting tackled. Getting hit gives him an outlet to express his inner frustrations, including his mistaken belief that Nadia has moved on with her life. His anger about Nadia also surfaces during his conversation with Finch, who suggests that Nadia wronged Luke by getting an abortion, and that Luke should have been the one to decide the fate of Nadia’s unborn baby.
Luke slowly gets to know Cherry and makes excuses to drop by Finch’s house to see her, since he enjoys the conversations he has with her. Cherry is a bit overweight, and at first their friendship is purely platonic. One day, though, Luke comes to see her while Finch is gone, and she tells him that several Cobras were at the house the previous night watching a video of Luke’s injury, playing it over and over and yelling when the bone came out of his leg. This upsets Luke, making him feel like he’s “just a gruesome joke” to the other players. As he thinks this, Cherry asks to see his scar. Reticent at first, he rolls up his pants and exposes his shin. After a moment, Cherry bends down and kisses the scar. As she does so, her daughter runs into the hall and witnesses their intimacy.
Luke’s defensiveness after learning that his teammates watched his injury video suggests he’s overly sensitive about anything that might challenge his identity as a tough athlete. Imagining Finch and the rest of the Cobras laughing at his injury belittles him, making him feel like “a gruesome joke,” when what he really wants is to be accepted by his teammates as a well-respected player. Cherry senses Luke’s insecurity, which is perhaps why she kisses his shin—she wants to show him that he doesn’t have to be a macho football player around her. By kissing his scar, she ultimately brings tenderness to the externalized pain Luke exhibits, thereby softening his hard exterior.
The following evening, Luke is taking out the trash in the back alley of Fat Charlie’s and thinking about asking Cherry on a coffee date when he sees a group of Cobras approaching. “Yo assholes, I can’t get all of you free beer, so don’t even ask,” he says, but his words go unanswered as the men advance upon him. Before Luke can even react, Finch punches him in the face, and Luke blacks out as the rest of the Cobras start “stomping on his leg.”
Considering that Luke wants to ask Cherry on a date, it seems that her kiss has broken past his tough exterior. Right when he allows himself to be vulnerable, the Cobras beat him senseless, targeting his bad leg as if to remind him that his injury—his externalized pain—will always follow him through life. This also reinforces Luke’s feeling that he needs to preserve his identity as a tough football player motivated by pain.