While sleeping with Zach, a white boy that Nadia has started casually hooking up with in law school, Nadia receives a phone call from the hospital in her hometown, informing her that her father has been severely injured. Apparently, he dropped his weights on his chest while working out in the backyard, crushing his diaphragm, breaking his ribs, and puncturing his lung. Nadia hasn’t been to her hometown since Aubrey and Luke’s wedding several years ago, but she jumps out of Zach’s bed and asks him to drive her home so she can pack her bags and catch the next available flight to California. In the time she’s been away, she has reviewed “everything about that summer before college: the pastor’s tentative visit, […] Mrs. Sheppard’s coldness at work, how surprisingly kind she’d seemed right before Nadia left.”
Since discovering that Mr. and Mrs. Sheppard paid for her abortion, Nadia has thrown herself back into the past, looking for indicators of truth. Bennett implies that when someone discovers a long-hidden secret, it’s natural to suddenly question everything. As Nadia combs through and reinterprets her past, Bennett shows that the truth can often destabilize a person’s own narrative, abruptly reframing his or her history.
When Nadia arrives at the hospital after flying to California, her father cries, either “because of the pain or because he [is] glad to see her, or maybe even because he [is] ashamed for her to see him like this.” He apologizes for making her fly all the way home, but she tells him not to worry about that. Sitting beside his bed in a chair, she falls asleep while holding his hand. When she wakes up, she finds Aubrey sleeping on a cot one of the nurses brought in. Nadia hasn’t seen Aubrey since the wedding. Although Nadia has tried many times to convince her friend to visit her in Michigan (in an attempt to avoid having to come back to California and see Aubrey’s new life with Luke), Aubrey keeps making excuses, as if she’s become “that type of wife” who can’t “go anywhere apart from their husband.”
When Aubrey appears by Nadia’s side in the hospital, Bennett shows that parents aren’t the only people who devote themselves to caring for loved ones. Friends can also act as caretakers, which is something Aubrey proves by spending the night in the hospital despite the fact that she and Nadia have grown apart in the years since the wedding. As Aubrey cares for Nadia, and Nadia cares for her father, Bennett demonstrates that people who support others need support themselves.
Robert comes home the following week, and it’s Nadia’s job to tend to him. One evening, right when Nadia finally settles down to get some rest, the doorbell rings. Hauling herself up and opening the door, she finds Luke on the front steps with a container of food in one hand and a cane in the other. He tells her he’s representing Upper Room’s sick and shut-in ministry and asks if he can come inside. “Marriage hung on Luke’s body,” Bennett writes. “He looked older and fuller now, not fat, just satisfied.”
Luke’s body exhibits what’s going on in his personal life, as marriage “hangs” on him like it’s something physical. Luke once again embodies the idea of an “outside hurt,” which is likely still appealing to Nadia—especially as she assumes the role of her father’s caretaker, forced to stay at home and spend all her time with a man she can’t talk to about her feelings.
“I don’t need your food,” Nadia tells Luke. When he looks confused, she reveals that she knows he told his parents about her abortion. “I needed the money,” he explains, insisting that his parents wouldn’t have lent him the cash if he hadn’t told the truth. As he tries to justify his actions, she tells him to get out, assuming that he won’t care that he’s hurt her, since he has “a good life now.” She thinks that all she’s done is “drag him back into the past.”
Nadia goes out of her way to reject Luke’s efforts to help her, not wanting to give him the satisfaction of feeling like a beneficent caretaker. She feels betrayed by the fact that he told his parents her secret, implying that her abortion was private and thus should have remained a secret. By telling his parents her story, Luke violated her trust. Coupled with Luke’s failure to pick her up at the clinic after the procedure, Nadia thinks Luke is doubly unfit to be a caretaker of any sorts, so she resents the weak effort he makes to help her care for Robert.
During this time, Aubrey starts corresponding via email with Miller, the Marine she met on the beach before her wedding. Apparently, Nadia gave Miller Aubrey’s address before they parted ways on the beach, and though Aubrey was initially upset about this, she can’t deny to herself that she enjoys keeping in touch with this older man. She learns that his first name is Russell, and that he has once again been stationed in Iraq. As they grow closer through their conversations, Aubrey tells Russell about her troubles getting pregnant. For whatever reason, she and Luke haven’t been able to conceive a child. “I made an appointment with the doctor,” she tells him one day, and he replies, “Baby?” At first, she thinks he’s calling her “baby,” which would violate her rule that their conversations remain friendly, but she soon realizes that he’s asking if she’s pregnant.
Amidst all the secrets at play in The Mothers, Aubrey’s close contact with Russell is fairly innocent. Compared to the fact that Luke got Nadia pregnant, for instance, Aubrey’s long-distance interest in this Marine is relatively harmless. Even compared to her own secret—getting raped by Paul in her childhood—Aubrey’s correspondence with Russell seems harmless. However, since she’s normally so pure, her willingness to indulge in even the slightest emotional infidelity is worth noting. Russell, it seems, gives her the emotional support she must not be getting from Luke, since she resorts to telling this relative stranger intimate details about her life and marriage.
In the past, Aubrey has somewhat blurred the line between friendship and flirtation with Russell. She even sends him a picture of herself driving up the coast with her sister—a picture in which her tank top strap has slipped down her arm in a suggestive manner. Still, she tries not to think about what this picture might imply, instead focusing on the fact that Russell is lonely. She can sympathize with this loneliness because she feels it too—Luke has recently been promoted at his rehab job and has also started spending his time helping his father at Upper Room, so Aubrey often finds herself alone. When she asks Luke to accompany her to a doctor’s appointment, he says he can’t because he’s working, adding that he wishes everyone would stop “obsessing about babies.” “We’re young,” he says. “We got time.”
During this period, Luke and Aubrey slowly drift apart, as evidenced by the fact that Aubrey understands Russell’s loneliness on a personal level. What’s more, Luke seems somewhat aloof, flippantly shrugging off Aubrey’s concern about not being able to conceive. It’s worth noting that this isn’t the first time in the novel that Upper Room provides a man with an excuse to withdraw from a loved one. This is exactly what Robert does in the aftermath of Elise’s suicide by vigorously committing himself to religion, consequently leaving Nadia to her own devices. As a result, readers see that religion sometimes gives its adherents an excuse to escape and avoid their own lives, potentially making their loved ones feel neglected and alone.
One night, Robert tells Nadia a story about his own parents. He explains that when he was growing up, his parents hated each other. It was his mother’s job to look after all six children while his father worked during the day and spent his nights gambling away his earnings and visiting brothels. When Robert’s father would finally come home, Robert’s mother would wash her husband’s filthy shirts in a claw-foot bathtub in the yard. One day, she was washing clothes in the tub when Robert’s father appeared in the yard in fresh clothing, ready to go waste the family’s money at the pool hall. Overcome by rage, Robert’s mother grabbed an icepick lying on the ground, drove it into the man’s back, and let him bleed out in the tub.
Robert’s story speaks to the novel’s interest in questioning who is responsible for keeping a family running smoothly. The fact that Robert’s mother has to clean his father’s clothes each evening just so that he can go get them dirty again and waste the family’s money suggests that he, along with the society he lives in, expects women to shoulder the burden of caring for the family. Robert’s mother simultaneously rails against this notion and reinforces her role as a responsible caretaker by stabbing her husband—by killing him, she exhibits her resentment that he expects her to keep the family afloat while he misbehaves, but she also takes matters into her own hands, ridding the family of this terrible man and his destructive ways. Using Robert’s mother as an example, Bennett illustrates how women often find themselves having to play into a sexist paradigm even as they reject its implications.
After telling Nadia the story about his parents, Robert falls asleep. In the afternoon, Nadia has been awake for twenty-four hours when she hears the doorbell ring and sees Luke standing in the doorframe. Luke sees how weak Nadia looks, so he takes her to the kitchen table and insists that she eat. “I should’ve visited,” Nadia says. “I should’ve come home more.” Luke points out that this wouldn’t have changed anything, but she still feels guilty, saying, “I left him like she did.” With these words hanging in the air, Luke touches Nadia’s cheek. “I feel like I have to be her for the both of us,” she says as tears form. As she cries, Luke puts her head to his shoulder, takes her to the bathroom, and runs a tub. “Why are you doing this?” she asks. “Because,” he says, “I want to take care of you.”
Despite the anger and resentment she feels toward Luke, Nadia still harbors a tenderness toward him. Perhaps because she’s exhausted, she finally accepts his help and sympathy, crying in front of him for the second time in the novel. Again, it’s important to remember that Nadia only cries when she’s with Luke, showing how Luke is able to bring out Nadia’s internalized, bottled up emotions. Given that Robert has just told Nadia a story about his mother killing his misogynistic and uncaring father in a bathtub, it’s especially significant that Luke runs a bath for Nadia in this moment, telling her, “I want to take care of you.” In doing so, he communicates his desire to humble himself by taking on the responsibility of supporting Nadia. However, since Robert’s father was left bleeding in the tub, the bath that Luke runs for Nadia may also suggest danger and destruction.
The next day, Luke and Nadia kiss in the bathroom when he comes over to deliver Robert’s medicine. Luke and Nadia go to her bedroom, where they ease onto her bed. This time, their lovemaking is different—it is soft, quiet, and gentle, unlike the quick and agitated sex they had as teenagers. “Now they were slow and deliberate,” Bennett writes, “the way hurt people loved, stretching carefully just to see how far their damaged muscles could go.”
Once more, Bennett adds a secret to the plot of The Mothers: Nadia and Luke are having an affair. What’s significant about this secret, though, is that it’s ultimately founded upon an entire history of things Nadia and Luke have kept from Aubrey, rendering it even more emotionally complex and dangerous.