The Mothers

by

Brit Bennett

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The Mothers: Chapter Three Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
The Mothers explain that they practice intercessory prayer, taking on the burdens of their community members. “We don’t think of ourselves as ‘prayer warriors,’” they uphold. Instead, they simply try to “slip inside” someone else’s body, inhabiting their pain. In this way, they “become” Nadia Turner after they hear about her drunken escapades. As they pray for her, they also feel sorry for Robert, who they say has been through too much already, since Elise shot her own head “clean off her body” last year, leaving behind her distraught family. Not long after Nadia crashes the truck, the Mothers find a prayer card from Robert in the box outside the prayer room. Pray for her, it reads, though they don’t know if these words refer to Nadia or to her mother.
Intercessory prayer refers to the act of praying on someone else’s behalf. The fact that the Mothers actively take on other people’s burdens reflects their tendency to involve themselves in other people’s lives. This kind of prayer also aligns with their inability to resist spreading gossip and telling secrets about the members of their congregation. When Robert gives the Mothers a vaguely worded prayer card that could refer to either Elise or Nadia, Bennett illustrates how people peering into the lives of others ultimately have to make to do with partial information and inference rather than hard facts. After all, the Mothers only know so much about Nadia—especially before they find about her abortion—and so their involvement in her life is predicated on speculation.
Themes
Secrecy, Gossip, and Storytelling Theme Icon
Religion and Judgment Theme Icon
Related Quotes
In the days after crashing Robert’s truck, Nadia stays home. Upset that she’s ruined the “one thing” her father loves, she’s further unsettled by the fact that Robert doesn’t yell at her about the incident. “She wished he would rage when he was angry—it’d be easier that way, quicker—but instead, he coiled up tight inside himself, moving silently around her in the kitchen or avoiding her altogether.” 
Although the distance plaguing Nadia and Robert’s relationship seemingly comes to a head when she crashes his truck, Robert backs away from his daughter once again. This is because confronting Nadia would mean acknowledging the pain she must be experiencing in the aftermath of her mother’s death—a pain he clearly can’t imagine discussing. In this moment, his tendency to “coil up tight inside” mirrors Nadia’s own tendency to internalize her pain. Of course, the difference is that he, as a parent, has a responsibility to reach out to his daughter but ignores his duty by “moving silently around her in the kitchen” and “avoiding her altogether.” 
Themes
Caretaking and Responsibility Theme Icon
Internalization vs. Externalization Theme Icon
The Sunday after the crash, Pastor Sheppard visits the Turner household. When Nadia opens the door, she’s surprised to see him dressed in casual clothes, though she hides this as she leads him to the backyard, where her father is lifting weights. As she leaves the two men alone, she sees the pastor turn to watch her, and she momentarily wonders if he can somehow tell what has happened in her body, as if “his calling [has] imbued him with divine knowledge,” and he can see her aborted pregnancy “hanging off her shoulders” like the “heaviness of her secrets.” 
Bennett frames Nadia’s “secret” as something visible that can “hang off her shoulders.” Once again, Bennet shows Nadia’s fear of externalizing her hardships. The fact that Nadia thinks Mr. Sheppard’s “calling” as a pastor enables him to intuit such private things about her also suggests that she worries her secrecy and privacy are threatened by religion—fearful of the harsh judgment to which a religious person might subject her regarding her abortion, she is weary of Mr. Sheppard as he gazes at her body.
Themes
Secrecy, Gossip, and Storytelling Theme Icon
Internalization vs. Externalization Theme Icon
Religion and Judgment Theme Icon
Closing the backdoor, Nadia rushes upstairs and crouches by a window that opens onto the yard, where her father and the pastor are talking. She hears the pastor say he heard about what happened with Nadia and the truck, and Robert responds by saying, “She wasn’t like this before. Or maybe she was. Maybe I just didn’t know her before. Elise was always there to…they were so close, I couldn’t get between them and didn’t hardly want to.” At this, Nadia backs away from the window, not wanting to hear her father blame himself for her mistakes, although she often finds herself blaming him for leaving her alone. In fact, she was the one who kept their lives on track after her mother died. As Robert stayed in his dark bedroom, she opened the door when visitors came and even started cooking dinner.
Yet again, Bennett shows that Robert has shirked his responsibilities as a parent and caretaker, leaving Nadia to figure out on her own how to navigate everyday life and her own grief. Even though Robert’s failure is glaringly obvious, no one in the community seems to hold him accountable. After all, the pastor says nothing to imply that Robert should pay more attention to his daughter. This is an important dynamic to keep in mind as the novel progresses, as readers will see that the leeway given to Robert regarding his parental obligations is at odds with how people treat women in similar situations.
Themes
Caretaking and Responsibility Theme Icon
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After Pastor Sheppard leaves, Nadia goes downstairs with a pair of clippers and offers to give her father a haircut—something her mother used to do. As she runs the clippers along his head, he says that the pastor’s wife—the first lady—needs an assistant for the summer. “I can’t work there,” Nadia responds, but when her father asks why, she can’t think of anything to say. “It’s a good job and it’ll be good for you,” Robert says. “Spending some time at Upper Room. It’ll help you. God will—you have to trust Him, see? You trust Him and stay in His presence and He’ll carry you through like He’s carrying me.” As he speaks, Nadia feels as if her father’s trying to convince himself of his own words, as if he thinks “she might absorb holiness into her bones” by spending time in the church.
Nadia’s immediate refusal to work at Upper Room reinforces the notion that she’s wary of religion and the church. This makes sense, considering that she has gotten an abortion, which her religion condemns. Worse, what her father is suggesting is that she work alongside Luke’s mother, which would make it very difficult to forget about Luke and move on with her life. Nonetheless, it’s clear that Robert is determined to force Nadia into taking this position, perhaps because he thinks this is a way of reassuming some parental responsibility. By insisting that Nadia work at Upper Room, he’s able to act as if he’s involved in her life, though it’s worth noting that the idea itself doesn’t come from him at all, but from Mr. Sheppard. As such, Robert is merely pretending to invest himself in Nadia’s life.
Themes
Caretaking and Responsibility Theme Icon
Religion and Judgment Theme Icon
Nadia doesn’t understand why the first lady would hire her, since she’s certain Mrs. Sheppard hates her after having caught her kissing a boy behind the church years ago. “I’ve never seen such a thing in my life!” she shouted, dragging Nadia and making her write My body is a temple of God one hundred times before letting her leave. When Nadia arrives at Upper Room on her first day of work, she stands in Mrs. Sheppard’s office as the impressively tall woman towers over her. “How old are you, honey?” she asks, beginning a series of polite but pointed questions about Nadia’s plans to go to college before saying, “Well, look. I never had an assistant and I never needed one. But my husband seems to think I could use some help. So let’s find you something to do, okay?”
Bennett adds to the reasons why Nadia doesn’t want to work at Upper Room. Having already established that Nadia is hesitant to embrace religion, Bennett now reveals that Nadia has always had a strained relationship with Mrs. Sheppard. Of course, Nadia is even more fearful now, given her recent involvement with Luke, Mrs. Sheppard’s son. Sitting in the office, Nadia no doubt feels judged by Mrs. Sheppard, who seems to embrace this dynamic by bombarding Nadia with questions. 
Themes
Religion and Judgment Theme Icon
As Nadia fetches Mrs. Sheppard a cup of coffee, she looks out the window and sees a summer camp playing outside. “In the midst of the chaos” stands Aubrey Evans. As Nadia watches her—completely unsurprised to discover that Aubrey spends her summers at church—she thinks that “in another life, maybe, [she] could have been like her.”
Nadia categorizes Aubrey Evans by seeing her as somebody who must not have a life beyond the church. In this way, she ascribes to Aubrey the identity of an unpopular, overly devout girl, though she doesn’t actually know her at all. Despite this simple-minded conclusion, though, Bennett reveals that Nadia is perhaps capable of seeing beyond such superficial defining characteristics, feeling in some fleeting way that she and Aubrey might actually be alike, that “in another life, maybe, [she] could have been like her.”
Themes
Identity Theme Icon
As the weeks progress, Nadia works for Mrs. Sheppard, who gives her insignificant tasks and often critiques her work. Because the jobs the first lady assigns her are so small, Nadia wonders why the pastor hired her in the first place. She understands, of course, that he and Mrs. Sheppard must “pity” her, but everybody pities her. Indeed, at her mother’s funeral, she could feel “pity radiating toward her, along with a quiet anger that everyone was too polite to express, though she’d felt its heat tickling the back of her neck.” As she felt this, the pastor delivered his eulogy, saying, “Who is in a position to condemn? Only God.” Judging by this choice of scripture, Nadia sensed that “the congregation had already condemned her mother” for committing suicide. After the funeral, one of the Mothers hugged her and said, “I just can’t believe she did that to you.”
The congregation’s fierce disapproval of Elise’s suicide alerts Nadia to the fact that her community harbors certain expectations regarding motherhood. Nobody stops to consider that Elise must have been suffering immensely before taking her own life. Instead, the Mothers and even Pastor Sheppard condemn her actions, framing her as ruthlessly selfish. When Nadia feels “anger” mixed with the “pity radiating toward her” at Elise’s funeral, she’s forced to grapple with society’s unrelenting expectation that mothers always put their children’s needs before their own.
Themes
Caretaking and Responsibility Theme Icon
Related Quotes
One day, Nadia encounters Aubrey in the halls of Upper Room. The two girls have an awkward, stilted conversation. Later, Nadia watches as Aubrey goes into Mrs. Sheppard’s office for tea, and she wonders what it would be like to have the first lady’s approval. Stuffing envelopes, she imagines sitting across the Mrs. Sheppard and looking at the pictures of Luke in her office. With this thought, she tries to refocus on the task at hand, but her mind is “flooded” by the memory of Luke. “Her stomach leapt,” Bennett writes, “like she’d missed a stair. Grief was not a line, carrying you infinitely further from loss. You never knew when you would be sling-shot backward into its grip.”
It’s clear Nadia is somewhat jealous of Aubrey’s relationship with Mrs. Sheppard, since Aubrey has the first lady’s approval, and Nadia doesn’t. The fact that this bothers Nadia implies that she yearns for a motherly figure in her life and wants somebody like Mrs. Sheppard to show the same kind of concern and empathy normally expected of a caretaker. On another note, when Bennett says that “grief [is] not a line,” she demonstrates how emotion can swell unexpectedly when a person internalizes pain. Because Nadia never allows herself to express her emotional trauma, she finds that she never knows when she will “be sling-shot backward into [grief’s] grip.”
Themes
Caretaking and Responsibility Theme Icon
Internalization vs. Externalization Theme Icon
That night, Nadia opens the drawer of her nightstand and takes out a small golden medallion in the shape of baby feet, “a gift, if you could call it that, from the free pregnancy center after she’d learned her test was positive.” As she touches the glinting object, she remembers how the woman at the clinic gave it to her and told her that the feet were “the exact shape and size […] as those of her own eight-week-old-baby.” At the time, she found herself unable to “throw the pin away,” which helped her realize she was going to have an abortion. “This pin was all that would remain,” Bennett writes. Since then, Nadia has taken to holding the golden feet every night before bed.
The golden baby feet medallion is the only physical evidence of what Nadia has gone through with her pregnancy and subsequent abortion. Everything else has been hidden away, rendering the entire pregnancy undetectable. Indeed, only Luke knows about her abortion, and she hasn’t seen him since Cody Richardson’s party. As such, her only tangible connection to the experience comes when she holds this medallion each night—yet another testament to how Nadia keeps her hardships carefully tucked away.
Themes
Internalization vs. Externalization Theme Icon
Bennett briefly shifts her attention to focus on Latrice Sheppard, who—just as Nadia suspects—never wanted to hire an assistant, let alone the girl her son got pregnant. Indeed, Mrs. Sheppard knows that Nadia carried Luke’s child; Luke himself told his parents as much in a moment of panic and fear. Although the Sheppards scolded him, they also wanted to protect him from getting in trouble with the law, so Latrice went to the ATM and withdrew the $600 that Luke gave to Nadia in order to pay for the abortion. Because of this, the first lady feels she doesn’t owe Nadia anything. She tells her husband this, stating that she doesn’t need “some fast-tailed, know-nothing girl” hanging out in the church all summer, but Mr. Sheppard refutes her point, simply stating, “We owe her.”
The fact that Mr. and Mrs. Sheppard know about and even financed Nadia’s abortion is significant because their religion strictly forbids such procedures. This means that the abortion isn’t only Nadia’s secret, but theirs, too, since such information would surely disgrace anybody in Upper Room’s community, let alone the pastor himself. Although Mrs. Sheppard wants to wash her hands of Nadia—writing her off as nothing but a “fast-tailed” girl who almost ruined her son’s life—the pastor feels a moral obligation to support Nadia. Strangely enough, this feeling of responsibility is one of the only kinds of support Nadia receives from her elders throughout the novel. Mr. Sheppard’s sympathy and regret also explain the look he gave Nadia when he came to visit her father—at the time, Nadia thought he could sense what she’d done because of his religious “calling,” but Bennett now reveals he only knew about her abortion because he played a role in financing the procedure.
Themes
Secrecy, Gossip, and Storytelling Theme Icon
Caretaking and Responsibility Theme Icon
Religion and Judgment Theme Icon
Identity Theme Icon