Caretaking in The Mothers is a duty or responsibility women are expected to uphold. Nadia grapples with this expectation throughout the novel. First, she has to face the congregation’s opinion that her mother has shirked her motherly duties by killing herself—nobody, it seems, is willing to consider the fact that Elise has acted according to a sense of free will by ending her own suffering. Instead, the community focuses exclusively on her failure to fulfill her obligations as a mother. Nadia’s father, on the other hand, retreats into himself after Elise’s suicide, neglecting to provide Nadia with the support she needs, and even depending on her to keep their lives on track. Despite his failure to shoulder the responsibilities of a primary caretaker, nobody in the community condemns Robert for acting selfishly or expects him to address his daughter’s needs. This unequal gender dynamic also manifests itself in Nadia’s relationship with Luke, since Luke eventually shames her for having an abortion, ultimately suggesting that Nadia has heartlessly shirked her responsibility to care for their unborn baby. In other words, Luke implies that Nadia had an obligation to become a caretaker just because she was pregnant, and though he was complicit in her decision to get an abortion, he retroactively implies that it was Nadia’s duty to go through with her pregnancy and become a mother. As such, Bennett shows that society expects different things of women and men when it comes to caretaking, a notion that puts the burden on women to support their loved ones and shames them when they decide to prioritize their own needs.
Elise Turner’s suicide invites widespread disapproval from the church community. Although Nadia is also angry that her mother has committed suicide and abandoned her, the condemnation expressed by the Upper Room community is perhaps stronger than Nadia would have expected. This is because Elise has violated the church’s social contract, which upholds that women must take care of their children and husbands at all costs. When Nadia stands in the receiving line after the funeral, one of the Mothers approaches her and says, “I just can’t believe she did that to you.” This comment emphasizes to Nadia the idea that mothers are held responsible for their children. By killing herself, Elise has blatantly disregarded this idea, to the extent that people like the Mothers see her actions as not only selfish, but pointedly aggressive, too: “[It was as if] her mother had shot Nadia, not herself,” Bennett writes, showing Nadia’s discomfort about having to listen to her community berate her mother under the guise of sympathizing with Nadia. Framing the situation in this manner, Bennett illustrates how Nadia is forced to feel ashamed because of her mother’s actions. As a mere teenager, then, Nadia quickly learns that society expects women to always prioritize their loved ones over themselves.
Unfortunately, men aren’t subject to the same expectations surrounding caretaking and responsibility. This is made evident by the fact that nobody criticizes Robert Turner for completely avoiding the everyday duties of a single father. Instead of caring for Nadia after Elise’s suicide, Robert spends the majority of his time using his truck to run errands for Upper Room. When Nadia gets drunk and crashes his truck, she overhears her father admit to the pastor that he doesn’t know how to raise her without Elise’s help. Hearing this, Nadia feels bad that her father blames himself for her own mistakes, although she also blames him. Bennett writes, “[Nadia] had been the one who held it together. She’d answered the door when the Mothers visited with food, while her father disappeared into the darkness of his bedroom.” When she eventually tires of eating the Mothers’ food, Nadia goes to the grocery store and cooks dinner for her father and herself, thereby assuming the role of caretaker in their household. Although it’s clear Robert isn’t providing his daughter with the support she needs, nobody in the community comments on his failure as a parent, ultimately suggesting that women are expected to prioritize their loved ones’ needs, while men are free to wallow in their own despair and ignore their caretaking duties.
Nadia also encounters expectations surrounding caretaking and responsibility in her romantic relationship with Luke. When she gets pregnant with his child, she feels the weight of responsibility; “She was supposed to be the smart one,” Bennett writes. “She was supposed to understand that it only took one mistake and her future could be ripped away from her.” The idea that Nadia is supposed to “be the smart one” implies that Luke is granted the latitude to remain unconcerned about the “future” and making “mistakes.” In other words, society puts the burden on women—not men—to be responsible when it comes to pregnancy and caretaking.
Nadia feels like she has to be the “smart one” in her relationship with Luke, but Luke also makes her feel irresponsible and heartless for getting an abortion. Indeed, months after she gets the abortion—a procedure Luke provided the money for without protest—Luke tells her, “I didn’t want to kill our baby.” By using the word “kill,” he frames abortion as immoral, and he distances himself from the act by claiming that he never wanted to go through with the procedure in the first place. Removing himself from any responsibility related to Nadia’s abortion, Luke shames Nadia into feeling like she has failed to uphold her supposed duty as a woman to become a mother and caretaker.
By highlighting Nadia’s experience navigating the expectations society places on women, Bennett illustrates that women who try to act on their own behalf are often perceived as heartless and irresponsible. Men, on the other hand, are generally allowed to behave in the same way without attracting similar judgments. Whereas Nadia is scorned by her community after having an abortion, the general consensus about Luke—who got her pregnant—is that he’s “reckless” but, overall, not a “bad kid.” The disconnect between the way people judge Nadia and Luke illustrates how nobody expects Luke to take responsibility and become a father, but everybody seems to expect Nadia to give up her dreams of going to college in order to raise a child she doesn’t want. Bennett emphasizes that inequality often presents itself as a set of double standards—in this case, a double standard regarding the expectations people have when it comes to caretaking and responsibility.
Caretaking and Responsibility ThemeTracker
Caretaking and Responsibility Quotes in The Mothers
She was startled by how rarely she had been alone back then. Her days felt like being handed from person to person like a baton, her calculus teacher passing her to her Spanish teacher to her chemistry teacher to her friends and back home to her parents. Then one day, her mother’s hand was gone and she’d fallen, clattering to the floor.
Her mother had died a month ago and she was drawn to anyone who wore their pain outwardly, the way she couldn’t. She hadn’t even cried at the funeral. At the repast, a parade of guests had told her how well she’d done and her father placed an arm around her shoulder. He’d hunched over the pew during the service, his shoulders quietly shaking, manly crying but crying still, and for the first time, she’d wondered if she might be stronger than him.
An inside hurt was supposed to stay inside. How strange it must be to hurt in an outside way you couldn’t hide.
But they had used condoms, at least most times, and Nadia felt stupid for how comfortable she had felt with their mostly safe sex. She was supposed to be the smart one. She was supposed to understand that it only took one mistake and her future could be ripped away from her. She had known pregnant girls. She had seen them waddling around school in tight tank tops and sweatshirts that hugged their bellies. She never saw the boys who had gotten them that way—their names were enshrouded in mystery, as wispy as rumor itself—but she could never unsee the girls, big and blooming in front of her.
Her mother had been able to tell when she’d had a bad day at school moments after she climbed into the car. What happened? Her mother used to ask, even before Nadia had said hello. Her father had never been that perceptive, but a pregnancy wasn’t a bad day at school—he would notice that she was panicking, he would have to. She was grateful so far that he hadn’t, but it scared her, how you could return home in a different body, how something big could be happening inside you and no one even knew it.
He stepped toward her and the sudden movement made her drop everything in her hands, her purse and shoes and keys clattering to the driveway. She jutted her arms out before he could come closer. He stopped, his jaw clenched, and she couldn’t tell whether he wanted to slap her or hug her. Both hurt, his anger and his love, as they stood together in the dark driveway, his heart beating against her hands.
If you don’t become them, even for a second, a prayer is nothing but words. […] That’s why it didn’t take us long to figure out what had happened to Robert Turner’s truck. Ordinarily waxed and gleaming, the truck hobbled into the Upper Room parking lot on Sunday with a dented front bumper and cracked headlight. In the lobby, we heard young folks joking about how drunk Nadia Turner had been at some beach party. Then we became young again, or that is to say, we became her. Dancing all night with a bottle of vodka in hand, staggering out the door. A careless drive home weaving between lanes. The crunch of metal. How, when Robert smelled the liquor, he must have hit her or maybe hugged her. How she was probably deserving of both.
At her mother’s funeral, in the front pew, she’d felt 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. “Who is in a position to condemn? Only God,” the pastor had said, opening his eulogy. But the fact that he’d led with that scripture only meant that the congregation had already condemned her mother, or worse, that he felt her mother had done something deserving of condemnation. […]
How dare anyone at the church judge her mother? No one knew why she’d wanted to die. The worst part was that Upper Room’s judgment had made Nadia start to judge her mother too.
Her father slept in his easy chair in the living room now—lying down was too painful—so she rubbed his shoulders each morning, working out the kink in his neck. She helped him to the bathroom, only as far as the door. He still had too much pride to allow her to help him bathe, although she was increasingly aware that that day was nearing, if not during this injury, then someday in the future, the way all people grew old and infantile.
“You did this thing?” he said. “You did this thing behind my back?”
He’d refused to name her sin, which shamed her even more. So she’d told him the truth. How she’d secretly dated Luke, and discovered that she was pregnant, and how the Sheppards had given her the money for the abortion. Her father had listened silently, head bowed, wringing his hands, and when she finished, he sat there a moment longer before standing up and walking out of her room. He was in shock, and she didn’t understand why. Didn’t he know by now that you could never truly know another person? Hadn’t her mother taught them both that?