Throughout The Mothers, Nadia internalizes her grief and emotional pain rather than externalizing them. She keeps herself from outwardly mourning her mother’s death, instead dealing with the trauma as an “inside hurt,” even as she admires Luke for his ability to wear his pain externally. Not long after her mother commits suicide, Nadia gets pregnant and has an abortion, an event that perfectly illustrates her struggle to externalize her internal hardships. In this manner, Bennett illustrates that people often suffer in ways that are invisible to others, but by showcasing the emotional toll this internalization takes on Nadia, Bennett suggests that hidden suffering is no less real than externalized expressions of hardship.
At her mother’s funeral, Nadia refrains from crying. She receives praise for her stoicism: “At the repast, a parade of guests had told her how well she’d done and her father placed an arm around her.” Even though her community commends her for her supposed strength, Nadia is stricken by a sadness she doesn’t know how to address publicly. Removing herself from the public eye, Nadia stops going to school, instead spending her days riding buses and drinking in the dark corner of a strip club to be “alone with [her] grief.” Of course, it’s somewhat ironic that she, a seventeen-year-old girl with a childish backpack, goes to a bar as a way of hiding her grief, since anybody who sees her drinking at the strip club most likely understands her presence there as a cry for help. Indeed, this irony speaks to the strange way Nadia expresses (or fails to express) her emotional distress. Although she instinctively internalizes her pain, Nadia’s attempt to force her grief into an “inside hurt,” shows that she actually longs to externalize her pain.
Nadia’s desire to outwardly express her grief is made evident by her immediate attraction to Luke. Having been severely injured in a football accident, Luke is an embodiment of external pain: “How strange it must be to hurt in an outside way you couldn’t hide,” Bennett notes when Nadia encounters Luke one day while skipping school. Luke’s limp is a constant, visual reminder of his short-lived football career, which came to an abrupt and painful end. This is exactly what Nadia can’t bring herself to do, a fact that makes Luke especially attractive to her. When they eventually have sex, she doesn’t shy away from the pain of her first time; “Sex would hurt and she wanted it to,” Bennett writes. “She wanted Luke to be her outside hurt.” Nadia makes Luke an outlet for her internal pain. However, since they keep their relationship secret, even this gesture toward externality remains secretive and private.
Nadia’s pregnancy and subsequent abortion represent the dichotomy between that which is internal and that which is external, in the sense that a secret life grows inside her but is removed before anybody can possibly guess what she is experiencing. Pregnancy is a form-altering experience, but Nadia has an abortion before her body puts her internal world on display. When she comes home after the procedure, then, her father doesn’t notice anything different about her. “She was grateful so far that he hadn’t [noticed], 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,” Bennett writes, implying that some part of Nadia wants her father to see what she has done. Successfully hiding her abortion means that she has to cope with the resulting emotional turmoil on her own—a solitary burden that follows her throughout her life, as she keeps her abortion a secret from her father, best friend, community, and future boyfriends. Worse, she can’t stop thinking about having made such a difficult decision as a mere teenager, and constantly thinks about Baby, the name she uses to refer to the child she would have birthed. Even as an adult, Nadia daydreams about what Baby would have been like, revealing how internalization can keep a person from moving beyond grief and loss. Without an outlet to express her pain, Nadia finds herself saddled with grief for the entirety of her life, ultimately suggesting that internalized hardships are just as life-altering as externalized hardships and may actually come with deeper, more permanent consequences since they hinder a person’s ability to process his or her emotional troubles.
Internalization vs. Externalization ThemeTracker
Internalization vs. Externalization Quotes in The Mothers
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.
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.
Not ghost eyes, but she had been gifted with a second sight nonetheless: she could look at a girl and tell if she’d been hit before. Forget bruises and scars—hit women learned to hide or explain those away. No need for stories about running into doorknobs or tripping down stairs—all she needed to do was lock her odd eyes onto theirs and she knew a woman surprised or outraged by pain from a woman who’d learned to expect it. She saw past flawless skin to diamond-shaped iron burns, gashes from golden belt buckles, necks nicked by steak knives, lips split by class rings, faces blooming purple and deep blue. She’d told Aubrey this the third time she’d invited her for tea, and after, Aubrey had stared into the mirror, wondering what else the first lady saw. Was her entire past written on her skin?
How could a woman like that kill herself? Aubrey knew it was a stupid question—anyone could kill herself, if she wanted to badly enough. Mo said that it was physiological. Misfired synapses, unbalanced chemicals in the brain, the whole body a machine with a few tripped wires that had caused it to self-destruct. But people weren’t just their bodies, right? The decision to kill yourself had to be more complicated than that.
She had hoped for a release. She would go to this wedding and when she watched the two of them kiss at the altar, the part of her that was still hooked into Luke would finally give. A click, then the latch would open and she would finally be free. Instead, she felt him burrowing deeper into her. She felt the dull burn of an old hunger, all the times she had wanted him, the times she had hoped he might hold her hand in public, the nights she had dreamed about when he might finally tell her he loved her.
He silently dressed but paused halfway, his pants hanging at his ankles. He looked like he might cry, and she turned away. He didn’t love her. He felt guilty. He’d abandoned her once and now he was latching onto her, not out of affection but out of shame. She refused to let him bury his guilt in her. She would not be a burying place for any man again.
“Well, you got your husband to protect you.”
“My husband’s the one who hurts me,” she said. “He thinks I don’t know he’s in love with someone else.”
She had never said it out loud before. There was something freeing in admitting that you had been loved less. She might have gone her whole life not knowing, thinking that she was enjoying a feast when she had actually been picking at another’s crumbs.