Gifty was in fifth grade when Mrs. Palmer, one of her mother’s clients, died. She remembers looking at the wrinkled body in the casket, and how Mrs. Palmer’s family hugged her mother like she was a member of their family. Her mother had spent more time with her clients and had touched them more than she’d ever touched Gifty, and Gifty started to realize her mother didn’t belong to her.
Although Gifty was starving for any attention her mother had to give her when she came home from Ghana, she quickly realizes that the scraps aren’t enough. Her mother belongs more to other people than to her daughter, just as Gifty belonged more to Nana (and was more frequently under his protection and care) than her mother.
One morning, Gifty finds her mother getting dressed, ready to go see the lab. Gifty, unprepared for her mother’s sudden interest, doesn’t have anything cool to show off. Her mother asks to see the mice, and Gifty places one into her hands. Her mother laughs with pleasure when the mouse rouses slightly and looks at her. She wants to know if the mice get hurt, and Gifty says that although they try to be humane and responsible, sometimes they do. Gifty remembers the day she and Nana found the baby bird, remembers her mother telling them “There is no living thing … that doesn’t come to know pain.”
But sometimes, Gifty’s mother surprises her. Gifty had all but forgotten the offer to visit the lab, so her mother’s sudden interest catches her unprepared. The similarities between mother and daughter are on display in Gifty’s mother’s approach to the mice, which is every bit as careful and concerned as her daughter’s. And it’s another surprise reversal: although Gifty has learned to accept the damage and pain she causes the mice, her mother seems to be bothered by it. In contrast, when she and Nana found the baby bird, from her mother’s reaction, Gifty didn’t think that she seemed to care very much about its suffering.
Watching her mother walk around the lab, Gifty thinks about Mahler’s “separation-individuation theory of child development,” which is the stage where babies become aware of themselves and start to understand their mothers as individual beings. Intellectually and experientially, she knows that she and her mother are separate beings, but they are both sometimes angered over reminders of their difference. After Nana’s death, when her mother couldn’t get out of bed, Gifty wanted her mother to be “hers” again, someone she could understand. Her mother’s illness was a reminder that Gifty would never know her mother “wholly and completely.”
Being in the lab with her mother reminds Gifty of the last scientific text she introduces in the book, and perhaps the most important. If, earlier in the story, she understood her tortured relationship with her mother through the damage her mother’s lack of attention and intimacy caused, now she starts to understand that she needs to forge her own path apart from her mother. Nana’s death, and the necessity of becoming her mother’s caretaker at such a young age, have stranded Gifty in an immature stage of her emotional development where she overidentifies with her mother and her mother’s needs.