What is a motherthing? The very word or word-mash speaks of deep grief and longing. A cavity that must be filled with a colourless, texture-less paste—a drywall putty or glue or Spakfilla. Something that is so almost its surroundings that it has the ability to patch up and make invisible the festering wound that wraps itself around the framework.
As you’d expect, Ainslee Hogarth’s novel, Motherthing features several motherthings: a couch; a recipe book; even the protagonist herself, Abby, is a motherthing. Motherhood is an uncomfortable and desperately dark theme throughout this domestic horror novel. When Abby and her husband Ralph move in with Ralph’s mother, Laura, Abby hopes for yet another motherthing to fill the hole that her actual mother left behind. However, this isn’t what she gets. Instead, she finds Laura to be repulsive, cruel, and hell-bent on destroying Ralph and Abby’s marriage. When Laura takes her own life, Abby finds that this is just another extremely effective ploy to tear her and Ralph apart and ruin their plans to start a family together.
Laura’s ghost mingles and lingers, terrorising Abby and seducing Ralph into a state of deep depression. Abby refuses to allow Ralph—the only person to have ever really made her feel valuable or wanted—slip away. Her inner monologue sounds eerily like the patriarchal domestic tales women have been spoon-fed from birth; use antibacterial wipes and save your family!; prepare wholesome and laborious foods and save your family!; get pregnant and save your family!; defeat the ghost of your evil mother-in-law and save your family! From the first chapter, Abby’s dedication to being of service to her husband is abundantly and uncomfortably clear. When the grief of losing his mother strikes, Abby takes on the very role she has yearned for her whole life—the role of motherthing.
Abby’s voice is desperate and yearning and devoted and loving. She is the ‘perfect’ wife. Think Ira Levin’s The Stepford Wives ‘perfect’. Hogarth’s writing is incredibly consuming and convincing. The irony in which the modern woman can continue to function under patriarchal expectations is devastatingly honest and hard to look at in the eyes. As a feminist woman reading this novel, I found myself raising eyebrows and flinching at the reflections of myself in Abby. The patriarchy has been ground into us since birth—it’s not something easily undone.
To Abby, there are two types of women: good motherthing women (like her and Mrs Bondy) and bad undevoted women (like Abby’s mother, Mrs Bondy’s daughter, and Laura). The sensitive and deep scars of a mother wound drive Abby in her everyday life, as it drives many women among us. This begs the question: how much do we, as a society, expect from mothers? Is it too much? Why are the roles of fathers rarely brought up when analysing Abby’s and Ralph’s childhood traumas? Why does the role of my father feel so much smaller and less significant—i.e., less painful—than the role of my mother in early childhood (yeah, but how much can you expect from him, really?)? Why do we often hear the grief of the mother wound but seldom the father wound (other than the stigma and victim-blaming culture surrounding women with ‘daddy issues’)? Are men genuinely less capable of nurturing and thus get a free pass on the whole child-rearing thing? Is it possible that one parent biologically and psychologically has more responsibility than the other, or is that just something we have projected over millennia of mother-blaming?
Hogarth delves into the nitty gritty realities of patriarchal expectation and how women are expected to fill the gaps for men and children in any and all situations. Women exist to nurture—this is a truth that Abby lives and breathes. How could she believe anything else? Just look at what happened when Abby’s mother failed to nurture her—something Abby is committed to never let happen to anyone ever again. Abby has been preparing her whole life for the role of motherthing, or so she thinks. She’s just been waiting for someone worth taking care of—her “sweetest of all sweets” Ralph. Her purpose is to nurture and nourish Ralph, and when the threats of Laura’s insidious and ghostly mental illness come knocking on the married couple’s door, Abby is willing to fight to the death. Maybe even beyond.