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Little Women and America’s great big problem with motherhood

By September 29, 2018No Comments

Source : Independent

On the 150th anniversary of the publication of Louisa May Alcott’s classic book, Ceri Radford examines the real heroine of the story

This Sunday marks the 150th anniversary of Louisa May Alcott’s novel for young readers, Little Women. Depending on how you read it, the book is a coming-of-age classic, or the drippiest thing since someone ate an ice cream cone inside the magma chamber of an active volcano.

The author herself, who wrote what would sell to earn a living, described her earnest tale as “moral pap,” and you can see her point.

It’s also something else, which gets less attention: a hymn to motherhood, setting the tone for a strange American culture that idolises mothers as much as it tears them apart.

Long before the hockey mom strode onto the scene, there were the rustling skirts and self-sacrificing smile of “Marmee,” a pioneer-age icon of American maternity. The real heroine of Little Women isn’t fiery Jo or placid Beth: it’s their mom.

This was what struck me the most, re-reading the book as a jaded 30-something mother. It’s there from the earliest chapter, in a scene that featured in last Christmas’s sugar-dusted BBC adaptation: four teenage girls, frantic with excitement as they decide to spend their Christmas money on presents for their mother, rather than themselves. Tell that to the elf on the shelf.

Hard-working, patient, wise as an owl that’s put in a goodish stint with the Trappist monks, calm to the point of emotional constipation: Marmee is the subject of ceaseless devotion. This works itself up to a surreal climax on the wedding day of her daughter, Meg: “It wasn’t at all the thing, I’m afraid, but the minute she was fairly married, Meg cried, ‘The first kiss for Marmee!’ and turning, gave it with her heart on her lips.”

Who knows if this mother worship was intended as moral instruction for young girls, laced in with the story’s Christian values; or a sop to the hard-pressed women who would buy the household books; or perhaps even an elaborate joke. I’m tempted to believe the latter, as someone whose own daughter views me as less demi-god, more ambulant provider of Smarties and wet wipes.

With the prim elision of the period, Meg goes from clueless ingénue to wife to mother of twins without a murmur of how she felt about any of this: more attention is paid to her sewing basket than to sex or birth. As she settles into her role as mother, though, the moralising tone takes a different turn, and we’re presented with a lesson in how not to do it. You see, Meg loses herself in her babies.

“Meg looked worn and nervous, the babies absorbed every minute of her time, the house was neglected,” the narrator notes, balefully.

At this point in the story, the twins are three months old. If I had three-month-old twins, I wouldn’t look “worn and nervous”, I would look like a mad-eyed baboon with its finger in a socket. Yet much sympathy is lavished on Meg’s suffering husband, whose “sleep was broken by infant wails” and “meals interrupted”. Just imagine that, compared to pushing two babies out of your vagina 51 years before the invention of the epidural.

Luckily, Marmee intervenes: in cloying style, “the two women rocked and talked lovingly together, feeling that the ties of motherhood made them more one than ever.” Saintly Marmee advises Meg to let her husband help with the twins, and to make time for her home, herself and her marriage.

Fair enough, but it’s still frankly depressing that a century and a half later, this exact same anguished debate echoes on across the mommy blogs. Women are always portioning themselves up, a slice here, a slice there, feeling guilty wherever they make the cut, judged in a way most men are not.

This year’s upcoming film adaptation, which stars Lea Thompson as Marmee and sets the story in the present, won’t have much of a stretch to make it feel contemporary.

Little Women is just one small, sentimental part of a mainstream American culture that still seems to put mothers on a pedestal, making it all the more ironic when it treats them with such reckless cruelty. The United States is the only country in the developed world that doesn’t offer mandatory maternity leave, compelling a quarter of new mothers to return to work after two weeks.

Two weeks: I wish I could say I remember what that felt like, but I don’t, not clearly. It was a hormonal soup of love and pain, of staring at the tiny veins latticing my baby’s eyelids, of fear that I would split the scars on my emergency C section as I bounced her endlessly on a gym ball to stop the crying at 7pm, 9.30pm, 11pm, 1am, 3am, 5am, the whole night tinged with the mad halogen glow of exhaustion.

A job on top of that, leaving behind a new-born inconsolable without me? Have they been on the gas and air? It makes me want to light a votive candle of thanks I live in Europe.

You could spend a PhD thesis picking holes in Alcott’s representation of women – and why not, it would be more fun than golf course management or military buttons of the 20th century – but she is recognised as a feminist and deservedly so.

In her books, she made girls her central characters, writing about their internal lives and hopes for fulfilment, beyond marriage. And in her life, Alcott supported the suffragist movement and was the first woman to register to vote in Concord, Massachusetts.

Since Alcott’s day, the US has been notable in its inability to elect a woman as president. But the anger of today’s female voters could sway November’s mid-term elections and eventually force a change in policy.

Stories of America holding the worst maternal mortality rate in the developed world, of parents bankrupted by the costs of a premature birth and mothers facing the impossible choice between their baby and their financial security belong in the pages of fiction, not in the news.

They should be as distant and disturbing as the scarlet fever that knocked off Beth in Little Women, an anachronism and an outrage, not a thing to be endured.

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