Little Disasters, my new novel about the darkest reaches of motherhood, begins with a mother overwhelmed by her screaming baby and the sense that this is more than she can bear. The novel explores how the loneliness of early motherhood can fracture a woman’s identity and cause even experienced mothers to take dangerous risks. Much of my book is written from the point of view of Jess, an affluent mother-of-three, who is struggling. While I hope the reader is sympathetic, it’s clear her mothering is less than ideal.
It turns out I’m exploring fertile ground. Competent mothers don’t often make for compelling literature, while flawed and morally ambiguous ones speak to our darkest fears. If they’re negligent or malicious, it seems we can’t stop reading about them—and if they dare to be sexually active or voracious, we’re even more intrigued and judgmental. Then there are those who, whether through their own frustration, perfectionism, or lack of emotional intelligence, are unintentionally cruel to their children. My character, Jess, has a good excuse. Here, in contrast, are some of the worst mothers in literature: