reflection: The Push by Ashley Audrain
“Cecilia knew early on she wasn’t meant to be a mother. She could feel it in her bones as womanhood set in. When she would see a child with his hand in his mother’s, dragging his feet along the ground, she’d look the other way. This was a physical reaction for her, like wincing when the water was too hot from the faucet. As far as she was concerned, she didn’t have that thing other women did-she didn’t feel nurturing or see the joy of a chubby little thigh. And she certainty didn’t want to see herself reflected in another living thing.”
I first heard about Ashley Audrain’s The Push when Good Morning America picked it as its January Book of the Month. As with a lot of “celebrity” book club picks, you just never know if it will be as good as they promote it to be.
But something about the description of this book was different for me – a mother who comes from a long line of bad mothers, who never wanted to be a mother, who believes her daughter is murderous.
Something about “bad mother” stories speak to me (I have a great mother so I don’t know why – perhaps because it's subversive?), so I took a chance and borrowed the e-book through my library, with my expectations low but still intrigued.
The Push by Ashley Audrain follows Blythe Connor, a woman who is conflicted about motherhood. Rightfully so, having been raised by an abusive mother named Cecilia, who left Blythe when she was still a teenager. Cecilia, a bad mother, was also abused by her bad mother, Etta. In one scene, a flashback shows Etta tricking her daughter Cecilia into a dark cellar by throwing her stuffed animal there so that she can lock Cecilia in for the rest of the day.
In college, Blythe meets Fox Connor, falls in love, and soon they get married. Fox, raised in a stable two-parent household with a close sister, wants a family. Despite Blythe’s misgivings, Fox is so sure Blythe would be a great mother, thinking more of himself than anything.
The beginning of this book is less a psychological thriller and more an exploration of the expectations we project onto women (“We all expect to have, and to marry, and to be, good mothers”). In her husband Fox, I honestly saw one of my biggest fears in a partnership: a man who sees you not as a person, but as a vessel for his desires. He is honestly TRASH.
It’s clear Blythe isn’t so sure motherhood is for her. However, slowly but surely, that becomes her only role. In college, Blythe wanted to be a writer and Fox used to support her in that goal. But she’s not getting any work and her husband makes the vast majority of their income as an architect. Fox starts to ask less about her work and more about when she thinks they’ll be ready to start a family.
The only friend Blythe has from college, Grace, disappears as the book goes on. Blythe tells Fox: “I didn’t let on how much I liked her because you seemed a bit jealous.” When Blythe says, “I didn’t have much, but I had you” regarding Fox, I was so disappointed in how suddenly she became Fox’s wife, soon-to-be-mother, instead of a full person like she was before she met him.
The book takes a more sinister turn when Blythe gives birth to their first child, Violet. The birth is less than celebratory reading it from Blythe’s eyes (“I closed my eyes and willed something horrible to go wrong. Death. I wanted a death. Mine or the baby’s.”)
Raising Violet is a burden to Blythe, and in a way, Blythe is a mother like her own. When Violet cries in her crib, Blythe puts on her headphones for hours to drown out the noise so she can focus on writing.
I also kinda felt like Blythe would project full grown-up emotions onto Violet. Blythe was convinced that Violet wouldn’t nurse or wouldn’t stop crying because Violet didn’t like her, and the whole time I was thinking – um, she’s an infant...don’t they all cry?
But I also understood that this was a life that Blythe never wanted for herself and she felt trapped. Furthermore, Fox NEVER helped and would always use work as an excuse – that’s enough to drive anyone mad.
But then again, should a child bear the brunt of that feeling? It’s a tough space for mothers to navigate without alienating their children. Yes, I love you but you also made my life worse. Is society ready to give mothers that space to share those feelings, however horrifying they may be?
When Violet gets older, however, it’s clear that Blythe was not completely wrong. There is something wrong with Violet. In one scene, Violet trips a boy on the playground and the boy dies. Blythe having seen this with her own eyes is stunned. But when she tells people Violet is to blame, everyone assumes Blythe is lying, perhaps still exhibiting signs of postpartum depression. Blythe, by the way, is not lying.
Blythe, wanting to re-do motherhood, has a baby boy named Sam. This time, Blythe feels all the happiness she should have felt with Violet. She loves nursing Sam, loves watching him play. (I found it highly interesting that Blythe loved her son, but not her daughter – especially since Blythe does exhibit jealousy about how obsessed Fox is with Violet.) However, the joy Blythe feels with Sam ends when Violet pushes his stroller into a busy road, killing him.
Again, Blythe is all alone in this feeling, being the only one who witnesses this. When she tells Fox, it’s the last straw and their marriage ends when Fox starts cheating (trash, i told you) on her with his assistant. Blythe, alone in her feelings about Violet, becomes confused – did she see Violet do those things? Or is she a bad mother, projecting negative characteristics onto her daughter?
I liked this book best when it explored bad mothers and societal expectations of women to have children. I liked this book less when it was psychological – I felt like Violet’s violent tendencies needed to be explored a bit more clearly for me but maybe the ambiguity was the point.