No Apologies: A Look at The Mothers and the Choices Women Make

In Brit Bennett’s extraordinary novel, forgiveness becomes the most difficult thing to decipher

There is a line from Esperanza Spalding’s Emily’s D+Evolution that has haunted me for most of the year:

“Take a little girl who gets to see her mama broke down / Now she’s a lady made for the modern world.”

The song is called “Judas.”

It’s about “innocent wrecking balls” — the raging boys and girls who are trying to figure out where they belong in a world that already views them as trouble. Those lines were all I could think about after meeting Nadia Turner in The Mothers.

Nadia Turner is a 17-year-old from Oceanside, California whose mother killed herself and chose not to leave a note. Her mother is there and then she isn’t anymore — broken down or otherwise. And so, the central question of Bennett’s novel becomes: how do girls navigate their path to womanhood without mothers there to guide them?

“How do girls navigate their path to womanhood without mothers there to guide them?”

To everyone who knows the Turner family at church, Nadia becomes her mom’s ghost: “She looked so much like her mother that folks around the Upper Room started to feel like they’d seen Elise Turner again.” As Nadia learns, one way for your absent mother to guide you through womanhood is to retrace her path.

In ways beyond from her beauty, Nadia truly is her mother’s ghost. She is around the age her mother was when she got pregnant and dropped out of high school. “If my mom had gotten rid of me, would she still be alive?” This becomes one of many curiosities Nadia battles in attempt of understanding her suicide. Nadia tries to bury her grief between the sheets with Luke Sheppard (a former football hero who also happens to be the pastor’s son) and her mother’s history repeats itself in the form of a positive pregnancy test. “Of all people, she should have known better. She was her mother’s mistake.” Nadia isn’t her mother, though. She gets pregnant and then chooses not to be anymore. In retracing her mother’s path, she also chooses to rewrite it.

Nadia is good at keeping secrets. She even manages to shield rumors from her best friend, Aubrey Evans. Aubrey is the other motherless girl at church, whose mother isn’t dead — just gone. She makes it clear that there are other reasons to be motherless: “. . . we don’t get along, that’s all,” Aubrey tells Nadia. What Aubrey doesn’t admit is that her mother has chosen a life of lovesickness over raising her daughter. Her heart has a habit of choosing the wrong men.

At its core, The Mothers is a novel about choice. Some choices are uncontrollable and impulsive, while others are pragmatic. Nadia Turner chooses to leave town for college and navigate her potential outside of the small community where she grew up. As Aubrey puts it, “Anywhere [Nadia] wants to be, she goes.” Aubrey chooses to stay and build her life in Oceanside. She hopes to fall in love, settle down, and start a family. The girls build different paths, but the end goal is the same: to lead happier lives than their mothers. This is where Bennett nails the paradox modern women face: the freedom of choice and the anxiety that comes with that responsibility — that people will still judge your choices.

Is a decision only a mistake if it hurts people? Or if it is chosen out of naiveté? Mistakes have many faces. By definition, making a mistake is about choosing wrong. Bennett makes it clear that mistakes aren’t always about choice — sometimes they’re about losing control — about wanting to make a mistake. (Lust, by the way, is a surefire way to lose control.) Beyond that, Bennett begs a bigger question about choice — what do we do with good decisions that others see as choosing wrong?

This is what I love about Bennett’s novel: again and again, women make their decisions and do not apologize for them. Even the more difficult ones. Elise Turner decides to leave her life and doesn’t explain it away in a note. Nadia doesn’t blame anyone for her choices either. “No one made me do anything,” she says more than once about her abortion. “Her mother was dead now, long gone, but she might have been proud to know that her daughter didn’t blame anyone for her choices. She was that strong, at least.”

“The Mothers is a novel about choice.”

Even definitive choices — ones that aren’t mistakes — can lead you to wonder what different paths would have yielded. Bennett does this beautifully through Nadia and Luke’s daydreams of a reality where their baby was born into the world. In Nadia’s mind, “he grew into a boy, a teenager, a man.” She even imagines him throwing a ball, wondering if he could have been an athlete like his father. That’s the hurt Nadia, Luke, Aubrey and others in The Mothers endure — all the potential they imagine in their past — Luke’s football career, Nadia’s baby and the family they could have built their lives around. That impulse to look back before going forward is what makes Bennett’s characters so relatable.

Bennett broke my heart with this novel, with her investigation of friendship, secrets, love, choice and forgiveness. Forgiveness is the hardest to decipher in The Mothers. “Forgive this innocent wrecking ball” is also a line that hits hard in Esperanza Spalding’s “Judas.” It comes back every time she gets to the chorus.

Women hear it all the time: we say sorry too much. We’re too shy about what we want, too afraid to be seen as bossy. But that softness isn’t the only danger — saying a word over and over can dull it. “Sorry” should mean something. Forgiveness is easier to earn when the word has that power.

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