Pondering Stew: Motherhood in “Little Fires Everywhere” by Celeste Ng

Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng

To a parent, your child wasn’t just a person: your child was a place, a kind of Narnia, a vast eternal place where the present you were living and the past you remembered and the future you longed for all existed at once. You could see it every time you looked at her: layered in her face was the baby she’d been and the child she’d become and the adult she would grow up to be, and you saw them all simultaneously, like a 3-D image. It made your head spin. It was a place you could take refuge, if you knew how to get in. And each time you left it, each time your child passed out of your sight, you feared you might never be able to return to that place again.

Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng

Pondering Stew is a type of post on my blog that comes when books leave me thinking, pondering, and stewing about something, a phrase, a theme, a character, a situation. Usually I will connect it to my life, a current event, a random other thing, or simply an idea. Hopefully some ideas resonate with you even if you haven’t read the book that triggered this thinking for me. I hope you enjoy it!

Little Fires Everywhere is a book that explores motherhood from various perspectives. The people who had her kids just as they planned with everything according to a plan. The one who didn’t exactly plan to have a child but had one and so she became a mother. A couple who wished more than anything to be parents but just couldn’t give birth to a child. (Plus many others).

The bond that exists between a parent, but specifically a mother, and a child can be one of the strongest emotional bonds out there. I myself have a good relationship with my mom, we don’t necessarily tell each other everything or are best of friends all the time, but we have a bond that is unlike anything that I have with anyone else. At the same time, I grew up for a couple of years with my grandmother and, at that time, I didn’t differentiate in my head that my grandma was not my mom. I loved her like a mom and she treated me and loved me like her child. Did that make the relationship with my biological mom any weaker? I don’t think so, it might have obscured it for a while but it didn’t break or disappear.

I thought about this a lot while reading this book. The women in the book are all concerned with what makes a mother the one true mom. Is it biology? Is it nurture? Something completely different? What about those who donate their eggs to couples so that they can have children? Are they mothers of that child? What about those who can’t take care of their child for whatever reason and give them up for adoption? Are they no longer mothers? Some of these questions might be easier to answer than others but each situation can be very complex.

Mia is, throughout the book, someone who seems to be a great mother. She listens to her child, treats her like a person, and doesn’t get into the illusion that Pearl is still a baby, she knows that her child is growing up and away from her, and that that is completely natural. At the same time, some judge her because she hasn’t given Pearl a permanent home and she doesn’t have enough money to purchase proper furniture or other luxuries. They are moving every couple of months due to Mia’s process for her art and Pearl is fairly isolated because of that. From her point of view, Pearl is happy that she will finally be able to make some permanent friends and settle down in this new town. And she also seems pretty solid on her relationship with her mother even if there are things that Mia will not talk about regarding her past. Regardless of this, their mother-daughter relationship is rock solid, there is no question that they trust and love each other above anything else, which is what helps them survive and continue living the way they do.

Mrs Richardson, on the other hand, looks like the perfect mother, she planned exactly when she’d have her kids and raised them in a permanent home with all the things they could possibly need. Her four children, however, seem a bit more aloof in their relationship with her. They see her as the adult in the house but they don’t confide in her or tell her about their troubles. Izzy especially, doesn’t quite know how to talk to her mom. Throughout the book Izzy feels like her mom singles her out more than her siblings and doesn’t know why. Even her siblings see her as the weird one in their family.

It’s a completely different dynamic between the two parent-child relationships. So, when Pearl starts to spend more time at the Richardson’s place, it’s not necessarily because of Mrs. Richardson, it is because of the home, the sitting around the living room watching TV, the having these traditions and things that the siblings do as part of their family routine. Pearl is seeing this other way of being a family and having these roots, the excess money to buy whatever one wants, not necessarily the relationships of the siblings and their mother. On the other hand, Izzy sees the relationship between Pearl and Mia and immediately wants to be a part of that. She realizes that Mia is someone who truly sees her and doesn’t treat her like a child who doesn’t measure up. And so, Izzy starts spending more time with Mia, volunteering to help with her art in any way, no payment needed. For a while there, Izzy and Pearl seem to have switched places as they experience different ways that mothers interact with their families.

All that being said, in life outside of the book, there are many people who don’t necessarily have the “traditional” mother figure in their lives. People, like me, who were brought up by relatives or have been adopted by other people, still have mother figures who taught them how to live and who love them as a mother would, and some in addition to their biological mothers. Although the figure of a mother is idealized in a lot of fictional settings (and often removed in order to give the main character complexity…ugh…), mother figures are found in other places during our lives. I remember Mrs Freeman, a teacher I had in Chicago for 4th grade when I barely spoke any English and who took me under her wing and taught me all the things that she could to help me survive. She was a maternal figure in a sense, there was a feeling of safety that I felt with her and she provided knowledge and tools that my mother couldn’t give me at the time. In other fictional stories, such as Matilda, mother figures come up from unexpected places. Some are never said to explicitly be mother figures, but they certainly play that role.

Today it is Mother’s Day in the United States where I live (though in my Mexican family, we celebrate May 10) and it is a time when we can reflect on that relationship. It is also important to acknowledge that there are people who don’t have these relationships or that the relationship isn’t a good one for them. I can talk today only on the context of my own experience: I can say that I love my mom and that our relationship is one that is complicated but also very loving. I also have a bit of grief for my grandmother who passed away many years ago, when I couldn’t quite understand or articulate what our relationship really was. And, even if not traditional, I think of all the women in my life who have served as mother figures in some way or another, both real and fictional: teachers, aunts, neighbors, authors, heroines, etc.

Are there multiple maternal figures that you have encountered throughout your life? How have they influenced the way you live/think/dream?

Pondering Stew: Isolation and Loneliness in “Beloved” by Toni Morrison

Pondering Stew is a new kind of post for my blog. Basically books will leave me thinking sometimes, pondering and stewing about something, a phrase, a theme, a character, a situation. Usually I will connect it to my life, a current event, a random other thing, or simply an idea. Hopefully some ideas resonate with you even if you haven’t read the book that I triggered this thinking for me. I hope you enjoy it!

Denver’s imagination produced its own hunger and its own food, which she badly needed because loneliness wore her out. Wore her out. Veiled and protected by the live green walls, she felt ripe and clear, and salvation was as easy as a wish.

Beloved by Tony Morrison (italics in original text)

This month I read Beloved with one of my book clubs. I had previously read it in high school for a class and even wrote an essay about the use of the word “veil” in the book. Now I could talk about so many things regarding Beloved; however, some of the things that I’ve been pondering and stewing over while reading this book and many days after I finished it are the themes of loneliness and isolation as well as the consequences of feeling those things for too long.

Beloved really had me thinking…

Beloved was inspired by a real event that involved Margaret Garner, a woman who killed her daughter rather than see her be enslaved again. Here are the characters from Beloved that you can keep in mind as we go through some of the thoughts I had:

  • Sethe: A woman who is able to escape slavery with her children, three were sent ahead of her and then she gave birth to the last one as she was escaping. She is only able to spend 28 days with all her children in some semblance of happiness.
  • Denver: The child Sethe gave birth to as she escaped. Denver is 17 years old when the narration of the book starts.
  • Paul D: A man who lived in Sweet Home, the place Sethe ran away from. Paul D also escaped and has been traveling, trying to find the place where he belongs. He arrives the day that the book starts.

This book has each character carry their loneliness around them, like a blanket that they use for protection. Being lonely means that they don’t have to admit their feelings to other people, isolated they can almost sit next to each other and just be in that moment while shoving all other memories away. None of them make much of an effort to connect to other people either, and most people also leave them alone since they get that feeling that they don’t want to be bothered. In part it is that taboo about how Sethe killed her child and went to prison for it, so there is a reason why people stay away. Denver is also deeply affected by this and doesn’t even get to play with other kids her age, instead she imagines that she plays with her baby sister who was murdered and who now “haunts” her house. Her brothers are barely mentioned but what it does say in the book suggests that they were just waiting for the right moment to leave.

All the characters in Beloved had one or multiple traumatic events happen in their lives that they never really got to process or grieve. Paul D and Beloved both suffered incredible physical torture in the form of beatings, being chained in a box in the ground, and many other unmentionable things. All the characters have suffered mental traumas since they were born into slavery, being treated as objects sold and used however their masters wished, and overall suffered the lack of love and acknowledgement from others throughout their lives.

After more than a year of physical isolation that started in 2020 due to the Covid-19 pandemic, this book mirrored my own loneliness and isolation in some ways. Pre-pandemic I had a couple groups of people who I interacted with, coworkers, people I went to dance classes and events with, high school friends I saw from time to time. But now I don’t really see many of them at all or as often and I think, wow, I’ve lived in some form of isolation for a year (I’m not fully isolated since I do live with my parents and sister now, but my physical interactions with people face to face have decreased significantly) and this is nothing like what these characters are going through. Each of them were trapped in their own internal isolation and loneliness throughout their lives, it’s so heavy, so heartbreaking.

I imagine Denver, sitting in that space that the trees made and feeling that loneliness, that heaviness and not really knowing what to do with it. Mental health is not something that is prioritized for any of these characters, and of course, why would it be? They have other things to worry about! But nowadays, we can go to therapy, learn how to understand our emotions, learn the difference between being isolated vs being alone, increase our own self-awareness. Not that it’s easy! For me, it has taken me years to get to a point where I can recognize that “oh, I feel…. lonely” or “oh, I did that because I am afraid of what others think of me” and so on. I am still not great at it, but I am working on it. (Thanks to my therapist Ruth!). Thankfully, these characters were able to see through that blanket of loneliness and isolation and saw each other and themselves. Paul D saw a home in Sethe, Sethe saw a glimmer of hope as he extended a hand to her, and Denver saw herself and her own ability to learn and grow and be someone for herself.

Most of us go through these moments (short or long) feeling like we are alone and we’ll never feel anything else, but if anything, Beloved shows us that we can have hope if we turn to the person next to us, or the person within us, that self/soul/essence, that lights our fire and our passions. I encourage you to take a look in the mirror today for 60 seconds, a staring contest with yourself if you will, and see that fire within yourself. It is there, acknowledge it, love it, empower it, because it is what makes you unique and yourself and that is wonderful.

Those were some of the thoughts I’ve pondered and stewed over the past week or so. Beloved left me with many thoughts but these were the ones I went back to again and again. What if Sethe had had a therapist? What if Paul D had talked to someone about his traumas? They didn’t have the means or the access, and many other people still don’t have means or access to mental health help nowadays. But, what if we all did? All of us who need that help could all become self-aware and might be able to see where our true passions lie and that we are truly capable of doing it and achieving our dreams. What if…?

What do you think? Have you felt any of these things before? Also, did you do the mirror challenge? How did it go? Let me know in the comments!