8 Novels About Absent Mothers

Literature


Before I had children, I was fascinated by fictional depictions of daughters whose mothers had bailed. How were they shaped by this primal loss? How could any mother justify inflicting such damage?

I became a mother myself, and suddenly my point of view shifted. I was still mindful of the ways our mothers’ choices form us, but I woke to a second perspective: Being the mother was immense, all-encompassing, life-and-identity rearranging. Being the mother was hard, and once you had undertaken it you could never go back to the life you once had. 

Or could you? During the most intense early-mothering moments, my creative dreams, intellectual pursuits, and very identity buried under mounds of dirty diapers and unfolded laundry, I found I could justify leaving—at least in my imagination. 

My debut novel, The Mother Act, grew from the seed of an I-would-never-act-on-it yearning to leave this new mother self behind and hop the first bus back to the person I used to be. But the novel explores both sides: The daughter growing up in the fallout of abandonment, and the mother whose need for self-actualization is great enough to trigger this cataclysm.

I never lost my narrative sympathy for the left-behind child, but after I became a mother I wanted more than knee-jerk judgments of “Selfish! Reprehensible!” in stories with mothers who left. These eight novels deliver that nuance—four from the perspective of an abandoned daughter, four from the perspective of the absent mother.  

The Women Could Fly by Megan Giddings

Jo’s mother vanished when she was 14, becoming a wound that Jo “could never fully stitch,” isn’t even sure she wants to. The loss is deepened by the unresolved mystery. Was her mother murdered? Kidnapped? Did she suffer amnesia? Run away? In the 14 years since, Jo has imagined it all. But in this dystopian world where women are closely monitored for magical inclinations and other signs of deviance, perhaps the most dangerous explanation for her mother’s disappearance is that she was a witch. Which means Jo herself is under suspicion, especially as a Black queer single woman approaching the age 30 deadline by which women must marry. When her mother’s will turns out to contain a mission for her, Jo sets off on a trip to an island in Lake Superior, where answers—and surprises—await. 

Olga Dies Dreaming by Xochitl Gonzalez

Olga and Prieto haven’t seen their mother, Blanca, in over 25 years, since she abandoned them as young teenagers to fight for a militant political cause. Their only contact is the letters she sends, always knowing what they’re up to, frequently judging their life choices. She’s proud of Prieto’s success as a congressman representing their Latinx Brooklyn neighborhood but disapproves of Olga’s work as the go-to wedding planner of the one percent, work Olga comes to realize she embraced in rebellion to the very values that led Blanca to leave. What different choices might she have made, Olga wonders, had her mother deemed her worthy of time and affection? Blanca is an unfulfilled longing, existing to Olga as “a floating entity,” her only location “inside the many envelopes that arrived from destinations unknown”—until the day she resurfaces in the flesh, asking for help. 

The Romantic by Barbara Gowdy

Louise is 9, growing up in 1960s suburban Toronto, when her mother walks out. The note she leaves on the refrigerator reads “I have gone. I am not coming back. Louise knows how to work the washing machine.” Louise has always felt her mother’s attention to be elusive and untrustworthy, and even as her father follows every lead to track her down, convinced she’s been enticed away by “a fancy Dan lady’s man,” Louise is sickened by the possibility of her return. Instead she turns her desires toward Mrs. Richter, the new neighbor Louise prays will adopt her, and eventually Mrs. Richter’s son, Abel, whom she loves with a devotion that grows deeper and more desperate in adulthood. Abel is ultimately as elusive as her mother was, and Louise considers him “the real tragic loss” of her life, “next to which the supposed tragic loss, the one that garnered all the pity, counted for nothing.”

The Mothers by Brit Bennett

Motherhood abounds in this celebrated debut: motherhood desired and undesired, mothers absent through suicide or estrangement, and “The Mothers” of the title, the older church ladies who watch over and judge the protagonist, 17-year-old Nadia Turner. As the novel opens, Nadia is reeling from her mother’s death by suicide, wondering what people expect her to say: “That one day, she’d had a mother, and the next, she didn’t? That the only tragic circumstance that had befallen her mother was her own self?” When Nadia discovers that she herself is pregnant, she knows she can’t allow a baby to “nail her life in place when she’d just been given a chance to escape.” She has an abortion, a choice that reverberates over the following decades as she struggles to come into her own as a motherless daughter.

The Lost Daughter by Elena Ferrante, translated by Ann Goldstein

In this novella from the author of the Neapolitan Quartet, Leda is alone on a beach holiday when a young mother sparks memories of her own maternal transgressions. At an academic conference years before, her daughters small and her life force sapped by the demands of domesticity, Leda was reawakened. Returning from the trip, she felt her daughters’ gazes “longing to tame me, but more brilliant was the brightness of the life outside them, new colors, new bodies, new intelligence…and nothing, nothing that seemed to me reconcilable with that domestic space.” She left her husband and daughters and had no contact for three years. Though she eventually returned—“when the weight in the pit of my stomach became unbearable”—the period of absence still haunts her. 

Leave Me by Gayle Forman

Maribeth Klein is an exhausted working mother. She’s keeping too many balls in the air for her job, her husband, and their four-year-old twins when she has a heart attack at 44. She survives, but her recovery is hampered by the mental and physical labor no one else seems able to shoulder long enough for her to properly recuperate. When she withdraws $25,000 of inheritance money, pays cash for a train ticket, and disappears, her act feels like a matter of life and death. Alone in her new furnished apartment, she grapples both with what she’s done to her family and with her own experience as an adoptee. One night she watches a movie about a mother who abandons her kids, and she knows the character will be redeemed because she’s given screen time and a voice. Despite her own justifications, Maribeth fears that in the made-for-TV movie of her life, she is the villain.

The Hours by Michael Cunningham 

Laura Brown, one of three protagonists in this 1998 novel, is a post-war suburban housewife and mother suffocating inside the ill-fitting expectations of her role. Her deepest desire, on the single day we follow her, is to read uninterrupted, to lose herself—reclaim herself—inside the pages of Mrs. Dalloway. She leaves her young son with a babysitter and checks into a hotel for a few hours’ solitude. There she finds herself contemplating suicide, thinking how deeply comforting it would be to “simply go away. To say to them all, I couldn’t manage, you had no idea; I didn’t want to try anymore.” When she does return for her son, she is unsettled by his watchful devotion, by the knowledge that he will always intuit her failure to be what he needs. Her ultimate departure from her family occurs off the page, clarified by a surprising reveal late in the book. 

The Forbidden Territory of a Terrifying Woman by Molly Lynch

In this mesmerizing 2023 debut, women the world over have begun to vanish from their homes. All of them are mothers. The disappearances are becoming a public health crisis, and the missing mothers are analyzed, sympathized with, reviled. “It’s the greatest stigma of all for a woman. The leaving of the child.” Are mothers revolting against their roles? Succumbing to their animal natures? Ada is distressed by the phenomenon, as she is by so much else: flooding, forest fires, whether she made the right decision bearing a child into ecological collapse. Her husband, Danny, is more consumed by his work than by the disappearances—until the morning he wakes to find Ada’s side of the bed empty.

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