I’m already not someone who considers themselves a “kid person,” but I’m especially feeling that way after reading Ashley Audrain’s 2021 novel, The Push. Which, to be fair, isn’t the author’s intention, as Audrain is a mother, after all. Rather, the book is a reflection of how difficult, and generationally consequential, parenting is, and how it tests relationships, with a little bit of fictional flourish thrown in.
Audrain’s novel is a fast-paced book, due in part to switching between those generations, with Blythe in the present, and her mother, Cecilia, and Cecilia’s mother, Etta, in the past, and partly owing to each of the 85 chapters being a handful of pages at most. The book also surprised me because it’s written in second-person point-of-view, and I can’t recall the last time I read a book in that voice. I said “surprised” because I’m not usually a fan of second-person point-of-view, but it worked here! I think it added to both the sense of foreboding afoot and to the sense of how … exhausting parenthood can be, and the ways in which that creates ever growing distance between you and your spouse, if you let it.
The book is from Blythe’s perspective, and the “you” isn’t so much us, the reader, but Fox, her husband-turned-ex-husband, and the father to two of her children, Violet and Sam. Blythe is a writer, so, she’s writing to Fox to try to explain her perspective on their marriage, their children, and sort of defend herself as a mother. Motherhood is the salient issue here even more than parenting itself because Fox and other dads (Blythe’s father and Cecilia’s father) are sort of on the peripheral, albeit, good fathers in some respects. Instead, we are focused on how bad Etta, Cecilia, and in some ways, Blythe were/are as mothers.
As the synopsis indicates, Blythe is “determined” to be the warm, comforting mother that her mother and her mother’s mother weren’t. But once Violet is born, it’s already like there is a distance between them. Violet dotes on her dad, but hates her mother, almost innately. Because I don’t think there is anything Blythe did outwardly to justify Violet’s vitriol, only that she harbored some fears and insecurities about whether she would be a good mom. Over time, though, her fears and insecurities give way to a different concern: Dread that Violet is not just mean, but even possibly dangerous.
Fox, as I mentioned, is on the peripheral, loved by Violet, and a complete gaslighter of Blythe. He started out their relationship being the seemingly perfect husband, but when Blythe didn’t measure up to his estimation of what makes a perfect mother (his own mother, in fact), he is the one who started pushing away, one of many “pushes” in the novel. I thought he was a total jerk, with the way he was toward Blythe after Violet was born, and in addition, Blythe detailed just how exhausting it was to have her body be a “vessel” for the both of them.
And that was before Fox cheated on Blythe with his assistant and impregnated her, leading to him being fired at work. He leaves Blythe shortly after, with barely any discussion about what happened, and they don’t even formally divorce or go to the court for Violet’s custody. After which point, since Blythe was a stay-at-home mom, and years pass after the separation, I’m curious how Blythe was paying for anything? Because there is no indication she got a job. Nonetheless.
Before the separation, for Blythe’s chance at a “do-over” because something just isn’t right about Violet — at one point, Violet trips a schoolmate, sending him to his death on the playground, and Blythe witnesses this, and we later hear a story, which Fox apparently found hilarious, where Violet took scissors to all of Blythe’s wardrobe, and Fox covered for her by pretending a maid service had done it — so, her and Fox have a second child, Sam. Now, Blythe feels like she understands what the other mothers mean about how “all of this is worth it.” Now, she understands what is meant by being a mother, and that child being your entire world. Something is off about Violet, but everything is right about Sam.
Unfortunately, Violet “pushes” his stroller into oncoming traffic, killing him. Naturally, Fox and others think it was a terrible accident, and think Blythe is nutty for thinking Violet had anything to do with it. In fact, in the grieving weeks to follow, Fox suggests only Blythe should seek counseling. Again, he is a total ass.
Motherhood isn’t something Etta nor Cecilia seemed to desire, but rather, it was foisted upon them, you could say. I think you could argue that was the case with Blythe, too, as she wasn’t going into motherhood for the right reasons. She not only wanted to prove she could be a perfect mother to Fox and herself, but to her own mother and the ghost of her grandmother. To contravene the seemingly wayward DNA in her lineage that didn’t quite have the “mother” gene, or maternal instinct, as it were.
What makes the generational jumping particularly damning and effective is how Cecilia knows what it is like to grow up with an absent, and even abusive mother, but can’t seem to help becoming exactly like her. She later explains this to Blythe in one of the most haunting lines of the entire novel, “I don’t want you learning to be like me. But I don’t know how to teach you to be anyone different.”
Every new generation laments how they do not want to become “like their parents,” which isn’t even always meant to be a knock — as in, you just want to be your own person who does things (whatever those “things” are, like parenting) differently, in your “own” image — but inevitability, we veer that way because, like Cecilia, it is what we know and what they knew in how to raise us.
Audrain’s book is a brisk, but deeply affecting novel about one woman’s attempt to veer in a different direction, all the while having infidelity and the grief of losing a child thrown her way. Oh, and as it turns out, Blythe was right about Violet all along. She tried to warn Gemma, Fox’s new wife, about her and what could happen to their son, Jet. The book ends with a tease that something, indeed, has happened to Jet.
But importantly, too, in the briskness, Audrain isn’t being glossy about motherhood, which is the point, and the important contribution this novel gives to depictions of motherhood: The less glamorous side of it, where the mother doesn’t always have to put on a gallant face for other mothers, avoiding some sort of “perfect mother holding it all together” competition. Audrain specifically mentioned wanting to write from a “darker place of motherhood,” and I think she achieved that with, The Push.
It’s also interesting because I think Audrain wrote Blythe this way, to be an imperfect mother who needed to be redeemed in a sense. Blythe at the end even does an affirmation at the end that goes, “I am able to heal from the hurt and pain I have caused.” And honestly, my mind was thinking, wait, what? Yes, she was a bit over-the-top with her attempt to get close to Gemma by pretending to be someone else at a mother’s group, but when you view it through the lens of Blythe’s suffocating loneliness and grief (and the gaslighting from Fox), it actually makes a lot of sense! Blythe is an imperfect mother because the cultural and societal image of the perfect mother is not reality, not because Blythe did anything actively bad to Violet, in my opinion. Yes, she harbored bad thoughts about Blythe, but in my estimation, parents are lying to themselves if they always have rosy thoughts about their children. Blythe still tried to be a good mother in spite of those negative feelings and thoughts.
The overriding reason for the title is obviously Violet’s “push” to Sam, but the book is about the ways in which culture and society try to push women and mothers into a box, how that pressure congeals generationally to push future women and mothers, and that simply put, it isn’t fair to expect someone to survive such a pressure cooker of “pushes” unscathed.
If these sorts of meditations on how women and mothers are expected to navigate through the culture intrigue you, then I can’t see why you wouldn’t also devour The Push.