‘Mothercare’ Takes a Hard Look at What Happens When Duty Outlives Love

On Obligation, Love, Death, and Ambivalence
By Lynne Tillman
Illustrated. 161 pages. Soft Skull. $23.

Care work — tending to the sick, the very young or the very old — has long been denied the kind of recognition (and remuneration) that such essential labor deserves. Activists have argued that society should treat it as a social good, affording people the time and the resources to attend to loved ones as needed.

But there’s still the stubborn fact that for some people and some relationships, caregiving will always feel like a burden, no matter how assiduously one might try to manage it. In “Mothercare,” the novelist and critic Lynne Tillman offers an account that is startling in its blunt, even brutal, refusal of sentimentality. “Handling Mother’s body violated her and me,” Tillman writes, recalling how she would help her mother use the bedside commode. “Carrying it full from her bedroom to the toilet and dumping it disgusted me. I would gag, and that never stopped.”

“Mothercare” traces the 11 years after late 1994, when Tillman’s mother began to show signs of dementia. Tillman and her siblings hired a series of full-time caregivers, with the last one living with their mother for a decade. The book is mostly composed of personal recollections, but Tillman occasionally offers some explicit words of guidance for anyone who might be in a similar situation. On finding a physician: “Do what you must to get what you need — careful attention, a listener (you also must listen well), genuine thoughtfulness, candor and truthfulness.” On how to handle a physician’s assumptions: “They can determine your charge’s ability to get better, get the right treatment,” because “a doctor’s expectations can help or hurt your charge.”

“Your charge” — it’s a useful term for Tillman, one she repeatedly deploys, connoting duty but not affection. She says she didn’t love her mother, even if she sometimes tried to imagine she did, clinging to an illusion in order to cope. She quotes an email to a doctor in which she refers to “Mom,” but in this book her mother is invariably “Mother”; the formality suits the woman of Tillman’s memories — matter-of-fact, competent, orderly. “I had respect for her smarts or canniness and practicality,” Tillman writes, in an attempt to give her mother her due. “From the age of 6, I had disliked my mother, but I didn’t wish her dead.”

Nor did she wish her ill, but then illness wasn’t something that Tillman, though “aware of death and dying from the age of 5,” had ever thought much about. Her mother had always been an athletic person, whose physical stamina was so resilient that it persisted beyond her will to live. When she started saying she wanted to die, Tillman didn’t try to buoy her spirits, knowing that her mother would have sneered at anything but the stark truth: “You will when it’s time, your body isn’t ready yet, and I’m sorry.”

Lynne Tillman, whose new book is “Mothercare.”Credit…Heather Sten

Tillman is the youngest of three sisters, but “Mothercare” suggests that there isn’t necessarily safety in numbers: “When several adults are in charge, a hell of resentments and conflicts can overwhelm functioning.” Tillman refers to “the New York sister” and “the Carolina sister” — their identities as characters are determined by their proximity to events. Tillman and her mother lived in New York, too; when she wasn’t teaching, Tillman worked at home, and so she was tasked with picking things up and dropping them off at her mother’s home — fulfilling a real need in the most literal sense, even if she couldn’t help feeling as if her own life, her real life, was located elsewhere. “Walking away from Mother’s apartment, I breathed air that wasn’t hers,” she writes. “That felt free.”

Any freedom was made possible by Frances, an undocumented woman from the Caribbean who worked as Mother’s live-in caregiver, never getting paid more than $640 a week. “She loved my mother,” Tillman writes. “Mother loved Frances.” Frances had her own share of troubles, but Tillman was too reliant on her to see them. Frances was reliant on Tillman in turn. “She becomes part of the family, ineluctably, though she is never, really, because she can be fired,” Tillman writes. Where another writer might seek the most self-flattering light, Tillman is unsparingly frank about the power she knew she had: “I was conscious of it, but didn’t forsake my privilege.”

What she feels now, having written this book, is exposed. Even though one of her novels (“American Genius: A Comedy”) is about a woman whose mother has brain damage, Tillman says that peering out from behind the scrim of fiction “is strange to me, very uncomfortable, even disturbing.” For her fiction, she may use experience, but not her “feelings.” She confesses to mourning her father’s death but not her mother’s. Her mother would speak reverently about her own mother, but Tillman wasn’t buying it: “Someone whose mother loved her, I felt, whose mother was perfect — whatever that might be — wouldn’t treat her own children the way Mother did. That’s what I thought and think.”

There’s something surprisingly retrograde in Tillman’s intergenerational mother-blame, but I suppose there’s something revealing in it, too. About six weeks before dying, Tillman’s mother told her: “If I had wanted to be, I would have been a better writer than you.” It’s a hurtful comment, which is what Tillman takes it to be (“mean-spirited,” “pathetic”). But the rest of this book suggests that Tillman is too aware of ambiguity and ambivalence to reduce her mother to that caricature, rounding it out with a fuller portrait, almost in spite of herself.

Elsewhere in “Mothercare,” we get glimpses of a woman who took painting lessons, who scribbled her diary into steno pads, who wrote short stories about her cat. It was only after Tillman was an adolescent and her older sisters were out of the house that her mother had any time for herself. Could the “unrelenting rivalry” that Tillman attributes to a “selfish” and “competitive” mother be read differently, as the terrible fallout from her mother’s stifled creativity, her thwarted ambition?

“I didn’t know her,” Tillman writes at the end, coming close to admitting that her mother may have been more than the simple narcissist that the wounded Tillman needs to think she was. “After writing this I can still only speculate.”

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