Why mothers in novels leave their families

22 July 2021

Jenny Björklund, associate professor of literature and a senior lecturer in gender studies at the Centre for Gender Research at Uppsala University.

Mothers leaving their families is not a new theme in Swedish fiction. But the reasons for leaving have changed. It is no longer about lack of gender equality or a desire to work. Instead, they feel suffocated by the nuclear family, by the children or simply by society’s demands to have children. That is one of the conclusions in Jenny Björklund’s research on why mothers in 21st century books leave their families.

“In older literature and in books from some other countries, leaving is most often about emancipation. They were unable to combine their desire to work or study with being a mother because of lack of gender equality. In modern Swedish novels that I am studying, women in general live in relatively equal relationships. They leave their families because they do not like being mothers or because the nuclear family is not always a pleasant placed to be,” says Jenny Björklund, associate professor of literature and a senior lecturer in gender studies at the Centre for Gender Research at Uppsala University.

In her research, which is now being presented in the book Maternal Abandonment and Queer Resistance in Twenty-First-Century Swedish Literature, she has looked at and analysed 25 mothers in 20 or so different Swedish novels from 2003 to 2020. In novels written before the new century, mothers who leave families or abandon their children are often supporting characters in the background whose behaviour explains the main character.

Mothers main character

In many of the novels included in Jenny Björklund’s research, the mothers are the main character. In many of the novels, readers are given the mothers’ perspectives, either by presenting the stories in the first-person or the narrators providing insight into the mothers’ thoughts and feelings so that we can understand them and why they leave their families.

In her study, Björklund defines different categories for the reasons the mothers leave. Except for a few of the books, which have a more traditional approach and where the mothers leave because of lack of gender equality, the others are about women who resist different ideals.

One group resists motherhood and parenthood, a category that the researcher calls “the bad mothers”. The mothers are more detached from their children and are seen by society as somewhat worse parents. One example is Sara Kadefors in Borta bäst [Better Away]. In this story, the mother leaves her teenage daughter and husband after wasting her daughter’s inheritance. She spent all the money on luxury goods and when she is revealed, her marriage ends and she moves into a car parked outside of Ikea. Björklund describes how the mother attempts a superficial reconciliation with the daughter but does not make a real effort. She is not interested the daughter, who is only cares about shopping and her mobile phone. Jenny Björklund describes the character as resisting the idea of good motherhood.

Motherhood resistance

“This is about the idea of mothers always being interested in their children. The current norm is of involved parenthood. To be a good parent, we should put our children’s interests first. We are supposed to not just take care of our children but also encourage them and facilitate their development. But Swedish mothers may not be too self-sacrificing. Instead, they are expected to want to be with their children as much as possible because they love them! At the same time, they are to find the time to exercise, socialize with friends and have a real job that feels meaningful. There is huge pressure on Swedish mothers to manage all of this. The mother in Borta Bäst resists all these expectations.”

Another example discussed in the research is I en familj finns inga fiender [There are no enemies in a family] by Viktoria Myrén.

“In it, the mother is not at all interested in being a mother. Her husband pushed her to become a parent since they had friends who were having children and he was starting to feel stressed. She has a child, with whom she is in constant conflict that she cannot handle. She reacts childishly and avoids conflicts by locking herself in the toilet and hiding under the covers, hoping that it will all pass. The father is the active and present parent while the mother character resists the existing ideals.”

Swedish context

In her research, Björklund has focused on Swedish novels without systematically comparing them to international literature. The focus is on the Swedish context, which is unique in terms of opportunities for combining family and career and that is eagerly promoted when creating the picture of Sweden. This can be seen in the Swedish Institute’s website sweden.se, where they highlight the family ideal with gender equality and fathers who stay at home.

The other categories, in addition to Lack of Gender Equality and Resisting Motherhood, defined by Jenny Björklund are Resistance to the Nuclear Family and Resistance to Pronatalism – society’s expectation that all women want to have children.

For the latter, Björklund bases her discussion on what she describes as the focus of Swedish society and its policies on facilitating for families with children. How the Swedish welfare state has taken different measures since the 1930s to facilitate for families with children, by adapting working hours, generous parental leave and child allowances. These policies are unique internationally and have created family-centred norms and a pronatalistic pressure.

Nuclear family not always a pleasant place

“Mothers in some of the books leave their families because they never wanted to be mothers. They want to do other things and they view parenthood as punishment.”

An example of this is Sara Stridsberg’s Happy Sally. In this book, the parents have an agreement. The father wants to sail across the Atlantic but the mother does not. She is training to swim across the English Channel, and they agree that if she manages it, she will get unlimited swimming time, a pool and her own flat in the family home. If not, she will do the Atlantic trip and have unlimited play time with the children.

“Several of the books show the nuclear family is not always such a pleasant place to be. I think this interests readers because many are thinking about this and recognize themselves in it. They may not go so far as to leave their family. But when dealing with something that feels counter to society’s norms, literature is a space where readers can test different ways of living and testing tabu thoughts.”