Kate Long’s “The Bad Mother’s Handbook,” set around the time of Princess Diana’s death, is a story about three generations of women living under the same roof. After her divorce with Steve, Karen finds herself living day-to-day dealing with her aging mother, Nan, whose obliviousness to the present “drives [her] up the wall, round the bend, and back again,” and her smart, sensible, but moody 17-year old daughter, Charlotte, who soon falls pregnant. On top of these, Karen learns about a family secret from Nan herself and sets out to find her birth mother.
Impressively, Long has pulled the trick of letting the three women tell the story in their own voices in the first person. This style of narration, albeit confusing at first, allows the reader to access the characters’ feelings and sentiments about the same issues. However, despite giving them equal voices I still see Karen to be the center point of the story. The title alludes mostly to her as an irony of what she really is – a loving mother who only wants the best for her daughter. But her fear of Charlotte repeating the same mistakes she made, encrusted by her austere parenting, is misinterpreted by her daughter (and the reader). She is seen as a” bad mother” who didn’t want her own child, and makes it feel guilty for what her life has become.
Moreover, although it was Charlotte’s pregnancy that fuels the changes in the Cooper household, Karen seems to have the most on her plate. Nan just mostly struggles with her health and mind slowly slipping away due to old age. Charlotte, on the other hand, struggles with her pregnancy, keeping it a secret from everyone, especially her mother. But Karen deals with several layers of agony and confusion; from raising a 17-year old daughter who soon materializes her greatest fear, her perpetual failure in finding a life partner, to finding her birth mother who forthrightly rejects her at a doorstep.
Taking the main focus on Karen, I think her yearning for a partner is a sad reminder that even mothers, whose world seem to only revolve around keeping a household together, still have their own needs that need to be met. More importantly, her appalling initial reaction to Charlotte’s pregnancy proves that mothers might not always know best; that just like any human beings, they are still susceptible to making ill-judgements. But also, just like everyone else, they need second chances to make things right.
One more thing I really like about this work is that, it echoes the same sentiments I find in “The Stranger in my Home”; nurture prevails more than nature. After the rejection from her birth mother, Karen realizes that finding Jessie isn’t going to help her make sense of her life. It’s only by mending her ties with the family she has all along that she can really stop feeling lost. She then goes to assure Charlotte that her son taking after his absent father’s looks will not matter more than his upbringing. I think it is a wonderful way to put a closure to both Karen and Charlotte’s hang-ups.
”Who you are is the way you were brought up, it’s nothing to do with your genes.”
I have not read many books about motherhood for reasonable comparisons. “The Bad Mother’s Handbook” maybe just another story that shows the beautiful, (but mostly) ugly, and the bittersweet side of motherhood. But it is truly moving and achingly relatable. So much so that I think it can uplift the spirit of mothers like myself who may sometimes feel inadequate and think they are doing things wrong. It shows that regardless of the parenting style, age, or generation, motherhood will always be faced with difficult times; that there isn’t a “right” time and way to be a mother. Despite Nan’s tender care to Karen, the latter gets knocked up a young age. Despite Karen’s austere parenting to Charlotte, the latter still faces the same fate as her mother. But still despite all these, only a mother’s unconditional love remains constant.