Somewhere before the middle of Little Women, the sainted Marmee has a conversation with her angry daughter Jo in which Marmee confesses, “I’ve been angry almost every day of my life.” I must have read the novel a dozen times before the import of this struck me. As a child and teenager reading the novel, I identified with Jo, the bookish one, the odd one out. Though I wasn’t as angry as she (more on that in a minute), I felt otherwise much like her: ambitious without much focus, unattractive, often passed over for girls like Amy, girls with more conventional looks and ideas.
But teaching and reading children’s literature as an adult, and especially as a mother, things look different to me. I still identify with Jo (and even more with her anger now), but I pay attention to Marmee. And, mostly, she makes me feel inadequate. She deftly teaches her daughters lessons about the importance of routine, and work, and family harmony, without once raising her voice or sending her children into time-outs. She pulls her daughter Amy out of the school that practices corporal punishment but punishes her nonetheless for breaking the rules — and Amy gets it, right away. She manages her family despite her husband’s long absence; all the daughters pitch in and do their share, even selfish little Amy and passive, quiet Beth.
But: angry nearly every day? About what?
I have plenty of suggestions, of course. Maybe she’s mad at her husband, off serving as a hospital chaplain in the Civil War that he’s too old to fight. Maybe she’s mad at him for losing all their money by lending it to a friend. Maybe she’s mad at the kids — who do, after all, squabble just like my kids do, even if they seem to get over it a little more quickly. Maybe she’d like more recognition for her efforts, more time for herself. Does anyone ever ask if she wants to write a novel, paint a picture, dance at a ball? Is she jealous of her daughters’ youth and vitality?
Or is she angry because her real-life counterpart, Abba Alcott, Louisa May Alcott’s own mother, had reason to be angry? Angry at social injustice, at the racism that had closed her husband’s school, at the idealism that prevented him from making a good living? Bronson Alcott, Louisa’s father, had opened a school that accepted both black and white children, and it failed when white parents pulled their children out. A transcendentalist thinker, close to Emerson and Thoreau, Alcott had also started an idealistic vegetarian commune, Fruitlands, whose members nearly starved — in part because of Bronson’s insistence that the canker worms feeding on their apples not be disturbed.
We see none of this in the novel. Mr. May, in Little Women, has volunteered as a hospital chaplain for the Civil War and is absent for most of the first half of the novel, though his influence — delivered through letters, memories, and Marmee’s stories — is clearly present throughout. The point of Marmee’s anecdote is not to explain why she’s angry, then, but simply to confess that she has a volatile temper — like her boyish daughter — and has learned to control it. These days we’d probably say she’s learned to repress it (quite literally, she bites her lip) and tell her she needed to get it out. Or something.
Like Jo, I grew up the second of four children in what some might call a shabby genteel house. Money was often tight, kids shared rooms, and I’m sure my mother got angry at us plenty. We squabbled and fought — and, unlike in Little Women, sometimes the fights got physical. But, while I say I’m sure my mother got angry at us, I don’t remember it. Was she, like Marmee, biting her lip?
Unlike Jo, I didn’t get angry much. Or not that I recall. Sad, yes. Frustrated, disappointed, hurt. I fought with my brothers and I tortured my little sister in the way that only a big sister can, denying her access to my stuff and my time. But I don’t remember getting angry, at least not in the way that Jo does, flying off at the handle and yelling at folks.
That didn’t happen, really, until I was a parent. One of the things that shocked me about parenthood (still does) is the depth of emotion that I suddenly had access to. From being a relatively quiet and at least outwardly placid person, I became weepy (okay, I’d had my episodes of that as a kid), deeply joyful; ecstatic, even — and, sometimes, blindingly angry. The rage that has overtaken me on occasion with my children scares me as much as I imagine it scares them. I find myself quite literally out of control, shaking, when confronted with a child who for the third time has failed to answer my call, to clean up a mess, to do as I’ve clearly (and, I usually think, fairly) asked. While I don’t hit, I’ve certainly moved a child out of my way a little more roughly than necessary. I’ve wanted to hit. And I’ve yelled.
The other morning, for example, a chilly one. We were on the way out the door to a playdate (we’d had some snow, and Nick’s school was closed, though I still had to get myself to work). I asked Nick to put on his gloves. “They’re lost,” he said. At that, I lost it. The gloves went missing on Saturday, I now remembered. When he and his dad were heading out the door, he’d announced that they were lost. “Well,” I said, “find them!”
“I can’t. [insert whiny voice here] I don’t know where they are.”
“You’re not trying. Look around. Where did you have them last? Are you sure they’re not in your pockets?”
My annoyance rising as I saw the moments of the playdate slip away, my own work day already compromised, I piled on questions, raising my voice. The kid he was going to play with is an only child with a stay-home mom. He never loses his gloves, I’m sure. They probably have spare pairs. She’s probably sewn clips into his coat to keep his gloves with it. She’ll judge me if I send my son over without gloves. All this went racing through my head as I heard my voice rise again, perilously close to a shout. I stomped up the stairs, burst into Nick’s room, and stopped, defeated by the piles of things on the floor, the mess that hadn’t been cleaned up in days. Another thing to be angry about.
This one was solved relatively quickly — his sister dug up an old pair of her gloves — and on the way to the playdate we did a little calm reconstruction and decided that maybe the gloves were in Daddy’s car. Crisis averted, for the moment, I stewed silently, wondering why I yelled about gloves, why I yell at my kids at all. Why can’t I, like Marmee, bite my lip? Will my children remember me this way, angry and shouting, or will they remember the calm and happy mom who can occasionally sing them to sleep, bake brownies with them, make them laugh? Will my daughter the writer write of me with sympathy and kindness, as Louisa May Alcott did her mother? Will she wonder what made me angry?
Suddenly I began to realize why children’s authors may kill off the mothers in their stories, as I complained about in an earlier column. We’re in the way. Viewed with children’s eyes, we can appear either too perfect or too angry; either way we intrude into our children’s stories. Louisa May Alcott never married or had children herself, despite providing those experiences for her surrogate, Jo. Writing as a daughter, not a mother, she saw the ways in which her characters needed some space to grow, and Marmee retreats as the novel progresses. Her brief moment of self-revelation is never followed up because it’s not her story (to read an intriguing glimpse of a contemporary version of it, check out March: A Novel by Geraldine Brooks, though). In other words, Little Women isn’t about Marmee’s anger, but Jo’s, and asking Alcott to answer my questions about Marmee is hardly fair.
Some contemporary children’s authors do include the parents, though. The other night at a party we began to talk about this, and between my daughter and me we came up with several, starting with Mrs. Murry in A Wrinkle in Time (and the rest of the L’Engle novels for kids, most of which include present and active, but not always perfect, parents) and moving on to novels by Lois Lowry, Walter Dean Myers, and Christopher Paul Curtis. In Curtis’s novel The Watsons Go to Birmingham — 1963, Momma’s anger helps teach her teenage son Byron how to behave in a threatening world. In Myers’s Monster, Steve’s mother visits him in prison and cries as she tells him she believes in him, unconditionally, even when he’s not sure he believes in himself. In Lois Lowry’s Number the Stars Annemarie’s mother helps her to understand what the family is risking to help their friend Ellen, and why they must do it. These mothers, and others like them, are there in the literature we can share with our children. So is Marmee, and her anger. Reading her story through them I begin to relax, to find my own place, to accept us all.