It was a few weeks in that I realized why I was finding motherhood such a shock to the system. As I leaned over the sink to tearfully rinse another streak of projectile vomit from my unwashed hair, I wondered why my expectations of the newborn phase had been so unrealistic. The answer, I realized to my embarrassment, was that my vague idea of what having a new baby around might actually entail had been almost entirely based on—wait for it—a scene from a Disney film. You know the bit in Lady and the Tramp, where the pretty, smiling mother in a gauzy pink gown gently places her baby to sleep in the crib decked with big silky bows, while singing ‘La La Lu’? With a handsome, smiling husband and shiny cocker spaniel looking on fondly from the bedside? Yes, you can laugh now.
By the time I became a mother, it was thankfully no longer taboo to laugh about parenthood’s less satisfying moments— projectile vomit included. But it has taken the latest new wave of crime fiction to finally tell the real truth about motherhood: to tear down its fluffy façade for good, and finally explore the lonely, isolating and psychologically disorientating side of parenting. “Mom-noir”, as it’s been dubbed, is having a major moment—with a new cast of female, feminist crime writers exploring the darker realities of motherhood—and interrogating our expectations of it. And their novels are going deeper, and darker, than ever before.
In Megan Abbott’s Beware the Woman, pregnancy is stripped of its sugar-coated image, and recast as a time of mounting claustrophobia, paranoia and tension. Even the heightening of Jacy’s senses —“I could smell everything now…even the carpet glue, the wood paste in the staircase post”—serves to make her increasingly aware of how enclosed and vulnerable she is in her sinister father-in-law’s wood cabin as her due date inches closer. Meanwhile, for Whitney– a character at the heart of Ashley Audrain’s The Whispers—motherhood has been a sort of “voluntary death.” She “hates the plastic bins full of toys, and hates sitting on the floor… She hates trying to sound light and cheerful and surprised when she isn’t. She hates feigning interest in things that aren’t real.” Whitney is mesmerized by the way her friend Blair seems to find the experience rewarding. Yet in truth, Blair is “lonely, desperately and achingly lonely, the way a mother with a family is never supposed to be.”
In Lisa Jewell’s darkest novel yet, None of This Is True, two very different mothers are driven to breaking point with their lots in life. In Kate Collins’ gothic thriller A Good House for Children, a mother comes close to madness after she is left isolated in the remote home her husband insists is perfect for their family. In Sarah Vaughan’s novel Little Disasters, we see new mother Jess pushed to the edge by a newborn baby who just will not stop crying—and then placed under investigation when she presents the child at hospital with an unexplained head wound. For Harriet Tyce, there was nothing more frightening than the other mothers at her child’s top London school; they became the inspiration for her thriller, The Lies You Told.
With characters like these—mothers who are unhappy to be mothers, and who sometimes even feel rage toward their children—the genre is resetting the boundaries of what we, as mothers, feel we can and can’t talk about. “This book trend is opening up new conversations about motherhood that so many women are desperate to have,” says literary agent Madeleine Milburn. They appeal to readers, she says, because “the fears, frustrations and anxieties that we have as mothers are universal experiences.” Most mothers secretly worry that the unlikely fears that hum at the edge of our consciousness could tip over into reality. What if your fears about your child being abnormal turned out to be justified? What if your anger at them spilled over into something you could no longer control? What if your paranoia about being judged by other mothers was not all in your head after all? “Any scenario that feels like it could be your ‘worst nightmare’ lends itself to great suspense,” Milburn says.
My novels—and others in the emergent subgenre dubbed “mum-noir”—reflect the way in which, when we become parents, what constitutes “our worst nightmare” changes. As our lives turn inward, at least for a while, our deepest darkest fears become not external—a murderer, a psychopath—but things closer to home. What if your husband is lying to you? What if your mum-friends weren’t really friends at all? What if, one day, your baby cried so loud and so long that you really did lose it?
My own novels were inspired by these sorts of fears and anxieties, which to me felt specific to the experience of having young children. In Greenwich Park—mostly written on maternity leave with my first child—anxious pregnant mother Helen befriends the unpredictable Rachel at her first prenatal class—but lives to regret it when Rachel starts to encroach further and further into her life. In my new novel, The Other Mothers, journalist Tash is frustrated with her life—trying to cobble together the remnants of a career after the birth of her son, living in a cramped flat because she can’t, in London, afford any better. In her frustration with motherhood, she feels seduced by the Instagram-friendly lives of the elite, well-heeled women she gets to know at her son’s playgroup—until she realizes these other mothers might know more than they’ve let on about the death of a local nanny.
Perhaps crime fiction—existing at one remove to our real lives—gives us a safe space to explore feelings we’d rather not admit we all have. Women are reluctant to admit complicated feelings about motherhood because “we fear being judged,” says the author Audrain, who is also the author of bestselling novel The Push.
Are these stories becoming more popular because modern parenthood is more fraught with anxiety than ever before? Perhaps it’s because, as an older mother in Liane Moriarty’s brilliant motherhood thriller Big Little Lies sighs observing a group of kindergarten parents, “mothers take their mothering so seriously now.” For today’s mothers, there is a greater disconnect than ever between expectation and the reality. The time and energy available for “school gates mothering” has inevitably shrunk as women have played a more active role in the workforce. Yet the expectations we set for ourselves about motherhood, our careers and everything else—in the age of Instagram and a thousand parenting manuals—have only grown.
Modern mothers have to contend with social media feeding us a version of parenthood that’s barely more realistic than the Disney cartoon version that made its mark on me as a child. The seductive, sanitized—and crucially, shoppable – version of motherhood we see on on our screens can feed an entirely unrealistic expectation of what parenthood actually means or looks like. Author Colette Lyons became intrigued by the relationship between motherhood and social media when she found herself tumbling down Instagram rabbit holes during night-feeds for her unsleeping baby daughter. “Of course, the algorithm knew me,” she said. “So it fed me Momfluencers.” Her guilty late-night scrolling ended up inspiring her dark and unputdownable Mom-noir thriller, People Like Her, which tells the story of influencer Emmy Jackson—aka Mamabare—whose online success as an insta-mom starts to threaten her marriage, her morals and her family’s safety.
Like me, Audrain says she has the irresistible urge to make a disclaimer– “I obviously love my children, but….” – every time she says something negative about motherhood in an interview. And yet, the success of the genre is testament to how universal these feelings are. Audrain is sometimes told her complex depictions of motherhood are “very dark” – something she believes shows “just how uncomfortable we are with the deepest truths about women’s interior lives, particularly women who resist the traditional identity of a mother.” She is also frequently asked if she is worried about what her children will think of her books one day—“with the implication that I should.”
She says: “I’m not sure fathers get the same line of questioning. And truly, I don’t worry about what my kids will think of my work. I’m not raising them to have unrealistic expectations of what womanhood and parenthood will feel like.” Amen to that. I would recommend giving Lady and the Tramp a miss on your next family movie night, too.