The Help by Kathryn Stockett was easily one of my favourite reads of the year. It was light but heavy, exciting but sad. It seemed to contain every characteristic and finished with a satisfactory but realistic ending.
The novel predominantly explores issues of race and sex, but of the most fundamental themes that stuck with me was motherhood. Whilst Minny (one of the Helps) lost her son, her drive to nurture and bring good to the young children she cares for was what I took away from the novel.
Mae Mobley is a white child, raised in a white household, with a mother who ensures Minny has her own toilet to prevent any diseases from being transmitted. Working with a child, Minny is working with a blank slate. She has the chance to break the societal ideas that Mae Mobley is being taught at school and by her mother.
Mae does not see a problem with using Minny’s toilet, it is just a toilet. Mae does not see why Minny’s skin colour should mean she should be treated any differently. So when Mae is caught by her father playing a game in favour of equality, taught to her by Minny, she blames it on her teacher. Why? Because motherhood is one of the most influential things to a young child.
It made me realise what I want to be like if I were a mother, different from my own. But, it also made me question if a mother could ever provide what Minny did to Mae? I question whether a mother could ever be as kind to their child as another woman could? Can a mother be harsher, stricter than any other, and is this restricting in some ways?
Perhaps I am biased by my childhood. Perhaps mothers can provide a just and fruitful education for a child. From love to hate, and sexism to racism. But, I just cannot see it happening. A mother is too similar to their baby girl. They carry some of their chromosomes, they were raised in their lifestyle. They can learn nothing new from their mother, only what the mother already knows. Nothing can be progressive about that.
It seems that whilst also having a mother, a child needs another woman in their life. For Mae that was Minny. Mae was looking at a future where abolishing segregation seemed possible, and with Minny in her life, she could navigate this easier. Her mother could not provide this. She could not understand a world without segregation. She could not even share a toilet with Minny!
What this novel made me realise, other than reinforce that I don’t want children, was how important it is to have an array of women in a young girls life. From school friends to teachers and babysitters. Any different perspective on being female posits a multitude of different views the child can choose from.
And beyond developing an appreciation for women, the child will be exposed to other different views. Maybe living in an atheist household, they meet a Muslim, a Buddhist, a Christian. Or they’ll meet someone from Kenya, Thailand or Russia. Or they’ll experience a different political household. They are not confined to one view and will find it easier to find their own.
Skeeter, one of the more liberal character in the novel represents this. Stepping outside of her family home: “I realised I actually had a choice in what I believe”.
This seems one of the only ways for a child to develop a progressive view. A mother cannot nurture and shield her child until they reach adulthood. By letting them free to explore the world (within limit) they are exposed to so many different individuals, none who share any of the same views. And as a consequence, they flourish into a unique individual. Not a carbon copy of their mother.
But we should not blame our mothers. They are only doing what they think is natural. They want to protect and cherish us, before reality burns and beats us. Before we are worn by work, or poisoned by toxic ideology. It seems like child will always be in a love-hate relationship with their mother.