That Kind of Mother

by Rumaan Alam

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Last Updated September 5, 2023.

Rumaan Alam's novel, That Kind of Mother, is a deep dive into the theme of identity— specifically, identity erasure. It asks the questions: How do we define ourselves? Is it different from how society defines us? What are the repercussions if internal and external identities are at odds?

At the outset of the novel, we meet Rebecca Stone, who is white and a new mother to a biological son. She befriends Priscilla, a black woman and nurse, who eventually becomes Rebecca's nanny. Already, Alam paints the broad strokes of identity politics in 1980s America. Rebecca feels her identity as an independent woman is being eclipsed by her identity as a mother. She ceases to exist outside of changing diapers and breastfeeding. As this novel is set in the '80s, it was much more common to expect a woman to give up her career to be a stay-at-home mother. Being female, Rebecca is already sensitive to identity erasure. But, as a mother, it seems all too inevitable.

An experienced mother and caretaker, Priscilla presents yet another identity overlay: race. Having been born a white, relatively privileged person, Rebecca has not considered the black experience. Through Priscilla, Rebecca begins to understand that the experience of being black (or anything other than white) presents a different, yet pervasive identity erasure as well. Rebecca decides to adopt a black boy and raise him alongside her white son and is astounded at the markedly different treatment her two sons receive.

Alam draws parallels between being female and being black: that both are simultaneously visible and invisible. These identities are visible in the hegemony (straight, white, male) in that black skin or feminine figures are physical indications of difference— as opposed to sexual orientation or religious belief, which are not always physcally apparent. Yet, both blackness and femaleness are invisible to the hegemony as well, because these identities hold no power. Ultimately, Alam's That Kind of Mother is about tension within indentiy groups in upper-class America.

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