Last Updated September 5, 2023.
Rebecca, the main character in That Kind of Mother, is a privileged white woman and a poet. Rebecca is idealistic and has good intentions, but she is often blind to her privilege and how her decisions affect people around her. Her relationships with her husband, her nanny, her nanny’s daughter, and her children are wrought with challenges and unspoken frustrations.
Rebecca hires Priscilla, a lactation coach, as a nanny after Priscilla helps her through the challenges of breastfeeding her son, Jacob. Rebecca immediately bonds with her and takes Priscilla at her word when she says,
Pretend we've known each other for years. I'm an old friend of the family. I've come for a visit.
Rebecca feels a strong connection to Priscilla and nearly bullies her into taking a job as Jacob’s nanny. Priscilla objects kindly, citing several concerns—for one,
I'm not sure it’s proper.
Rebecca dismisses Priscilla's concerns and uses money to get her way. Priscilla is black and Rebecca is idealistic enough to believe race won't be an issue.
It's a nearly idyllic situation for Rebecca. She has time to work and rest. She enjoys Priscilla's company and demands more of her nanny's time—without recognizing that Priscilla is an employee, not a family member. Her husband, Christopher, points this out.
Priscilla is wonderful. We're lucky to have her. But I don't know that she feels as fulfilled by looking after Jacob as you will when the Paris Review comes calling.
Later in the novel, Priscilla dies during a pregnancy around the same time that her daughter, Cheryl, gives birth. Cheryl is overwhelmed by the prospect of raising both children. Rebecca immediately steps in to help with the baby, Andrew, and eventually adopts him. She is once again blind to how this affects others, particularly her husband Christopher, who says,
I know this seemed like the right thing to do. But it’s an extraordinary situation.
Christopher finally relents after an argument.
Maybe the small part of my brain that is still able to be rational about things knows that this is a big fucking mess, an impossible mistake. But it's too late, isn't it?
Rebecca refuses to understand the complications of interracial adoption and claims her sons are the same. Cheryl says,
Rebecca, you're an idealist.
Cheryl tells Rebecca that black skin requires extra care during the winter and recommends shea butter. Rebecca tries to shut down the subject by saying,
Skin is skin.
Cheryl persists, saying,
I'm telling you about black skin. I'm telling you about shea butter. You could—you could listen to me.
Cheryl repeats her concerns and tells Rebecca that while she might see skin as skin, Andrew is black and Rebecca is not, and she needs to understand this.
During a pivotal scene, Ian, Cheryl's husband, is roughly treated by the police even though he's committed no crime. Cheryl and Ian are angry and very concerned that Rebecca and Christopher don't understand the challenges black men face. They know the two will have to talk to Andrew about these things, but are afraid they won't. Ian says,
They don't know. They didn't need to know. This is what happens, Rebecca. It happens when you're a black man, it's going to happen to your black son. And you need to know that it's coming.
There are many other conversations that illustrate the things Rebecca chooses to ignore, such as the realities of Priscilla's life, her own privilege, the relationship between her sons, and the collapse of her marriage. Over time, she is able to accept that she didn't fully understand her relationship with Priscilla or the complications involved in the adoption. However, she remains naively optimistic about the future.