As soon as I became a mother, the term “mom guilt” started popping up everywhere—a phrase that functions simultaneously as self-deprecation and self-fulfilling prophecy. In an endless barrage of online essays, women lament the culture of comparison and criticism that is so pervasive in modern parenting. They implore readers to resist this cult of perfectionism, to avoid falling into the trap of the mommy wars, to give themselves a mutual pat on the back. We are all doing the best we can!
And yet, this antidote to guilt-ridden motherhood can create its own brand of self-hatred: we know we are not supposed to measure ourselves against other mothers, but we do. We can’t stop ourselves, especially on social media. And this gives us yet another reason to feel ashamed.
Through its wry, incisive, hauntingly candid voice, Makenna Goodman’s debut novel The Shame reveals both the absurdity and inescapability of these expectations of motherhood. Alma—this slim novel’s smart and sardonic narrator—is frustrated with the tedium of raising her two children on an isolated Vermont homestead. She starts following the Instagram account of a picture-perfect woman she calls Celeste—the type of creative, carefree mother who “has wooden handles on her forks [and who] had weaned her son when he was two by throwing him a cupcake party.” And even though Alma is fully aware that Celeste’s image of idyllic parenthood is an illusion, she is nonetheless consumed with self-doubt and an increasingly irrational obsession.
When the novel begins, Alma is in the car, speeding away from her life. The reader doesn’t yet know where she is going, but we can sense how desperately she needs release from her “increasingly conventional marriage” and the suffocating responsibilities of child-rearing, which have supplanted her floundering writing career. She and her husband, a somewhat bland academic, strive to live off the land as ethically as possible. They raise their own vegetables, slaughter their own chickens, and are “anti-capitalist at the core,” though all the hours Alma spends browsing eBay for superfluous household goods belies this claim.
As she drives toward her mysterious destination, the story unfolds primarily through flashbacks—sensory-rich vignettes that immerse the reader in her family’s seasonal routines and echo the cyclical, repetitive nature of domestic life on a farm: “Fermented radish smells like farts. Months pass like this. I feel like a sailor with scurvy. We grow microgreens on the windowsill and I look at them and think, It’s going to be okay, but then a month later everything is still the same.” This sense of claustrophobia—stuck in a car with Alma’s thoughts, which are looping around the seemingly pleasant but monotonous tasks of both homesteading and parenting—is effective, stirring in the reader a restlessness that mirrors Alma’s, making us as desperate as she is for escape.
At first, this escape takes the form of fiction; Alma starts to write a novel about a woman named Celeste whose life is nearly identical to her own, but who handles the frustrations of motherhood with slightly more grace than Alma perceives in herself:
[A]lthough Celeste wasn’t meant to be a perfect mother—she hated being splashed with bathwater, she didn’t believe in cutting the crusts off, she had artistic ambitions beyond framing her kids’ drawings—I allowed her to forgive herself easily for her transgressions and to continue living. Of course, Celeste was based on me, partially—but the “me” I might have become if I had learned to like myself.
But when Alma begins searching the internet for a “model” to help visualize her protagonist, these plans for her novel are displaced by a growing obsession with a real-life version of Celeste: an Instagram influencer who appears to have developed the good-natured approach to motherhood—the cheerful acceptance of her own minor shortcomings—that Alma wishes to craft in both her fictional narrator and in herself. Soon, instead of writing, Alma is spending every free moment scrolling through Celeste’s social media posts. She starts buying the brand of breakfast cereal that she knows Celeste enjoys, and images of Celeste invade her sexual fantasies while Alma is making love to her husband.
As the boundaries blur between Alma and Celeste, between reality and fiction, the novel offers a profound reflection of the way that imagination and creativity can be restricted by the daily duties of motherhood. Even in her wildest fantasies, Alma cannot fully shed the responsibilities of parenting; all she can imagine is swapping out one version of motherhood for another.
Goodman captures with pinpoint precision the mundane details of parenting—the half-sucked cough drops stuck to the console of her car, the pride of telling a bedtime story so perfect that it absolves her from that day’s various parenting mistakes—alongside its enormous, terrifying consequences. The frivolousness of making snacks and packing small bodies into bulky winter clothes are weighted down by an endless litany of fears:
That both [kids] could be killed in a shooting at school. That one of them could be the shooter. That we are being recorded, so algorithms can sell us things we don’t need… That even if I changed my mind about wanting kids, I couldn’t erase the fact that I have them already, that I’m trapped, that I’m responsible for them, and that if I left them— which I just did— I’d be a horrible person, and everyone would say so, and I would never be able to escape the pain of both being a bad mother and being without them…
This passage not only illuminates the moral burden of raising humans in this world—the way daily caretaking is infused with existential dread—but also its contradictions. Alma is terrified of feeling forever trapped by her role as a mother, and also terrified of admitting that she feels trapped.
With its self-analytical narrator and obsession with fantasies of lives not lived, this novel is in conversation with Sheila Heti’s Motherhood, the 2018 masterpiece documenting the thought-process of a woman grappling with whether or not to have a child. Goodman’s narrative is not as formally rebellious as Heti’s—perhaps suggesting the restraints of being a parent, compared to the more uninhibited voice of one still considering motherhood as one choice among many—but it is similarly self-referential as it plays with genre boundaries.
While Heti’s Motherhood took the form of a fragmented, philosophy-drenched diary, The Shame at times reads like a fictionalized personal essay, the type of confessional article that gets enthusiastically passed around on social media because it articulates perfectly what many mothers have been thinking but have been afraid to say aloud. Alma explains, “I felt invisible. I didn’t have anything to show for myself except my kids, and the older they got, the more themselves they became,” and later: “I had thought that writing could be my ticket out of the tedium of rural life.” Statements like these are insightful and self-aware, but they can feel a bit out of place in a novel.
However, the narrative brilliantly pushes back against this potential criticism. Alma recalls a former writing professor (arrogant, male, subtly misogynist) insisting that “good novels put on a show for the reader, a kind of ‘fake event,’ as he called it, that a reader could experience immersively.” He cautioned his students “to avoid telling a story with voice alone” because they “were not writing blogs, after all.”
By calling attention to the absurdity of declaring rules for what a novel should accomplish— as futile as defining what a good mother should be—the narrative makes a bold feminist defense for its own lack of immersive scenes, its tendency to tell more than show.
The few traditionally “novelistic” scenes in this book, standing in stark relief against the reflective narrative voice, are incredibly vivid and satisfying. There is a moment in which Alma commits a faux pas at a pretentious academic dinner party, for example, which is so funny, so emotionally tense, so palm-sweatingly horrifying that I will never cut a piece of steak without recalling it. The reader craves more of these scenes, and feels guilty for craving them—just as Alma both desires and feels guilty for her desire to escape from her domesticity.
Reading this smart, provocative, and powerfully original novel, I found myself—the mother of a toddler in the midst of a pandemic lockdown—fantasizing about the sprawling farm on Alma’s family homestead, jealous of many of the aspects of her life that she is most bored by, and critical of her flaws even as I recognized them in myself. Alma knows that comparing herself against a fictionalized construction of motherhood is dangerous, but she cannot keep from falling into its trap. And neither can we. Ultimately, The Shame’s genius is in making its readers complicit in the culture it exposes—that inescapable mix of judgment and envy that fills us (and fills us with shame) when we get a glimpse into another mother’s life.