The Limits of a Mother’s Care

Jan 22, 2021

Caption:  This 1906 print is titled “Woman in girlhood, wifehood, motherhood; her responsibilities and her duties at all periods of life; a guide in the maintenance of her health and that of her children.” The mother in Poisonwood learns of the limits of her protective capacity in a poignant way.
Credit Solis-Cohen, Myer, No restrictions, via Wikimedia Commons

The first time I read The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver, 20 years ago when it was first out, it was a new bestseller, and I was a new mother. Of all the characters, I most related to, and was most perplexed by Orleanna Price, the mother. Though my circumstances were not nearly so extreme, I too felt lost in this new land of motherhood, this small baby wholly dependent on me. Those first few months of parenting are such a shock. Fortunately, my journey into motherhood was not nearly as dramatic, or isolating, as the Congo was for Orleanna. But I did feel scared and confused—I wanted to do the right thing, and I was sure uneasy in my instincts.

So that might be why I was so plugged into Orleanna’s story. I critiqued her every move in the book. She confused me—why would she be so loyal to her husband over her children? He was such a tin-pot despot, incapable of joy. In my more gracious moods, I would ask myself if I would know the line between raising one’s children in the harshness of firm principles. Would I recognize when my own principles were wrong, when my own firm beliefs needed to bend for my family? On day one of motherhood, the one thing I knew for sure was that I had gone into it thinking I knew more than I did. What if I knew nothing at all?

And so, The Poisonwood Bible has been a book close to my heart. Twenty years later, one line in particular has stayed with me, a line that was imprinted on my new-mother brain. I have never forgotten the pain of it. One scene later in the book, when the daughters are grown, Orleanna tells her daughter Adah, quote

“When push comes to shove, a mother takes care of her children from the bottom up.”

Adah is confronting her mother regarding a terrifying day in the Congo years before, when Orleanna and the girls had to run, and run fast. Why did Orleanna grab the younger but able-bodied Ruth May, rather than Adah, who was handicapped and nearly died? Orleanna answers honestly and for herself:

“When push comes to shove, a mother takes care of her children from the bottom up.”

As a reader, I heard something else in this line: that despite your most, best, and heartfelt intentions, your mothering has limits. You make choices, flawed and terrible sometimes. You don’t always pick the circumstances.

My heart goes out to Orleanna still. She directly faced the harrowing limits of her protection and came away with the strength to own them.

This is Leslie VonHolten in Lawrence, Kansas, hoping you will join us in reading The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver. Find more at HPPR.org, or like us on Facebook.