What sort of a mother forgets her son’s birthday? Pose this question to, say, a middle-class American mother of the helicopter parent generation, and you’re likely to be told that forgetting your son’s birthday is nothing short of an act of neglect, an affront to him, an indelible stain on his psyche. This answer might seem extreme, but contemporary American parenting does have a reputation for being a bit frenzied: transporting the kids from soccer practice to piano lessons to science fairs; packing homemade lunches and preparing dinners à la carte for various picky eater sensibilities; foregoing adult needs, interactions, and conversations in order to meet the needs, wants, and whims of your children. Helicopter parenting, sometimes called overparenting, is an amplification of the psychologist-recommended engaged parenting, which means being attentive to and concerned with, but not overprotective of, your children. Helicopter parenting, on the other hand, is watching your child’s every move, is completing assignments for your child, and writing to your child’s professors and graduate admissions boards. While this type of parenting has become more normalized in achievement-obsessed America, it might understandably seem a little strange to parents in other locales and cultures.
Take Norway, for instance. Norwegian parents often leave small children to take naps outside, even in frigid temperatures, as it is believed to allow for deeper sleep and to build immunities. In other Scandinavian countries, it is not uncommon to leave your child in a stroller outside while you shop or dine. One Danish parent, after moving to America, learned the hard way how such behaviors are viewed stateside. This mother parked her child in a stroller on a New York City sidewalk while she and her husband dined inside an East Village restaurant. The mother was jailed, and her child place in foster care for many days. It was a cultural misunderstanding, to say the least, that this mother ended up in jail for engaging in a common Danish parenting practice. In America, the more free-range, laissez-faire parenting style that is prevalent in many European countries, is feared, or at the very least, gravely misunderstood.
We see this laissez-faire approach to parenting in Hanne Ørstavik’s 1997 novella, Love. Love has long been recognized in Norway as an exemplary literary work, being named, in 2006, one of the best Norwegian books in the preceding twenty-five years. Love is consistent with Ørstavik’s other works, like The Blue Room, in that it looks unflinchingly at single motherhood and its complexities. In Love, this theme is localized in the relationship between a mother, Vibeke, and her son, Jon, on the eve of Jon’s ninth birthday. Twenty-one years after its Norwegian publication, Love is now shortlisted in the U.S. for the 2018 National Book Award in translated literature. This begs the question: what about this novella is now resonating with American audiences? Perhaps it is that Love gives American readers an alternative view of motherhood, one in which the mother has the autonomy to meet her own needs and desires, and unapologetically puts her own interests first. American audiences might be tiring of the restricted views of what it means to be a “good” mother, and are seeking solace in Vibeke’s imperfections.
The opening passages of Love bring to mind the Scandinavian concept of hygge, an idea recently popularized in American culture, that, roughly translated, means a mood of coziness and contentment. The reader feels a great deal of warmth, comfort, and safety as Vibeke returns to the home she shares with Jon after a workday. There is a quiet calm in those early pages. Even Vibeke’s errors seemingly have no consequences—she realizes, upon safely returning home, that she had failed to turn on her headlights during the drive home. This mistake is brushed off without much thought. Vibeke appears to be a woman for whom things just work out, for whom life does not require much effort. “Vibeke smiles thinking back,” Ørstavik writes, “She hasn’t much money, and what little she has isn’t for cars. As long as it gets her from A to B, that’s all that matters.” It would seem, the American reader initially imagines, that as long as Vibeke has her child, Jon, she has all that she needs.
And it is clear to the reader at the start of the story—and remains clear throughout—that Jon only needs Vibeke. He imagines his mother changing into her loungewear after she returns home from work: “At home she changes into a grey jogging suit with a zip neck. Maybe she’s changing now. It’s so soft inside, come and feel. She gave him slippers when they moved in. Brought them home with her after work, one of her first days on the job, wrapped in flowery paper.” In these early passages, Vibeke prepares a dinner of sausages and onions for herself and Jon. They speak about their days. They split the last sausage. They are together, warm and sheltered, safe from the snow outside. What appears to be a tale of a loving, mother-son relationship soon morphs into something quite different. It is best the reader not get too comfortable.
Vibeke and Jon go their separate ways soon after their dinner, drifting the reader into a narrative in which Jon cannot stop thinking about Vibeke, and in which Vibeke thinks of Jon less and less as her evening progresses. Vibeke is consumed, instead, by thoughts of other men. She travels first to the library with the hope of encountering a man from her job, and ends up at a traveling fair, where she meets Tom, a worker on the fairground. She’s immediately attracted to Tom, but she has her doubts. “Vibeke, she says to herself. Pull yourself together. Not a fairground worker, surely.” Vibeke suspends her judgments—which appear frequently throughout the novella—and decides that Tom would make a suitable partner for her, at least for the evening. Her night, then, and her trajectory, become dictated by her desire for Tom.
Jon, meanwhile, encounters a host of mysterious strangers, interacting with them on a level that will imbue the reader with all of the worry Jon’s own mother lacks. He meets an old man who invites him into his basement where “a leather dog collar and a metal chain hang down from a hook on the wall.” He meets an older neighborhood girl who invites him into her home, where they watch music videos, one of which involves “a lot of people dressed in black plastic rubbing themselves against each other. One of the women has a hole in her jacket so you can see her titties, and safety pins through her nipples. One of the others comes over and starts pulling on them. Jon thinks it must hurt.” The reader hopes that Jon’s eight-year-old mind is able to process these images. The reader hopes that neither the old man nor the teenage girl will take advantage of Jon’s youth, and his innocence.
It is the the third stranger Jon encounters, though, who is the most menacing. It is a woman from the fair Jon’s mother attended earlier in the evening. She pulls up in her car beside Jon as he walks alone in his neighborhood later that evening. “Aren’t boys your age supposed to be in bed by now?” she asks Jon, and though she looks and behaves oddly, Jon is cold, so he gets into her warm car. Jon notices that “her voice is dark and she speaks slowly. It’s like she smiles when she’s talking, but when Jon looks up at her, she goes serious.” All the while, as the potential for harm increases, Jon soothes and deludes himself with the thought that his mother is out preparing for his birthday. “My mom’s going to be back soon though,” Jon tells the strange woman as he sits in her car, “She’s been baking a birthday cake for me and there was something she’d forgotten to get, so she had to pop out.” The reader knows the truth, but hopes, for Jon’s sake, that somehow his mother will eventually remember his impending birthday. The reader can’t help but feel some measure of sorrow for Jon’s situation.
These feelings are driven home for American readers thanks, in large part, to the translation, by Martin Aitkin. Aitkin’s translation is economic, delicate, and pliant, making the narrative shifts between Vibeke and Jon seem effortless, dreamlike. With Aitkin, Ørstavik’s tale is in good hands: his latest translation, Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle: Book Six, is sure to bring even more acclaim to this already lauded translator, who received the 2012 Nadia Christensen Translation Prize from the American-Scandinavian Foundation. Aitkin is able to capture the somnolent, lulling quality inherent in the language of the story, even as the tension and potential for danger build.
While Ørstavik offers no judgment of Vibeke and her actions, the reader simply can’t resist making those judgments for herself. This returns us to our central questions: What sort of a mother, after all, forgets her son’s birthday? What sort of a mother goes an entire evening completely ignorant to, and apathetic toward, the whereabouts of her son? It is in the pursuit of answering these questions that Love’s genius can be found. Vibeke challenges our conceptions and expectations of motherhood. Vibeke shows us what happens when a mother herself desperately needs mothering, needs love and affection and care, and the consequences that arise when that need is left unfulfilled. Only passing reference is made to Jon’s father–he and Vibeke divorced when Jon was young. “My mom had to get away,” Jon says, clearly parroting the words of his mother. “She was too young to be tied down.” Perhaps Vibeke’s characterization, as a woman “too young to be tied down,” as a woman who forgets her son in pursuit of sexual interest, is unforgiving. Vibeke is indeed drawn, at first glance, as a bit of a self-absorbed woman, seeking much of her self-worth and validation from men. Perhaps, though, Love is exposing the insidious harm that societal expectations of marriage and the conventions of the nuclear family cause to single mothers. Single mothers, after all, are often depicted as a drain on society, as women who depend on the government and the goodwill of others–as opposed to their husbands–for familial support and care. Society tells us that a woman raising a family alone is a person to be questioned, to be scrutinized. Who could blame Vibeke for wanting to find a partner?
Though single motherhood is growing more common worldwide, the unfortunate truth remains: single motherhood is still stigmatized, at least in the U.S. The mother operating alone is held under a microscope in a way that single fathers simply aren’t. Kim Brooks has written about various examples of the criminalization of motherhood in America, when the cops are called on mothers–including Brooks herself–who are deemed, by the public, to be taking inadequate care of their children. Brooks writes that, in studies, participants were often harder on mothers, rather than fathers, that they deemed to be neglectful of their children. Participants in this study were also harsher critics of parents (like Vibeke) who left their children unsupervised in order to meet with a love interest, as opposed to parents who left their children unsupervised because the parent had been injured in some way. So, it seems, in order to be a “good” mother, one would need to be constantly vigilant of her child. But what of the mother who leaves her child unsupervised, in clearly innocuous situations, because she has to work? What of the mother who is unable to afford child care and who is, like Vibeke, living in a new area where she has no friends or family who can supervise her child?
The most that can really be expected of a mother is that she love her child, and even then, we have to understand that love is a limited enterprise. Love can never be perfect. It is perhaps unfair, and certainly unrealistic, to expect a mother to always be available to her child, and always put the interests of her child above her own. A mother can love her son as much as she wants, but at some point, she’s got to step away from him. She’s got to take care of herself. On some level, Ørstavik’s novella is about these failures of love, about these moments that a mother must make the difficult decision of caring for herself before her child. Ørstavik’s Love is, at its core, about the impossibility of a mother fully loving, reaching, and understanding her child, while remaining aware that children, like Jon, are indeed vulnerable to the behaviors of their parents, however fair and understandable those behaviors may be.
Will Vibeke’s forgetfulness go unpunished? Is a mother’s quest for her own personal pleasure a punishable act? One must read on to find out. Love ends, as it begins, with one of Jon’s reveries. He imagines, again, himself and his mother on a train that takes them to an unspecified location. “Didn’t she say she’d be coming on the train and would take him with her? That they’d go away together?” Jon wonders. “And isn’t that the whistle he hears, a short, crisp blast? It is, it’s the whistle. Now it won’t be long and the train will be here.” The place that Jon imagines the train will take him and Vibeke does not matter–only their togetherness does. By the end of Love, the reader’s understanding of Jon’s reverie, just as the reader’s understanding of Vibeke and Jon’s relationship, and of love itself, has permanently shifted.