The Mother’s Influence: A Hindrance on Identity Formation in Coffee Will Make You Black and Who Will Run the Frog Hospital?

Melanie Hanson


        In many novels which examine the development of adolescent girls, one pattern that remains consistent is the mother-daughter relationship.  The interaction between mother and daughter is central to all other relationships that the adolescent girl may form throughout these novels, and when it comes to self-identification, this relationship becomes problematic.  According to psychoanalytical theory, a female never completely relinquishes her pre-oedipal attachment to her mother, and these unresolved feelings surface not only in adolescence but also in adulthood.  Through mothering, the adult female re-enters what is called the oedipal triangle, which is the attachment that she experiences with her father and mother in childhood, but instead of being the child, she now becomes the mother.  This intricate web of unresolved attachments and the need for primal love causes the mother to become overly attached to her daughter, defining the daughter as an extension of herself and not as a separate individual.  As a result, the mother projects her unfulfilled aspirations and expectations onto to her daughter, which inhibits the daughter from forming her own unique identity.  This cause and effect relationship is best played out in April Sinclair’s Coffee Will Make You Black and in Lorrie Moore’s Who Will Run the Frog Hospital?   Sinclair’s Stevie wrestles with her coming of age during a series of conversations with her mother that leaves her uninformed and oftentimes discouraged about her female identity.  As Stevie tries to venture out into the world, her mother hinders this exploration and lessening of the maternal bond by establishing rigid expectations that will not fulfill Stevie’s personal desires but which vicariously through Stevie, the mother hopes to achieve her own unfulfilled aspirations.  The same is true for Moore’s Berie, who also tries to break away from her mother by merging with her best friend, Sils.  Through Sils, Berie is able to suppress her painful relationship with her mother and at the same time shift her love object from her mother to her best friend.  In doing this, Berie is able to continue in a female bond while at the same time denying her mother-daughter attachment. 

The bond between mother and daughter is particularly unique in that it is enduring and at the same time problematic.  By enduring, the relationship either extends through adulthood as it does for Stevie or in cases where the mother and daughter do not form a close union as with Berie and her mother, this lack of emotional bonding negatively affects the female throughout her adulthood.  The mother and daughter relationship is intricate in that of all the external forces that shape a young girl’s sense of self, the mother is the most influential.  Beginning with the early formation years, the girl identifies with her mother, whose attitudes and behaviors influence the young girl when it comes to issues such as body image and gender roles.  It is through the mother that the young girl learns what is expected of her as a female along with what it means to be feminine.

Nancy Chodorow’s evaluation of Freud’s psychoanalysis of Oedipal resolution gives insight into the origins of the mother-daughter relationship.  According to Freud’s theory, a female never completely severs her tie with her mother, unlike a male, who from the point of his Oedipus complex intensely represses his maternal attachment in fear of his fathers’ retaliation (The Reproduction of Mothering 130-132).  The son fears being castrated by his father because of his intense bond with his mother.  However, the young girl, not having a penis, does not fear her mother in the same way as the young boy fears his father.  The attachment that a girl has with her father is not as intense as the maternal bond.  This lack of intensity causes the young girl’s relationship with her father to be more idealized and less threatening to the mother; therefore, the young girl is not forced to repress her familial attachments and develops a relational sense of self.  This lack of separation interferes with the young girl’s identity formation that occurs during puberty.

An additional aspect of this theory is concerned with how young children differentiate themselves from their mother.  The mother being the primary caregiver takes care of all her infant’s needs; the infant is completely dependent on his or her mother and has difficulties separating his or her self from the mother.  The young boy notices the differences in his sex when comparing himself to his mother, and therefore, he is able to form “the categories of self and other” (Don’t be Scared of Feminist Theory).  The young girl, however, cannot properly distinguish herself from her mother since there is no difference in their sex organs, and as a result, she does not appropriately develop the categories of self and other.  Consequently, the girl never completely differentiates herself as other or resolves her preoedipal attachments, which surface during puberty when she must relinquish her first love object, her mother, for a new a new object in order to venture forth in the world and form her own identity. 

Continuing with Chodorow’s theory, an effect of this lack of individuation that a young girl experiences causes the transition that takes place during adolescence to be more tumultuous for girls than for boys (135).  In combination with new self-concepts that form because of bodily changes and hormonal surges during puberty and the stress of fitting in with peers and molding to society’s norms, the adolescent girl must sever her attachment to her mother in order to develop into a healthy self individualized adult.  However, this creates separation anxiety for both the mother and the daughter.  As a result, the mother impedes the daughter by wanting to hold onto to her.  This causes anger, anxiety, and oftentimes guilt as the adolescent girl tries to break away from her mother.

Similarly, the adolescent years are also an emotionally tumultuous time for the mother as well.  Referring back to Chodorow’s study of psychoanalytical theory, because the mother subconsciously sexualizes her relationship with her son, during his Oedipus complex, he not only represses his attachment to his mother but also his desire for connection (Lawler 52).  As a result the male personality structure “prizes autonomy and individuality, desires dominance, and fears connection and unity with other” (Lawler 52).  This becomes problematic in his adulthood relationships with other females.  Whereas the female never severs her attachment to her parents and defines herself as relational, needing contact with another, the adult male cannot provide this intimacy.  Consequently, unable to unite with her husband, a mother forms this emotional intimacy with her child.  Therefore, as the adolescent female tries to weaken her maternal bond the mother grieves the loss of intimacy and will oftentimes hinder the daughter’s autonomy.  Furthermore, according to Chodorow it can be stated that all people who were mothered seek to recreate the relationship with the mother.  Men can successfully achieve this in heterosexual relationships, whereas the female can only experience this through their unity with their children.  This is what Chodorow defines as the reproduction of mothering (Lawler 52).   

Although both Stevie and Berie try to relinquish their maternal bonds, they can never successfully separate themselves from their mothers’ influence.  It is first through the mother that both of these girls come to understand the female body, body image, and female gender roles.  Prescribed female genders roles, which are patterned to be passive, leave an adolescent girl unsure of herself when she does not meet up to the standards of beauty or of heterosexual attraction.  This is particularly true for Berie who at fifteen is ashamed of her late blooming body, a stigma that carries itself into her adulthood.  For Stevie, who rejects her mother’s rigid attempts of white assimilation, finds comfort in her relationship with Nurse Horn, but this relationship also becomes problematic because it threatens society’s heterosexual paradigms. 

However, throughout this unstable period of self-development, the adolescent girl subconsciously reverts back to what she’s learned from her mother regarding female gender roles as she tries find acceptance and validation in the world around her.  This occurs whether or not females are directly or indirectly influenced by their mothers.  This is particularly true for Stevie who is directly affected by her mother’s attempts to live vicariously through her.  As she rejects her mother’s attempts to mold her, she begins to question herself when she makes choices independent of her mother’s teachings.  For example, she questions her sexuality when she does not experience pleasure from the boys but finds comfort in her relationship with Nurse Horn.  Her internal thoughts indicate the struggle that she is undergoing as she questions her identity as a female, particularly as to whether being a lesbian is sinful or whether it means she is odd and unlike other women.  This thought pattern can be traced back to her mother’s influence, which encourages her to date promising young men.  The mother’s religious voice also comes out in Stevie’s conscience when she questions whether homosexuality is a sin.  The same is evident for Berie, who is indirectly affected by her mother’s lack of involvement in her life.  As a result, she spends most of her life looking for acceptance and validation because her mother failed to provide this for her as a young girl.  The negative effects of her mother’s inattention manifest itself in low self-esteem and a failing marriage.

In Coffee Will Make You Black and Who Will Run the Frog Hospital we see how both Stevie and Berie try to relinquish the bond with their mother through the formation of a best friend, who becomes their new love object replacing the mother.  Chodorow argues that because the young girl does not resolve her preoedipal attachments, she is defined as a relational being and will seek out relationships with other females throughout her life.  The oedipal triangle, which is comprised of the young girl, her mother, and her father, is the result of a continued connection to the parents.  When adolescence occurs and the young female tries to emerge from the triangle, this creates tension.  Because she is relational, the adolescent female must seek out a relationship that will suffice for the one she is trying to sever in order to achieve independence.  This is accomplished through the taking on of a best friend, as we see when Stevie bonds with Carla and Berie unites with Sils.  In order to clarify as to what occurs in adulthood when female friends depart in order to fulfill their own future aspirations, the adult female re-enters the preoedipal triangle when she becomes a mother, thus enabling the adult female to remain in a relational bond.  The most tumultuous and uncertain period in a female’s life occurs during adolescence when the adolescent female is trying to achieve independence while at the same time, the mother is losing her primal love object which she experiences through her daughter.  This trying time is demonstrated in the conflicts that Stevie and her mother experience with Stevie’s coming of age.    

The central theme in Sinclair’s Coffee Will Make You Black has to do with Stevie’s relationship with her mother, particularly with how the mother influences Stevie’s emerging concepts about her pre-pubescent body and female gender roles.  In the opening paragraphs of the novel, we see Stevie, an eleven- year-old girl, uncertain that her childish body will ever bloom into anything other than awkward and lanky.  Preoccupied with being asked if she is a virgin, Stevie turns to her mother for information about the female body and how it pertains specifically to sex.  She wants to ask her mother what it means to be a virgin.  But instead of providing Stevie with what she needs to know about sex, helping her to understand the female body, the mother chooses to avoid this discussion by lecturing Stevie on her incorrect grammar, which becomes a convenient distraction for the mother’s embarrassment.  Instead of engaging in this opportunity to educate her daughter, the mother looks as if “she had seen a ghost”, when Stevie tells her a boy at school wants to know if she is a virgin (Sinclair 5).[1]  To this the mother replies, “All men are dogs!  Some are just more doggish than others” failing to define what it means to be a virgin and leaving Stevie still mystified as before (6).  When Stevie asks her mother about menstruation, the mother replies in the same way, “Can’t you find something else to talk about?  Getting your period is nothing to celebrate.  Why do you think they call it the curse?  It’s just the beginning of a lot of mess, you’ll see.  It’s nothing to get excited about, believe me” (44). 

Stevie’s coming of age represents Stevie’s budding independence and the loosening of the maternal bond to which the mother responds negatively and is expressed through her hasty and ambiguous answers to Stevie’s questions.  According to psychoanalyst theory, latency, which is the time period that occurs between the oedipal resolution and puberty, is a when conscious learning and gender role-training occurs (Chodorow 134).  As the young female moves towards puberty, she struggles for psychological liberation from her mother while at the same time she remains attached to the mother because of gender role identification (Chodorow 136).  During puberty, the young female confronts “all the social and psychological issues of being a woman”, such as menstruation, female reproductive functions, and relationships with the opposite sex and is drawn toward the mother for identification and clarity in regards to her transforming body and changing relationship with the world around her (Chodorow 136).  Oftentimes how the girl sees her emerging self and sexuality is dependent upon the mother’s interest and response to her daughter’s coming of age. 

Menarche, which signifies entry into adulthood and female sexuality, is negated by Stevie’s mother through her lack of discourse and pessimistic comments inferring that there is something shameful and burdensome about the female body.  It is not until Stevie forms a close friendship with Carla, which weakens her mother’s voice, that Stevie witnesses menarche as being a positive event in a female’s life.  By shifting her focus onto Carla and away from her mother, Stevie is able to reject the negative constructs of femininity inflected by her mother.  Instead, she relishes her period as a mark of her femininity and approaching adulthood.  The mother’s negative reaction is not only a result of her negative attitudes toward menstruation but also of her daughter’s coming of age.  Menstruation for the mother becomes a sign of Stevie’s autonomy and the lessening of the maternal bond, which the mother resents.

Stevie’s mother continues to negate the female experience through gender role conditioning.  The mother treats Stevie differently than she treats Stevie’s two brothers, and as a result, the mother imposes the inferior and submissive female role onto her daughter.  Stevie is required to help her mother with domestic duties, such as setting the table for dinner, washing the dishes, and running errands while her two brothers watch television with their father.  These activities are traditionally defined as female responsibilities, serving to take care of the needs of the men in the family.  Stevie attributes this differential treatment to the fact that she is a girl and begins to comprehend that the male gender is more privileged.  The mother validates this assumption when she says, “I expect more from you than the boys, plus you’re the oldest.  If anybody has to set an example, you do” (92).  Stevie learns from her mother that the man is superior and that it is the woman’s duty to submit to his needs and requests.  Both of Stevie’s parents work, but it is the mother that comes home and fixes dinner, washes the clothes, and takes care of the children while the father escapes the hardships of life through alcohol and television.  The mother demonstrates what is expected of being female, but internally Stevie rejects these prescribed roles. 

Consequently, because the mother has trained Stevie to believe that it is a man’s world, Stevie finds herself in relationships with the opposite sex that reinforces this unequal attitude. This is best demonstrated in Stevie’s first adolescent crush on Yusef Brown which turns out to be frustrating and disappointing.  This relationship becomes Stevie’s first personal experience in how males not only perceive but expect females to be inferior both physically and mentally.  Yusef makes this point clear when he tells Stevie that he does not know why a girl would want to play basketball when she could be the girlfriend of a basketball player and wear his coat “without breaking her nails” (89).  Because society has trained Stevie to believe that a girl must have a boyfriend in order to validate herself and her sexuality, initially she is willing to overlook Yusef’s flaws, but when he insults her intelligence, she reconsiders.  Yusef, like Stevie, has been trained to conform to gender roles and has been coerced by society into believing the misconceptions regarding the opposite sex as being inferior.  He tells Stevie that girls cannot play chess because they do not have the concentration.  Again, implying that the female’s main focus is on her appearance, he says, “Y’all ain’t got the concentration.  Y’all be daydreaming about clothes or what color fingernail polish to buy and the other player would be saying ‘Checkmate’” (90).  This relationship with Yusef serves to confirm that society through gender role conditioning robs a female of her agency.

In accordance to gender role conditioning, pink infers femininity and blue masculinity.  Society dresses the little girl up in pink and places a baby doll in her arms to ensure that she will grow up prime and proper.  Similarly, society clothes the little boy in blue and teaches him to be aggressive.  Stevie’s mother, no less, buys into these theories.  According to Steph Lawler’s Mothering the Self: Mothers, Daughters, Subjects, “the daughter’s gender is considered as something produced consciously or unconsciously by the mother, and femininity as a damaging combination of characteristics which overlies the daughter’s true self” (56).  Here the mother continually dismisses that Stevie’s favorite color is blue and instead buys everything in shades of pink, subtly enforcing the female characteristics that this color ascribes.  Pink is the epitome of femininity to which Stevie at sixteen responds, “Mama was still ramming pink down my throat.  It didn’t matter how many times I told her blue was my favorite color” (171).  This statement can be analyzed in a couple of ways.  First, by Stevie rejecting pink and favoring blue, which infers masculinity, she is rejecting her female role for the prohibited but liberated masculine role.  Second, in regards to the mother-daughter bond, Stevie’s mother still associating her daughter with the girlish color of pink at sixteen is denying her daughter’s maturity and independence.  Stevie’s rejection of pink can be viewed symbolically and subconsciously as her relinquishing the maternal bond in an attempt to form her own individuated self outside of the mother’s influence.  This relates to Chodorow’s argument that the girl, during her adolescent years, will pull away from the mother in an attempt to differentiate herself and claim her independence.

When evaluating color, one begins to see the complexities that emerge; similarly when color is related to skin, the issue becomes even more problematic and prejudiced.  Stevie confronts that which Bonnie Hoover Braendlin terms a “double jeopardy”.  According to Braendlin, women of marginal groups not only deal with the inequalities of being female but also with the prejudices of being black (76).  Racism and sexism must be dealt with along with the tumultuous season of puberty, maturation, and self-discovery.  The black woman’s entry into adulthood is a struggle not only with the dominant culture but also with others of their own group, and for Stevie this is particularly relevant with her mother.  Stevie’s mother has bought into the white standard of beauty for which the black female, because of different ethnic traits, can never meet up to these standards; therefore, this self condemnation results in what is termed as internalized racism. 

For Stevie’s mother, this negative self-concept has manifested itself in the belief that white is better, and the by-products of this belief emerge in the forms of hair straightening, skin bleaching, rejection of other blacks, and the rejection of the black dialect for the white grammatical pronunciation of the English language.  This self-loathing in combination with a preference for things associated with being white sends a message to Stevie that she is unacceptable.  Stevie informs the reader that her mother married her father because he had lighter skin and curly, not knappy hair in hopes that her children would have lighter skin and better hair.  Consequently, Stevie’s mother makes it a point to remind her that she allowed her younger brother to get in front of her in the hair line and her older brother ahead of her in the skin line, implying that Stevie does not meet up to her expectations.  Here, the mother tries to relive her own unfulfilled aspirations through her daughter in hopes that her daughter will be lighter skinned and therefore more acceptable to society.  Stevie reveals her mother’s own struggle when she talks about her parents’ marriage: “[Mother] says it was almost unheard of for a colored man to marry a woman darker than himself.  Mama says she was lucky” (8).  Stevie has learned to compensate for her lack by telling herself, “But at least I’ve got nice features, she’s thankful for that, Mama always says” (8).  In this statement alone we can see how heavily internalized racism has affected Stevie’s mother, to the point that she judges her children through the same white standard of beauty that she herself has been judged.  As a result, if the young female is not grounded in who she is, she too falls prey to internalized racism and the cycle is repeated.

Not only does Stevie’s mother reject her daughter’s darker skin and knappy hair, she rejects her association with other black girls, not to mention black boys, who do not reflect the white standards of success.  As Stevie begins to step outside of her mother’s shadow and make her own decisions, she forms a friendship with Carla, who is popular at school but does not exhibit the qualities to which Stevie’s mother approves.  Simply, according to Stevie’s mother, Carla possesses too much blackness and is the type of girl that will become pregnant and ruin her future opportunities.  Stevie’s mother wants Stevie to renew her friendship with Teresa, who has changed dramatically from a caring young girl to a snobbish teen-ager.  It is not Teresa’s inward qualities that the mother assesses but her outward appearance, the lighter skin and the permed hair which hides her blackness, not to mention her parents’ success and the recognition that this association can bring to Stevie.  What the mother sees in Teresa and wants for Stevie is all she has ever dreamed of having but never obtained.  By living vicariously through Stevie, the mother is given a second chance.  As a result, the mother offers Stevie bleaching cream to which she says, “You have to see yourself the way others see you.  You already got a strike against you . . .  You’re from the wrong side of the tracks.  You can’t afford to be too dark on top of it” (164).  The problem occurs when the mother entangles her own identity with Stevie’s, resulting in the mother’s inability to see Stevie for who she truly is, a talented but impressionable young black female. 

As Stevie’s mother projects these expectations onto Stevie, she actually creates an image, an identity, of who and what she thinks her daughter is becoming.  In order for Stevie to achieve any type of self-discovery, she has to distinguish herself as different and separate from the image that her mother has created for her.  In order to understand why the mother disregards her daughter’s autonomy, Sinclair provides the background information that has influenced and molded the mother.  Stevie’s mother, the daughter of a black woman who was a nanny and housekeeper for a white family, knows what it is to feel the effects of slavery.  The oldest of four children, Stevie’s mother helped raise her siblings while she was only a child herself.  The mother left the house before dawn, leaving Stevie’s mother to dress her siblings, feed them, and prepare breakfast for her father.  No one was ever at home to take care of Stevie’s mother when she fell ill or to praise her when she did well at school.  This neglect has left Stevie’s mother feeling cheated, inferior, and stern toward her own children.  She lives by the words her own mother used to tell her, “The world [is] no place for anybody soft and colored”, and as a result, she feels jealous of the affection that her mother lavishes upon Stevie but was unable to give to her (32).  She is stern in her parenting to prevent softness and covers up her racial identity to hide her blackness.

Although Stevie senses her mother’s jealousy and feels her sternness, she feels sympathy for her mother.   She realizes that her mother’s rigid expectations are a by-product of her hard life and her skin color.  This is best expressed in Stevie’s mother’s tale about Lillie Mae, who no one came to see when she fell ill, but in reality, it was Stevie’s mother that no one came to visit.  Lillie Mae “had everything going for her” (35).  She was the girl with the light colored skin, the good hair, and the green eyes that made her acceptable and popular, not Stevie’s mother.  This rejection has manifested itself in Stevie’s mother’s adulthood through the forms of relentless diets to lose weight, girdles to hide excess pounds, covering up her husband’s alcoholism, and her obsession to mold Stevie into the woman that she could never be through bleaching creams and hair straightening products, proper education, and the “right” sort of friends and associations.  There is nothing wrong with wanting something better for one’s children, but it becomes problematic when this ambition blinds the parent from seeing the real and unique qualities the child possesses.  This is especially true for Stevie, who is a very bright and talented young woman.  In order to release the pressure that she feels to accommodate her mother’s desires, Stevie begins to resist.  It is through this resistance that Stevie is able to separate herself from her mother.  However, according to psychoanalytical theory, the root issue is that the daughter is trying to relinquish her preoedipal attachments. 

Stevie rebels against her mother in multiple ways in an attempt to form her own individualized identity.  As mentioned earlier in accordance with Chodorow’s study, the adolescent girl will try to break away from her mother in an attempt to sever the preoedipal attachment, which is needed for self-discovery.  This breaking away manifests itself in many forms such as blatant rebellion, the release and escape through art forms, the formation of a best friend, or through the taking on of one’s own style and fashion.  One of the best examples of Stevie’s rebellion is in her decision to wear her hair in its natural state, in an afro.  Through this self expression, Stevie is not only rejecting the white standards of beauty, but is also rejecting her mother’s opinions in an attempt to form her own.  Stevie’s afro becomes a symbol of liberation, but for her mother it signifies that Stevie is not taking advantage of her opportunities, to which she associates the afro as looking like a “boogabear” (166).  Again, we see how internal racism affects the mother and how it presents itself in her inability to love her daughter for who she is, a black female who is proud of her ethnic features.  Ultimately the mother feels threatened because Stevie’s liberation inhibits her ability to live vicariously through her daughter in an attempt to achieve her own unfulfilled aspirations.

Socio-economic class becomes a stumbling block for Stevie’s mother, and education becomes the vehicle to which she feels Stevie can escape the financial hardships and shame that class creates.  The mother pushes Stevie to pursue her academic goals and to resist any external force that would inhibit this actualization.  However, it is not Stevie’s fear of failure that the mother is trying to avoid, but her own.  As a result of the mother’s continual prodding, Stevie finds comfort in the relationship that she forms with the school nurse.  Nurse Horn is unlike Stevie’s mother, who perceives Stevie to be an extension of her self, in that she is able to detect Stevie’s unique qualities.  Stevie describes the feelings that she experiences whenever she is with Nurse Horn as warm and cozy.  She experiences the warmth that stems from Nurse Horn’s genuine affections in a way that she has never experienced with her own mother, who has always been concerned with reshaping Stevie to conform to the identity that she has created for her.  Contrastingly, Nurse Horn is able to differentiate Stevie from the other young adults, which encourages Stevie and makes her feel special.  Nurse Horn becomes what Steph Lawler terms as a “replacement mother” (120).  Stevie discards her real mother, who is the embodiment of gender oppression and the hindrance of self-formation, for a more suitable role model which she envisions in Nurse Horn.  Through this relationship with Nurse Horn, Stevie is able to relinquish her attachment with her mother while still remaining relational.  Nurse Horn substitutes the mother’s place in the preoedipal triangle, providing an escape from the mother while offering the intimacy and attachment the young female needs.

Similarly, Berie replaces her mother with her best friend, Sils.  While the dynamics are different in that Berie’s mother indirectly affects her daughter through her lack of involvement, her influence is still problematic in Berie’s self-discovery.  Because of the mother’s lack of interest in her daughter’s life, Berie is unable to form an intimate and personal relationship with her object of identification.  As a result, Berie begins to see her mother and her family in a negative view as a way of distancing herself from that which causes her pain.  In this defensive splitting from her family, Berie projects her attentions to another love object, which is more idealized, trying to merge herself with someone other than her mother.  This replacement occurs in Berie’s friendship with Sils while subconsciously she suppresses her feelings of dependence and identification with her mother.  Through her merger with Sils, Berie attempts to relinquish her maternal bond while still remaining in a female relationship.

It is important to look closer as to what is the root cause of Berie and her mother’s dysfunctional relationship.  In the beginning of the novel, the mother is described as being lonely, and her cleaning lady provides the only outside communication she experiences.  This isolation in the mother’s life is the result of an unfulfilling relationship with Berie’s father.  The father is described as an authoritarian, who the mother is constantly trying to please by reshaping herself.  Through this Berie learns that the female identity is changeable based upon the expectations of others and more importantly defined by others.  The mother’s voice lends itself to interpret what is going on internally within the mother’s psyche when Moore writes:

There were fancinesses: Years of my mother’s Canadian French slipping out only in the direst lullabies.  Or the faux-patrician lilt her voice fell into when she wanted to seem smart for her redoubtable in-laws – her voice became a trained one, trying to relocate itself socially and geographically (6).[2]  

This one passage with words like “slipping” and “trained” represents how the mother tries to refashion herself in order to gain acceptance from others and to hide that part of her that others deem unacceptable. 

As a result, the mother’s unhappiness, which is attributed to her role as a wife and a mother, manifests itself in her relationships with her children.  Her gender roles create confinement and dissatisfaction which comes out in resentment toward Berie.  Berie’s presence becomes a burden and an eternal reminder of her station in life.

            The mother’s resentment is felt more intensely when Berie begins to confront society’s feminine expectations and views of the female body.  Berie, unlike her best friend Sils, is a late bloomer.  Her body is tall and thin and lacks the least bit of womanly shape.  Sils on the other hand is described as “beautiful – her eyes a deep-flecked aquamarine, her skin smooth as soap, her hair long and silt-colored but with an oriole yellow streak here and there catching the sun the way a river does” and in combination, she has a shapely figure (10).  Berie witnesses how society treats Sils differently because of her beauty; all the young men want to date Sils, and she even plays the part of Cinderella at the theme park where they work in the summer.  Physical beauty bestows privileges to which Berie realizes when she idealizes Sils in the strapless sateen evening gown, riding around in the paper-mache pumpkin, all the little girls crowding around to get her autograph while she identifies herself as just an entrance checker.

            As mentioned earlier, when the young girl experiences all the psychological issues of femininity at the onset of puberty, she turns to her mother for validation and clarity (Chodorow 136).  Consequently, her perceived body image is a result of how her mother perceives her.  In this case, the mother is inattentive and indifferent toward Berie’s coming of age; as a result, Berie internalizes this rejection to signify that something is wrong with her.   This inadequacy is multiplied when society sends messages to Berie that her undeveloped body deems her unattractive and therefore unlovable. 

According to Chodorow’s evaluation of Alice Baliant’s study of the mother-daughter bond in regards to the oedipal resolution, mothers and daughters reciprocate the feelings felt toward one another.  Baliant suggests that the ambiguity and the coldness on the mother’s part is not enough to sever the maternal bond because of the child’s unappeased love for the mother.  As a result, “the child will eternally seek, even when grown up, for a mother-substitute, and bring a childish, immature love to the relationship” (Chodorow 135).  This is evident in Berie’s relationship with Sils.  By uniting with Sils, Berie tries to overcome her mother’s rejection, and the inadequacy she feels about her body.  Berie lives vicariously through Sils in that being accepted by the most beautiful girl in Horse Heart’s provides a sense of validation in and of itself.  Whereas Berie needs Sils for validation, Sils needs Berie for the mothering she gives.  Sils, like Berie, has an absent mother but gains validation from society through her beauty; therefore, she lacks is nurturance and takes Berie on as a surrogate mother.  This is a give and take relationship but one that lacks intimacy because it is formed out of self-interest.  Their communication is surface level to which Berie admits, “I don’t recall what we ever talked about.  I don’t think we had real conversation.  We were guitar less, without our music books, we couldn’t sing.  But we didn’t really talk either.  We drank and bantered and remarked and gazed around” (350). 

This lack of intimacy, a result of the dysfunctional relationship that Berie experiences with her mother, continues in her adult relationships, particularly in her relationship with Marguerite.  Berie compares Marguerite to Sils and defines her as the kind of woman that others simultaneously ask, “How is she?  Is she still beautiful?” (75).  In adulthood, Berie is not only drawn to female relationships which provide a substitute for the relationship she does not have with her mother, but also she is drawn to women who are physically attractive out of a longing for validation to which Berie says of Marguerite, “She is tall and dazzling like that – and so I bring her my crush, inappropriate but useful between adult women, who need desperately to be liked and amused, and will make great use of any silent ceremony of affection” (76).  However, it is interesting to point out Berie’s obsession with physical appearance and bodily image even after her own body has developed into what she describes as full bosomed and shapely.  Although Berie is an educated and successful woman, the inadequacy that she experienced in adolescence has manifested itself in low self-esteem.  Marguerite, who is on welfare and is secretly looking for a rich husband, is described as beautifully extravagant and in Marguerite’s shadow, despite of Berie’s success, Berie feels small and inferior.  It is puzzling as to why a successful, married young woman would be drawn to this type of emotionally unfulfilling relationship.  Berie’s subconscious reasons are unique in that her inability to conceive a child with her husband and potentially re-invent the primal maternal bond with her child causes her to settle for relationships with other women.

According to psychoanalytical theory, a man can recreate the primal bond with his mother through heterosexual relationships and in marriage (Chodorow 134-35).  A woman cannot re-unite with her mother through marriage but through motherhood.  During motherhood, a woman re-enters the preoedipal triangle not as the child but this time as the mother.  The new triangle is comprised of the woman, her child, and her husband.  Berie and her husband’s inability to conceive a child destroys any hopes of Berie re-experiencing the maternal bond through mothering.  This is particularly traumatic in Berie’s case since she and her own mother have never been able to experience a warm and intimate relationship.  Mothering her own child would provide Berie the opportunity to repair and redo what she and her mother never experienced.  As a result, the only way that Berie can maintain female intimacy is through adult female relationships outside of her family.

            According to Chodorow, families are organized around women’s mothering and male dominance which creates incompatibilities in women’s and men’s relational needs (Chodorow 199).  Men at an early age have been taught to break their relational ties by repressing their feelings toward their mother, and their attention is shifted outside of the family unit toward their future roles as providers.  Men’s roles and self-worth are based upon his professional achievements and his ability to provide, which requires the man to fulfill his purposes outside of the family.  As a result, men are unlikely to satisfy the relational needs of women.  Since women do not repress their preoedipal attachments and define themselves within the family as wives and mothers, they are created to be relational beings.  Chodorow explains that “women try to fulfill their need to be loved, try to complete the relational triangle, and try to experience the sense of dual unity they had with their mother, which the heterosexual relationship tends to fulfill for men” (200).  Berie cannot re-create this dual unity with a child, she cannot share this intimacy with Daniel since both of them have difficulties expressing love, and she has no relationship with her own mother, leaving her with feelings of isolation.  Chodorow suggests that one way in which women try to fulfill these unmet needs is to step outside of the heterosexual relationship by forming a friendship with other women (200).  Chodorow states that these relationships are one way of “resolving and recreating the mother-daughter bond and are an expression of women’s general relational capacities and definition of self in relationships” (200).

            Because neither Berie nor Stevie are able to truly identify with their mothers, they turn to other females whether it is in the form of a best friend, a replacement mother, or female role model with whom they find it easier to relate.  Because these girls are relational beings and cannot form intimate relationships with their mothers, they seek out other female relationships in which they can define themselves.  Psychoanalytical theory reveals the underlying issues that occur in the mother-daughter bond.  In particular, the young female needs to break away from the mother in order to form her own unique identity and to define herself as other and not as an extension of her mother.  This becomes problematic because as the young girl tries to claim independence, she is also defining herself with her mother and taking her cues from her mother as what is means to be feminine.  Simultaneously, the mother has re-entered the preoedipal triangle and is trying to re-create her primal mother-daughter bond through her daughter.  This unrealistic attachment hinders the daughter’s self-discovery.  As we have seen in Stevie’s case, the mother imagines Stevie to be a clean slate providing her the opportunity to relive her childhood and achieve her unfulfilled aspirations.  On the contrary, Berie becomes a reminder of all her mother’s unfulfilled aspirations which marriage and motherhood have prohibited; therefore, the mother rejects Berie and hinders Berie’s ability to form a healthy and confident sense of self.    Steph Lawler includes the following quote in his work, “To be dominated by a power external to oneself is a familiar and agonizing form power takes.  To find, however, that what ‘one’ is, one’s very formation as a subject, is in some sense dependent on that very power is quite another” (23).  This quote defines the core issue of the mother-bond in that while the young female feels dominated by her mother, she is at the same time influenced and molded by the hands they gave her life into the woman she will inevitably become.


Works Cited

Braendlin, Bonnie Hoover. “Bildung in Ethnic Women Writers”. Denver Quarterly 17 (1983): 75-87.


Chodorow, Nancy. The Reproduction of Mothering: Psychoanalysis and the Sociology ofGender. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1978.


“Don’t Be Scared of Feminist Theory”. Women Organizing Women – Feminist Activism at LSU. 2002. Louisiana State University. 9 Sept. 2004 <>


Lawler, Steph. Mothering the Self: Mothers, Daughters, Subjects. New York: Routledge, 2000.


Moore, Lorrie. Who Will Run The Frog Hospital?. New York: Vintage Books, 1994.


Sinclair, April. Coffee Will Make You Black. New York: Hyperion, 1994.


[1] All future references and quotes from Coffee Will Make You Black are from the Novel by April Sinclair

[2] All future references and quotes to Who Will Run The Frog Hospital? are from the novel by Lorrie Moore