Jenny Björklund’s research on why mothers in the books of the 21st century leave their families. is made at the Center for Gender Studies at Uppsala University.
– In older literature and in books from other countries, mothers often break up for emancipatory reasons – their desire to work or study cannot be reconciled with being a mother – due to lack of equality. In the contemporary Swedish novels that I examine, women generally live in fairly equal conditions. They leave their families because they do not enjoy being mothers or because the nuclear family is not always such a nice place to be, says Jenny Björklund, associate professor of literary studies and senior lecturer in gender studies at the Center for Gender Studies at Uppsala University.
Analyzed 25 of the novel mothers of the 21st century
In his research, which is now presented in the book Maternal Abandonment and Queer Resistance in Twenty-First-Century Swedish Literature, she has reviewed and analyzed 25 mothers in about twenty different novels from the years 2003-2020.
In novels written before the turn of the last century, mothers who leave the family or abandon their children are often a side character, someone in the background whose behavior explains the main character. I have many of the novels that are part of Jenny Björklund’s research, the mothers are actually the main characters. In several of the novels, readers get to take part in the mothers ‘perspective, either by the story being in I-form or by the narrator giving the readers insight into the mothers’ thoughts and feelings so that they understand them and therefore they leave their families.
In the study, Jenny Björklund divides mothers’ reasons for leaving into several different categories. Except in a few of the books, which have a more traditional angle and where mothers leave due to lack of equality, in others it is about women who resist different ideals.
One group opposes motherhood and parenthood, a category that researchers call “the bad mothers.” Those mothers are a little more distant from their children, and are seen by society as a little worse parents. An example is Sara Kadefors Away best. In that story, the mother leaves her teenage daughter and husband, after insuring the daughter’s inheritance. She has spent all her money on luxury consumption, and when there will be a divorce and she moves in a car outside Ikea. Jenny Björklund describes it as the mother on the surface trying to reconcile with the daughter, but not really making an effort. She is not interested in her daughter who only cares about consumption and her mobile. Jenny Björklund describes it as the character resisting the idea of good motherhood.
– It’s about the idea that mothers should always be interested in their children. There is a norm today about the parenting involved. To be good parents, we must put our children’s interests first. We must not only take care of our children but also encourage them and make it easier for them to develop. But Swedish mothers must not be too self-sacrificing. Instead, they are expected to want to be with children as much as possible, because they love them. At the same time, they can keep up with training, hang out with friends and have a real job that feels important. There will be a lot of pressure on Swedish mothers to cope with all this. The mother in Away best does the resistance to all that is expected, says Jenny Björklund.
Another example I have in research is me and family are no enemies of Viktoria Myrén.
– There, the mother was not so fond of being a mother at all. It is her husband who pushed her to become a parent. The reason is that they have friends who are going to have children and he is starting to feel stressed. She has a child and she and the child constantly end up in conflicts that she cannot handle. She reacts childishly and ducks by locking herself in the toilet and hiding under the covers, hoping it will pass. It is the father who is the active parent present and this mother character resists the ideals that exist, says Jenny Björklund.
Focus on the mother in Swedish society
In her research, she has focused on Swedish novels without systematic comparison with international literature. The focus is on the Swedish context, which is unique in terms of opportunities to combine family and career and which is often highlighted when creating the image of Sweden. It can be seen on the Swedish Institute’s website Sweden.se, where they highlight family ideals with gender equality and fathers who are at home, writes Jenny Björklund.
Other categories, apart from Lack of Gender Equality and Resistance to Motherhood, as defined by Jenny Björklund are: Resistance to the nuclear family and Resistance to Pronatalism – that is, society’s expectations that all women want children.
When it comes to the latest, Jenny Björklund is based on what she describes as Swedish society’s and politics’ focus on making it easier for families with children. How the Swedish welfare state ends since the 1930s has implemented various measures to make it easier for families with children, with adapted working hours, generous parental leave and child allowance. A policy that stands out internationally.
Sees parenthood as a punishment
– It has created family-centered norms and a pronatalist pressure. Mothers in some of the books leave their families because they would never become mothers. They wanted to do other things and they see parenthood as a punishment.
An example of this is Sara Stridsberg’s Happy Sally. Therefore, the parents have an agreement. The father wants to sail across the Atlantic, but the mother does not want to. She trains to swim across the English Channel, and they decide that she can manage to have unlimited swimming time, a pool and her own apartment in the family house. If she loses, there will be Atlantic sailing and unlimited playtime with the children.
– Several of the books show that the nuclear family is not always such a nice place to be. I think this engages readers just because many people think about this, and recognize themselves. It may not go so far as to leave your family. But when it comes to things that feel forbidden according to society’s norms, literature is a room where you can try different ways of living and try forbidden thoughts, says Jenny Björklund.
Jenny Björklund, Associate Professor of Literary Studies and Senior Lecturer in Gender Studies, at the Center for Gender Studies at Uppsala University, [email protected]