There’s a scene early on in Ashley Audrain’s, The Push, when the narrator, Blythe, takes her baby to a café and notices another mother who seems to mirror the lack of connection she feels towards her baby. Blythe drops a milk bottle on the floor, picks it up and decides not to wipe the teat. She feels a rush of power at this lack of hygiene, a decision she imagines other mothers would not make. The two women share their despondency at motherhood. “Yeah,” Blythe says. “You want them and grow them and push them out, but they happen to you.”

A recent article in Grazia, titled When Mums Go Bad: How Fiction Became Obsessed With The Dark Side Of Motherhood, described the rise of a literary phenomenon it called “mum noir”. Audrain’s novel is named as part of it. The Push is a thriller that is also a compelling examination of motherhood and of how trauma is passed down through generations. It follows a bloodline of mothers and their struggles. But what is most memorable about it, are the everyday events like this café scene.

Stories about troubled motherhood are definitely having a moment. New arrivals last year included Sarah J Naughton’s The Mothers, a story of a missing husband and a connected mother and baby group; Harriet Walker’s The New Girl, a tale of loss and insecurity centred around a glamorous fashion journalist who goes on maternity leave; and Caroline Corcoran’s The Baby Group.

More mum noir novels are due to be birthed over the coming months, among them Lisa Harding’s exploration of motherhood and addiction, Bright Burning Things; Katherine Faulkner’s baby group suspense novel, Greenwich Park; and Ellery Lloyd’s tale of an “Instamum”, People Like Her. Meanwhile, television has offered dramas such as The Secrets She Keeps – a suspense story revolving around a stolen baby – and The Replacement, a riveting but bonkers dive into the insecurities around motherhood.

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But at the same time, mum noir feels familiar to me – not a new thing, but a naming of a phenomenon that has been around for a while. In 2006, the year before my now-13-year-old son was born, Sophie Hannah published Little Face, a domestic suspense revolving around a new mother who returns home to a baby she claims isn’t hers. This novel, and Rachel Cusk’s motherhood memoir, A Life’s Work, were read over the top of my baby’s head. Both seemed like acknowledgements of the toughness of motherhood.

Cusk described maternity as “a sort of wilderness through which each woman hacks her way, part martyr, part pioneer; a turn of events from which some women derive feelings of heroism, while others experience a sense of exile from the world they knew”. Many of us, I suspect, feel, by turns, all these things.

Since my son’s birth, I’ve seen more such domestic suspense published, for instance Helen Fitzgerald’s chilling The Cry, as well as the release of feature films like The Babadook and Prevenge, which have mined the darker corners of pregnancy and motherhood.

Mum noir is a wave that has been gathering for some time. Like her polar opposite, the idealised good mum, the bad mother has a long history. It has been, however, one mostly written by men. She's there in William Shakespeare’s Queen Gertrude, Philip Roth’s Sophie Portnoy, Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary. She’s in Euripides’ Medea, murdering her sons.

 

But over recent decades the difficulties of motherhood, its madness and badness, have been written from the inside. The stories have been owned and written by women, by mothers – and many of them have been reminders of how close we all are to losing ourselves when we become a new mum, of the isolation, sleep-deprivation, anxiety. It’s no wonder fiction wants to explore this passage. It's a messy, difficult time even when it features intense joy and love. It is also a time of hidden heroism, in which somehow you have to stitch together a whole new you, while also caring for a helpless human. You couldn’t come up with a more loaded story situation.

Morven Christie and Vicky McClure on challenging misogyny and myths of motherhood in BBC psychological thriller The Replacement

Loss of self is often at the heart of the current wave of mum noir, there, for instance, in Katherine Faulkner's novel, Greenwich Park, which was sparked by her first attendance at an NCT class and her feeling that when you become a mother, you're meant to change into “this particular person”.

Many of these books are about friendships formed at prenatal classes, baby groups or even in the workplace. They say something about the world we live in – a society missing the support network of extended family and local community, one in which all a woman can rely on is the kindness of strangers, new bonds forged. Postpartum psychosis, the baby blues – these are all real things and not a source of blame, but a reason to consider that we need to try harder as a society to support mothers, especially in this Covid-19 era of added isolation.

There are some who feel uncomfortable with the portrayal of struggling or depressed new mothers as psychopaths and stalkers – who have coined the term “pregsploitation” and condemn some dramas for playing to a stereotype that might leave us insensitive to mothers’ real needs and troubles. I can understand that. But often what is important about these books is not so much the overall message of their plot, but the way they evoke certain feelings and dislocations in the state of transition.

We don’t have to be mad or bad to have come close to thoughts like The Push’s Blythe has during her first childbirth: “Death. I wanted a death. Mine or the baby’s. I didn’t think, even then, that we would survive each other.”

Or to have felt resistance to our baby’s cries. “I got into a habit where I’d let her cry,” Blythe explains. “For years afterwards, long after she began sleeping through the night, I would wake to the sound of her crying. I would clutch my chest and remember what I’d done. I would remember the cramp of guilt and the overruling satisfaction of ignoring her.”

Sections like these help us feel like we are no longer alone. Even if we didn’t feel quite the guilt nor the satisfaction described here, even if actually we left our baby to wail for hours just because a book told us to, there is something here in the tension between giving all of yourself, and keeping some, that most of us who are mothers understand all too well.

The Push, by Audrey Audrain, is published by Michael Joseph