Many believe that the “good mother” is one who fits a certain model. She cares for the home and family, and works to support the well-being of her children above all. Personally, I feel that this definition is too generalized, and it ignores the greater reality. A good mother is the woman who understands that her children are individuals, and creates relationships with mutual respect. Her role is critical because young children learn the importance of mutual respect and caring from her, and the mothering is then a process in which mother and child develops. Hosseini’s A Thousand Splendid Suns reinforces this model of the mother in varying ways. As the following reveals, the characters of Nana and Fariba expose how weakness or selfishness severely work against good mothering, just as Mariam’s care for Laila reveals that being a real mother does not depend on biological parenting.
No matter her intentions, Nana strongly represents the mother who is unable to care for and respect her daughter, because she is too consumed by her own anger toward Jalil. She consistently tells Mariam how Jalil is a terrible man, as she also mocks her daughter’s faith in him (Hosseini 5). Having been betrayed by Jalil, Nana is virtually trapped within the bitterness and deep resentment she feels. From my experience, this is not uncommon. Women with children are still women involved with the fathers and, very often, their painful experiences largely shape their lives. I was fortunate to not have such a mother, but I have friends who have been affected in these ways. Their own mothers, like Nana, are virtually obsessed with the failed marriages and they are unable to move beyond the pain. As with Nana, then, they transfer it to their children, and are then unable to understand and care for the children with respect for them as individuals.
Fariba represents another type of mother, if also one unsuccessful in good parenting. She is defined by weakness, even as that weakness is understandable due to her grief. She is not a bad person at all; when she meets Mariam, for example, she extends real kindness (Hosseini 60). Fariba is a warm, caring woman but, like others I have known, she is too overwhelmed by personal grief to be a good mother. This is very different from Nana’s behavior, yet the common reality shared is that they both are unable to truly perceive their children as individual people whose needs must be understood. There is no indication that Fariba does not love Laila. It is more that the murders of her sons are too much for her to take, and the deaths remain with her as the defining reality of life, or her life. Unfortunately, then, good mothering is an active force that cannot rely on her love for Laila alone. She is then simply too weak to fulfill the role, just as Mariam enters into it regarding Laila.
Lastly, the character of Mariam reveals how a woman may become a good mother to a girl not her daughter, and largely because of her own poor experiences as a daughter. In a very real sense, Mariam reaches out to Laila to meet the needs she herself was denied as a daughter. This underscores the mother/child relationship as mutually fulfilling, and I personally know young women who take the same direction. They seek to share caring because it was not provided to them by their mothers. At first, Mariam’s care for Laila is only a humane response to an injured girl (Hosseini 180). Over time, however, this develops into a genuine maternal force, and because the caring and respect for Laila is evidence of how Mariam is motivated in this specific way. At some point in such female relationships, it will happen that they transcend friendship and take on the maternal qualities of love and protection. In all of this, it is clear that Mariam perceives Laila as both a kind of daughter and a person in need of authentic care. This is the essence of good mothering, in that the mother’s awareness of the other as an individual reinforces the relationship as mutual.
It is inevitable that people define good mothering based on their own experiences as children and/or parents themselves. All are motivated by what they understand their lives and their relationships to be, just as all are deeply influenced by the realities. Without question, the mother is always, first a foremost, the human being with needs of her own which will shape how the mothering develops. Hosseini then presents variations on the mother figure in this context. Nana is an extreme, in that her anger toward Jalil shapes her parenting of Mariam in negative ways. Fariba is more a true victim, and weakened as a mother by the pain she cannot ease.
Lastly, Mariam exists to redefine the cycles; as a daughter of a poor mother, she nonetheless embraces Laila because she is moved to create the motherhood bond she herself was denied. All of this supports what I have observed in my personal experience, and in how I see other parent/child relationships either promote mutual love and respect, or reflect mothers as too consumed by their victimhood or personal pain to be good mothers. In A Thousand Splendid Suns, Hosseini’ characters of Nana and Fariba powerfully reveal how weakness or selfishness, or resentment, defy good mothering, and how Mariam’s care for Laila is evidence that being a real mother does not depend on biological parenting.