by Ian Kennedy
The Mothers, in accord with its title, is concerned with motherhood, femininity, and women’s homosocial care. Its author, Brit Bennet, takes on the intricacies of those relationships with grace, carefully constructing both the interaction and interiority of her characters. I expected those themes when I picked up the book, and I enjoyed their masterful development. As a male reader, however, I was particularly taken by the way Bennet deals with the complexity of male homosocial care.
Of the narrative perspectives Bennet offers, only Luke Sheppard is male. He shows up as love interest, pastor’s son, and college football star whose promising career is ruined by a knee injury. Midway through the novel he takes up with a football team, the Cobras, who play at a speed he can manage with his injury. His interaction with the other men in the team show, through discourse and action, how male care is often held and transmitted through anger, as if care on its own would be too threatening. Bennet makes visible that in fact the Cobra’s anger feeds into, and is the framework for, their care for Luke:
Hell, all of the Cobras were angry… No one’s anger was more welcomed than his because the team pitied him the most. He was the youngest, the one most robbed of his future, so the other players were kind to him. Roy Tabbot invited him on fishing trips. Edgar Harris changed his oil for free. Jeremy Fincher loaned him a tux so he didn’t have to rent one for a friend’s wedding.
“Don’t fuck it up, either, dickbreath,” Finch said, handing over the garment bag. It was the nicest thing anyone had done for Luke in months. (121)
Fincher, Finch for short, uses ‘dickbreath’ to temper his kind act. Simply sharing that way with another man risks questioning the nature of the relationship. Within the Cobras, then, Luke experiences care cut with angry displays of strength.
Another man Luke has a close relationship with, personally and physically, is his physical therapist, Carlos. As he receives treatment, Luke wonders, “Maybe Carlos was gay. Why else would a guy take a job where he had to lotion other guys? But Luke never said anything because Carlos’s massages felt good. The tissue damage went deep” (132). Clearly it’s not only the physical harm that cuts near Luke’s core. Healing physically, however, means opening himself to, and learning, homosocial care. Finally, Carlos will be the one to guide him into a career, as a care-giver, after his treatment has finished.
Receiving care from women doesn’t cause similar problems because their actions fit heteronormative roles. Luke accepts care from Finch’s wife, Cherry, and is “touched by her extra effort” (123). He’s wary about care offered by another woman, Aubrey, but only because he is surprised by the pureness of her kindness: “She was a good woman. The more time he spent around her, the more he realized how rarely he thought anybody else was actually good. Nice, maybe, but niceness was something anyone could be, whether they meant it or not. But goodness was another thing altogether” (136). Aubrey’s goodness is demonstrated through kind action, offering presents (donuts and a cheesy shirt) and presence (she offers companionship when he feels most alone). She gives both freely, without expectation.
Carlos and Aubrey both support Luke as he recovers from injury, and the experience seems to change Luke’s relationship to care. Luke eventually takes up Carlos’s recommendation to become a physical therapist, but even before that he works for his father, ministering to parishioners stuck at home due to illness. Luke knows he’ll be capable, and Bennet portrays him as being particularly able to offer a kind of care rooted in his own experience of weakness, “when he knocked on doors, carrying donated meals, he did not tell the sick to get well. He just came to sit with them while they weren’t” (140). Like Aubrey, Luke to showed up for those who needed it without asking or expecting anything back.
Luke offers this from himself without giving up masculinity, or perhaps while continuing to defend other aspects of traditional male performance. A few pages after beginning home visits, Luke avoids the soft, powdery soap used in Aubrey’s all-female household since it “made him feel unmanly, so he started washing his hands with the orange dishwashing soap in the kitchen instead” (144). I read this as a way of thinking Luke’s care as mutually inclusive of his masculinity. He learns, from both Carlos and Aubrey, a kind of care that doesn’t require violent language, that comes from his own experience, and that makes him, at least in these instances, a kind and caring man.
Bennet does not present Luke’s development into the practice of care didactically. She’s not hinting that more men need to be like this. Instead, she seems to be highlighting that the kinds of care which we, and men like us, already practice in our communities don’t contradict our manliness. We can minister to those in need and use whatever soap we want to.