Rumaan Alam writes women who bond over their worry. About themselves, about each other, about the world, and often about their children. In Rich and Pretty, his sharp-witted 2016 debut novel, childhood friends Sarah and Lauren fear the unraveling of their closeness as they grow older.
In Alam’s ambitious second book, That Kind of Mother, two women—Rebecca, who is white, and Cheryl, who is black—find themselves bound not by blood or years, but by some mercurial mix of love, obligation, and shared fear. Cheryl’s mother, Priscilla, who’d worked as Rebecca’s nanny, has died of labor-related complications, and Rebecca offers to care for the surviving infant. Noting that even in grief she doesn’t “want to be someone who needs help,” Cheryl, who is nearing the end of her own pregnancy, agrees to let Rebecca intervene temporarily. Rebecca and her apprehensive husband, Christopher, soon legally adopt the baby, Andrew, as their own son, thus formalizing the familial structures that Alam constructs with gentle, unflinching honesty.
Set amid the social throes of the Reagan era, That Kind of Mother considers complex questions of loyalty and affection: What obligations do people—strangers, friends, colleagues—have to one another? Can love ever transcend the strata of race, class, and entitlement? Where it might be tempting to spin the story of Rebecca, Priscilla, and Andrew into a somber but saccharine endorsement of adoption as a cure for systemic dangers that befall black children and black mothers, Alam instead treads complicated territory with a deft hand. In doing so, he renders an intricate, sometimes uncomfortable family portrait.
Alam is careful to delineate the exhausting, embarrassing elements of early motherhood’s routines: diapers, dishes, ruptures, tears, changes, nightmares. It’s never lost on the reader that parenting—and motherhood specifically, with its gendered demands of perfection—is a daunting, often thankless task. But Alam’s mothers are not one-dimensional martyrs. They question themselves; they wonder if they’ve made the right choices. They’re refreshingly human, vibrating with imperfection. Rebecca, a soft-hearted liberal, is neither savior nor nefarious anti-heroine; her motivations for adopting Andrew are infused with both genuine concern and capricious enthusiasm. “This is what I want,” she says as she explains Andrew’s story to her nebulously conservative mother. The moment, which could have taken a sanctimonious tone by elevating Rebecca as her mother’s ethical foil, instead imbues the adoptive guardian with a more complex moral compass: “As she said it [she] knew that she always got what she wanted,” Alam writes.
That adopting Andrew is yet another flight of Rebecca’s fancy may be discomfiting, but it comes as no surprise that the adoptive mother—a poet whose husband’s work across political and financial bureaucracy sustains their comfortable lifestyle—would pursue her own gratification even as it burdens others. The first morally dubious act readers witness from Rebecca is that which introduces Andrew’s mother into her life. Priscilla was the lactation consultant assigned to Rebecca after the birth of the latter’s first son, Jacob. Becoming enamored of Priscilla to the point of obsession, Rebecca eventually nudged the middle-aged black hospital employee to accept her offer: leaving the hospital to work as her nanny full time.
Their relationship is marked by the power imbalance inherent to both Priscilla’s employment as a care worker and her blackness. Rebecca is shocked to learn of Priscilla’s pregnancy partly because she cannot fathom that her nanny, a woman whom she has only seen in auxiliary roles, is the protagonist of an outside life that includes sex. Each time Rebecca’s shock reverberates, Alam underscores a critical observation about how employers view the women working in their homes: Care workers may be integral to the harmony of their employers’ homes, but the intimate knowledge is rarely reciprocal. Rebecca, like so many white women who extract emotional labor under the guise of friendship, loves the idea of Priscilla—the service Priscilla provides—far more than the three-dimensional woman she admits she does not know.
Alam painstakingly details the extent of Rebecca’s infatuation with Priscilla. While drinking wine with her nanny after running errands may have been a highlight of her day, for instance, Rebecca never asked if Priscilla would prefer to leave earlier and see her daughter. Even if Priscilla felt a fondness toward her employer (and Alam hints that she did), the intensity of the imagined closeness between the two is often one-sided. In its parsing of the relationship, the novel raises important questions about the troubling ways in which employers claim ownership of care workers: Would Priscilla have considered Rebecca part of her family?
“Why do you presume that this is your responsibility? Why do you presume it’s your right?” Christopher demands of Rebecca initially, as they argue about her adoption plans. “He’s [Cheryl’s] brother. He’s nothing to you. Or maybe you don’t like to hear that, but you’d be nothing to him.”
That Kind of Mother’s greatest triumph is its insistence on complicating the rescue narrative of transracial adoption without resorting to dogmatic indictments of its characters. Even following unspeakable tragedy, adoption across such glaring difference can present a host of traumas for the child. But Alam subtly teases out the limits of Andrew’s adoptive parents’ worldview without painting the child himself as an immutably tragic character. He and Cheryl, whose voice is woefully muted for much of the book’s first 100 pages, are subject to the whims of the white family who has welcomed—or, perhaps more accurately, claimed—them, but their blackness is never called into question. The conflicts between Rebecca and Cheryl are as indicative of deeply entrenched social differences as they are of familial dissent: Where Rebecca is confused by Cheryl’s perceived cynicism, Cheryl simply maintains that black people in America—herself and her deceased mother included—do not have the freedom to court hope as naively as moneyed white women do.
Alam is the son of Bangladeshi immigrants and the father of two adopted black sons, whom he is raising with his husband. In an interview with NPR, Alam spoke about the scenes in which Cheryl and her husband instruct Rebecca and Christopher in how they’ll need to prepare Andrew for the constant threat of police violence, the talk itself “a tradition that exists within the black community that I would not have known about had I not had black sons.” Alam’s willingness to name his own blind spots is the exact impulse Rebecca—and so many like her—lack: It is far easier to hope that love, maternal or otherwise, is enough to shield a child from the world’s dangers. But black children are uniquely vulnerable, and parenting them a distinct endeavor. To neglect this truth, Alam insists throughout the text, is to love selfishly—which is to say, love poorly.
That Kind of Mother traces the impact of race and privilege on some of its characters’ most sacred bonds, but the novel also reveals the extent to which Alam is attuned to the concerns and candor of women. Rebecca’s constant fretting over the well-being of her children and the quotidian demands of motherhood are rendered with urgency and gravitas. Even as Rebecca acts with wide-eyed enthusiasm, she is never written as frivolous by virtue of her womanhood. The twin specters of frustration with and sympathy for Rebecca drive the novel: It is hard not to root for Rebecca’s family to find a simple kind of happiness, even if readers who know the arc of the 30 years following the book’s initial setting are keenly aware of the social confines that will restrict the characters’ lives. Maternal love may not be enough to grant them freedom, but it’s still beautiful.