NONFICTION July 2, 2021

A Theory of Motherhood

“What have you written about me this time?” 

We’re in the front seat of my mother’s Toyota. The air conditioning blasts on high to fend off the Alabama heat. The unremarkable interstate blurs by us, and I squint into the sunlight cutting through the glass. Mom doesn’t look at me when she asks it.

“This one isn’t about you,” I offer. She doesn’t look convinced. 

The silence stretches uncomfortably, and I pull down the visor to shield my eyes. Mom presses clumsily at the touch screen mounted in her dash. The plasma surface is blotted with fingerprints and a smattering of dust. Her repeated stabbing at a central icon results in little more than nothing. She curses. We didn’t have things this nice when I was a kid; she’s still learning how to be comfortable.

Southern gospel finally breaks through the speakers, and I flinch. Mom apologizes, turning it down, and we listen to the low hum of guitars and ballads as she drives. More cars pass us. Mom looks anxiously into the rearview mirror.

“They’re always about me, Anna,” she finally says. I want to be angry. I want to call her selfish. Instead, I bite into my bottom lip and turn to face the window. 


There’s a theory in psychology about how we learn to be people. Attachment theory, as it’s called, suggests that we become emotionally attached to our mothers as infants. That we seek them for comfort and food, but also that we look to them to learn how to interact with the world. When we are still small, before we’re even able to speak, we watch our mothers to see when they are afraid, when they are happy. It is our biological instinct to watch them and mirror their actions. Smile when they smile. Cry when they cry. Trauma becomes inherited.


When I was seventeen, I started dating a man who was twenty-two. He had a crooked grin, with a canine tooth that sat just higher than the others. When he smiled, the tooth pulled his upper lip into a snarl I wanted to think was endearing.

“I don’t like you staying with him,” my mother said from the other side of my opened closet door. I sat on the floor before the piles of clothes, digging through the laundry to find the pajama pants I thought made my legs look thinner.

“You don’t like it because he lives in a trailer,” I countered. 

I couldn’t see her, but I knew my mother was scowling. “It has nothing to do with his trailer. It’s because you’re too young for him. He doesn’t respect you.”

It was the same argument it always was. My boyfriend was too old for me. My boyfriend treated me badly. My boyfriend wasn’t good enough for me. My mother’s mantras rang hollow. 

I found the prized pajama pants and shoved them into my overly full duffle bag. I climbed back to my feet and closed the closet door, bringing us face to face. 

My mother looked tired. Make-up settled into the wrinkles around her eyes, and her lipstick had faded to the color of her skin. Working long shifts at the hospital didn’t allow for a well-made face. “I’ll see you tomorrow,” I offered, leaning in to kiss her.

She sighed and kissed me back. She let me go because we both knew the truth: stopping me was never an option. Stubborn was our family trait.


Psychologists mostly agree that there is a limited window for infants to form attachment. If a child does not develop a relationship with a caring protector in the first year of life, there is little hope of the child ever being able to form relationships with anyone. They’re likely to live lives separate from others, depressed and anxious. Dr. Harry Harlow is the psychologist who pioneered the research that informs this. Most scientists attribute to him the earliest knowledge we have about asocial children. He is the father of our understanding of families. 

I wondered once how Harlow had been able to quantify the importance of mothers in our lives. The internet gave me a terrible answer: terrified monkeys barely larger than my hand. 

Harlow’s theories are the result of experiments carried out on these infant primates. Moments after birth, he pulled the babies from their mothers, still wet with afterbirth, and plunged them into varying levels of isolation. The lucky ones spent only three months in cages with cloth or wire surrogate mothers. These artificial caretakers could not respond or soothe the infants, but they could give milk. The babes clung to them desperately, hid behind them when frightened, and showed anxiety when separated. After three months, Harlow reintroduced the infants to real mothers with warm hands and moving lips, and though the babies were frightened and awkward at first, they adjusted. They learned when to smile and when to flee. Three months was not enough to break them.

So Harlow did it again, but waited six months before reuniting the primates. Though the adjustment period was longer, still the babies learned how to become monkeys like their mothers. Laughed when the others laughed. Slept when the others slept. Harlow was undeterred.

The unluckiest group of primates—the group that would prove Harlow’s theory and cement his name in medical history—was the group he gave no surrogate mother at all. These infant monkeys were plunged into absolute darkness. They spent a year totally alone. 

When Harlow finally introduced these monkeys to the others, the disparities were certain. The other monkeys—the ones who had learned to love and play and fight from their mothers—instantly singled out the newcomers. The now-year-old monkeys, having never interacted with another of their kind, panicked. They lashed out. They pulled out their own hair. They rocked back and forth and screamed and cried and bashed their own faces into the ground. They had no understanding of how to be, and their brains and bodies betrayed them.

His point proved—that a mother’s care provides a blueprint for behavior and not just sustenance by which to survive—Harlow had only one more theory he wanted to test. Some of the anxious group, the most isolated group, were females that reached breeding age. They had been abused by the monkeys who’d grown up with mothers. They didn’t understand how to breed properly, how to court or select mates. Still, some came up pregnant. And in an act of mercy—or morbid fascination?—Harlow let them keep their babies. He didn’t pull the infants away from the mothers’ breasts as he had done to the generation before them. Instead, he sat back and watched. How would those who never had mothers learn to mother themselves?

His answer came in the form of bludgeoned baby skulls and floors smeared with blood. The mothers did not understand how to care for their children. They were fascinated by them but frightened of them. So they flung them against walls and floors and feeding containers and doors and then used their bleeding bodies to paint their world red. 

They never learned love, so they feared it. 


The first time the older boyfriend threw me out of his house, my mother took me to IHOP. I didn’t want to be there, but I had nowhere else to go. We sat in a polyester booth sticky with dried syrup, and I watched as my mother poured packets of Sweet’N Low into her iced tea. She didn’t say anything about the tears I kept wiping away.

“I was engaged before your father once,” she said right before taking a sip of the cloudy tea, so quick I didn’t look up in time to see her lips move. 


She smiled to the waitress who brought her the sugar-free syrup and poured it on her pancakes with measured ease. In everything she was, my mother was controlled.

“Yes, when I was in college. About a year older than you now. He was cheating on me too.”

The too stung, so I took a sip of water to cool the ache. “Why have I never heard about him before?”

“Because it wasn’t important before. He lived in a trailer too, you know.”

Imagining my mother in a trailer was comical, but I had no humor to laugh. Instead I spun my straw around my glass and asked, “What happened?”

Mom dabbed at her lipsticked mouth with one of the paper napkins. She frowned at the pink bleed of Mary Kay Unique Mauve. “When I found out he’d been sleeping around while I was in Oxford, I drove my car to his trailer and took a baseball bat to everything inside.”

My eyebrows raised, and Mom sighed. “All I’m saying is that you can’t be weak, Anna. Crying, going back to him, all the moping—it tells him that you need him. So he’ll keep doing it again and again and again. You can’t let him see that he’s hurt you. Show no weakness.”

I looked down at my untouched plate of dry toast and felt shame. Red colored my cheeks, and not in the flattering girlish way I knew was desirable. I wiped my running nose with the back of my thumb and asked, small, “But what if I don’t know how?”

“Of course you know how,” Mom countered. She reapplied the sticky gloss to her lips, meeting my eyes over the top of her silver compact. “You’re my daughter.”


My mother’s mother is a paradox. She is known in her small Mississippi town for being mild-mannered and quiet. She speaks softly and smiles with her eyes. For twenty years, she has taught the four-year-old Sunday school lessons at her church, and she is one of the first to volunteer baked goods at fundraisers. She is, as I’ve been told half a dozen times, a woman known for her kindness.

But it is also a family joke that my grandmother will have no sympathy for physical pain. She was one of nine children raised in dirt-floor, rural Mississippi, where funds were tight and belts were tighter. She had six brothers and two sisters and learned to hold her own in a scuffle. We say that’s why she never has a gentle word for someone who is crying, someone who is nursing a wound. When my uncle, her son, broke his femur at eight years old, she famously told him to “walk it off” and that it’d be better in the morning. When I was eighteen and kicked a bed frame in her back bedroom, I heard the bone in my second toe snap. Gram, as we call her, assured me it was jammed. I hollered as she pulled the toe, spiraling the fracture up my small bone. She has never apologized, and we’ve never expected her to. We say it’s just her way.

But part of me wonders whether her lack of sympathy has nothing to do with her childhood but rather with whom she loved. She married my grandfather when she was fresh out of high school. He came from a good family, but he played the piano in honky-tonk bars until the wee hours of the morning. Then, when he came home after hours with his friends, he’d wake his young wife and new baby in the dead of night. Like many young men, he cursed. He had a temper. He smoked like a chimney. She was eighteen when they married and had nothing but a high school education. Once she was pregnant, she had even fewer choices. She loved him—and he would eventually grow into a good man—but at the time, her options were limited. Like all the women of her generation, she had few other ways to provide for herself and her children if she wanted to leave. So she stayed.

“You’re going to get an education,” she repeatedly told my mother. Even after my mother’s engagement fell apart and her former fiancé started dating a family friend, my grandmother wouldn’t let my mother come home from college. She made her stay in the small dorm, alone, to push through.

“Your grandmother didn’t believe in medication,” Mom told me. She didn’t meet my eyes as she said it. “I was sick, physically sick, after the engagement broke off, but she didn’t think I needed to go talk to anyone. I just needed to study harder, do better. So I bought a stationary bike.”

So at nineteen, away from home, freshly heartbroken and the first in her family to go to college, my mother exercised whenever she felt alone. Whenever she felt anxious or afraid or in need of reassurance, she climbed on the stationary bike and rode until blisters formed on the soles of her feet. Her roommates joked that they could hear the spinning gears at all hours of the night. My mother tells me she’d never looked thinner. She had never looked prettier. The old fiancé even tried to get her to take him back. 

“You’re going to get an education,” my grandmother had said. But what I think she meant was, “You’re not going to be me.”


One of the most uncomfortable aspects of Harlow’s research into attachment theory is the callousness with which he treated the primates. For the sake of science, many heinous things have been done to animals, but it seems Harlow reveled in the work. He was known for refusing clinical terminology, instead calling the isolation chambers where he placed the infants “pits of despair” and the forced mating devices he used against some of the females, “the rape racks.” 

When first studying the infant monkeys who had their mothers replaced with inanimate objects, Harlow also developed creative ways of having the “mothers” reject the babies. One model “shook the infant off,” and another had a little catapult that would throw the baby away with force. A third stand-in mother had actual spikes that emerged if the baby tried to make contact. Harlow said these devices were not studying “attachment” but were studying love. 

No matter their cruelty, none of the surrogates stopped the infants’ desire to be near them. Every time, without fail, the moment the surrogate stopped shaking, stopped stabbing, stopped catapulting the baby away, it returned. It clung to the cold metal shape, to the cloth orb stand-ins, as if its life depended on it. There was literally nothing Harlow could do to make the children leave the mothers given to them, no matter how inadequate they were. 

Love that hurt was all they knew, and so they accepted it. They craved it. One day, they would pass it on to their children.


When the older man left me, I was a shell of myself. Nineteen, alone at college, with no other friends but the older man who’d left bruises on my neck. He would call me, in the dead of night, and I’d listen to his breathing as he masturbated on the phone. It was the only attention he gave me, so I took it hungrily. I waited for his ache each evening; eventually I stopped leaving my bed.

My roommate called my mother when I stopped responding to anything she asked me. I’d covered the mirrors in my room with blankets and pinned the curtains perpetually closed. Light stung and food tasted like sawdust. I’d never been thinner.

When my mother arrived, I remember squinting at her in the dorm doorway. When I was a kid, she and my father would trade me off during custody weekends, and every time I climbed back into her car, the air was cold. Crisp. I felt that cool sensation again as she stood in the light of the hallway, taking me in.

“Hi, Mama,” I croaked. I hadn’t used my voice in days.

“How are you feeling, Anna Kathryn?” The double name my Mississippi family uses. The name her mother calls me.

“I’m OK,” I lied. My tongue was dry across the roof of my mouth. I knew I probably stank. Mom smelled like she always did: fresh linen and mint gum.

“I think we need to go to the doctor,” she said gently as she rummaged around the piles of dirty clothes on my floor. “We’ll just get you dressed and—”

“They won’t write me any anxiety medicine,” I stopped her. I knew what she was thinking. “I don’t have a primary care doctor, and urgent care just gave me a referral to a psychiatrist. It’ll be two months before he can see me.”

Mom stopped milling about my room and pursed her lips, looking at me. She always chewed the inside of her cheek while she was thinking. Under her gaze, I felt smaller. Ashamed. I was crying before I could stop.

“Anna, he’s not dead. You are going to be OK.”

“I don’t know who I am without him,” I cried. More lip pursing. More thinking.

“And you’re sure no one around here can write you some medicine?”

I shook my head, wiping snot on my bedsheet. “They said only a primary care doctor could do that. They don’t write it at urgent care.”

I didn’t have a primary care doctor because my mother was a nurse practitioner. Any time I’d been ill growing up, she treated us herself. If it was a medicine she couldn’t write, she’d call a friend who’d write it for us. I wouldn’t get my own real doctor until I was in my twenties.

“I’ll be right back.” Mom excused herself into the hall. Her platform espadrilles clacked against the backs of her heels as she walked. She left the door cracked, and I heard her whispering into the phone. “I wouldn’t normally call, but . . .” I tried to stop listening. “She won’t stop crying.”

She returned after a few minutes and told me we were going to take a trip home. I watched as she lifted garments from the floor, sniffing them, adding some to a dirty clothes basket and others to a duffle bag. Then she went to my bathroom and grabbed my shampoo, my hairbrush, my make-up bag. She helped me dress like she had when I was a child: lifting my shirt over my shoulders and pulling my greasy ponytail through the topmost hole when I stuck my head through. 

We drove through a CVS on our way to her house, and I listened absently as she filled the prescription for the anxiety medicine I’d not filled in years. She drove the hour ride home holding my hand and singing hymnals with the radio.

She helped me into bed and unpacked my bag on the side dresser. I closed my eyes, pulled the blankets up to my chin, and somehow fell asleep. When I awoke, hours later, a turkey sandwich with the crusts cut off sat on a plate on the bedside table. Next to it, a glass of cherry Dr. Pepper—my favorite drink—and an orange prescription bottle.

I made myself take a bite of the sandwich, and as I chewed, I read the label on the pill bottle. My name. Klonopin. Take as needed. But I stopped chewing when I saw the prescribing physician’s name. 

It was my old stepdad. The man who had walked out on us five years before, who broke my mother’s heart. I knew very little about what had broken them up after thirteen years together, but I knew that he had hurt her. She had refused to answer any of his calls after he left, refused to even mention his name. She had cut him from our lives even when it ached. 

But she had called him because I needed help. 


I have been married three years now, this past spring. My husband is a good man, a kind man. He listens to jazz and rap music and talks gently in his sleep. He kisses my forehead before he leaves in the morning, and he says things like I’m sorry and You’re right, and I’ve never heard him raise his voice. He is nothing like the men I’ve loved before or the men my mother loved for us both, and I think that is a good thing.

My mother has found love again too. We share the same anniversary: New Year’s Day. It was unplanned, but the symmetry feels right. There’s something to be said for new beginnings. For fresh starts.

My mother calls me on her way home from work in the evenings, and we talk about our good men. We laugh at small things they do, feigning exasperation at the socks left in the hallway or dinners burnt in the oven. These are minor complaints, but our laughter is genuine. These are jokes we can both finally understand. 

There’s a spare bedroom in my new home, just across the hall from the bed where my husband and I make love. We leave the room’s door open because the cat likes to sunbathe in the window. But I like to be reminded the spare room is still there, waiting. I imagine it filled with soft pastels and a cradle, baby toys scattered on the rug and slobbery fingerprints on the window glass.

My husband says that whenever the time is right, he will love our child, no matter the gender, and I believe him. He has no preference. Outwardly, I agree and know that any child of his that I have will be loved, will be protected. And yet.

Every time I picture the crib and the baby looking back at me, I know she is my daughter. There’s something there in my mind that craves the chance to raise a strong woman, a happy woman, a woman who is not afraid to cry or stand on her own. I want to tell her about her great-grandmother whose bones were made of steel. Of my mother, her grandmother, who learned to bend but not break for the sake of love. Of me, her mother, who cannot wait to teach her, who cannot wait to learn from her, all the ways we learn love.

Anna Davis-Abel is a 2020 graduate of West Virginia University’s MFA in Creative Nonfiction. Her work has been included in Hippocampus and The Santa Clara Review, as well as on John Oliver’s Tonight Show. Anna is currently living in Alabama with her husband and dogs named after breakfast foods while working on a memoir about coming of age and womanhood in the Deep South.