I was recently asked to review a fascinating novel that got me to thinking about some of the powerful, unspoken issues that create tension and conflict between moms and stepmoms. It's called “The Unit” and was written by Swedish writer Ninni Holmqvist.
The set-up: when men and women reach a certain age (60 and 50) and aren’t deemed “needed” by society (meaning, they haven’t had children and aren't loved or wanted by anyone), they are sent off to what seems like a self-contained spa in a bubble named The Unit, where even the seasons remain constant. There, residents are provided with their own comfortable apartment and malls, theaters, classes, and exercise areas, none of which require any money.
But the freedom the residents experience is paradoxical, because every room also contains an abundance of cameras and microphones… and "dispensables" aren’t there to loll about and grow old. It’s understood that people in the Unit must contribute to society by partaking in a variety of medical experiments and slowly donating their organs until their “final donation.” The cameras are there to prevent dispensables from killing themselves and wasting all that their body has to offer. It’s not clear why there’s such a priority placed upon child-rearing in this dystopia, but I'm sure the emphasis strikes a familiar chord among stepmoms, this almost-noble elevation of fertility and procreation.
We follow Dorrit Wegner, the main character, as she calmly waits to be picked up by the Unit’s driver outside her house on a crisp, cold morning. She idly notices the first snowdrops blooming in her winter garden and the tendrils of smoke still rising from her chimney, trying not to think about how much she's going to miss her beloved dog. As we get to know her better, we see that she’s used to living on the periphery of her community, since she’s not consumed by children and grandchildren, even though her life is full as a writer with a pet and a small, humble house she loves.
The same goes for her instant friends at the Unit. They embrace new arrivals with a energetic warmth that's uncommon on the outside. Time is limited inside this strangely unrestricted, but still barbaric world; a friendship "shorthand" is much more economical. The story is simply and plainly written, but mesmerizes with a steady infusion of depth and emotion. As the residents physically weaken, the bonds between them grow stronger and more complex. These friendships, and even romances, form a rich, chromatic contrast to the mechanistic exploitation of the residents.
When Dorrit becomes pregnant at the ripe old age of fifty after falling wonderfully in love, she is suddenly faced with a series of choices which culminate in a surprising decision that I won’t spoil for you. Let's just say I stayed up way past my bedtime to finish the book, tearing up with an odd mixture of emotions that certainly made me think for a long time afterward.
So here’s where I started to ponder the traditional wars between moms and stepmoms. I'm always trying to better understand the seemingly instinctive hatred and dislike between moms and stepmoms — and how to work through it.
I wonder, is the way that Dorritt is "dispensable" maybe the same way that some stepmoms without their own children feel? Carol and I had a long conversation about this and I was curious about her perspective, since she's been both "just" a stepmom, and then a stepmom and a mom herself.
She agreed — being a stepmom is weird and confusing because you don't really know what your role is supposed to be. No one is there to tell you, so you continually experiment with different behaviors and then feel terrible about both yourself and the situation when it doesn't work. (And really, you've often got the kids and ex-wife dead set against you from the very beginning). You have the constant reinforcement of not being the mom, and the presence of a mother who has a ton of control and is reluctant to relinquish it. Stepmoms vie for equality, but deep down, they don't really feel like they have it… or know how they're going to get it.
If only moms would try to imagine what it feels like to have so much responsibility as a stepmom and sometimes very little control; to be treated like a second-class citizen in your own home. How would it be if we were forever struggling with feeling like our role wasn't even legitimate?
And if only stepmoms would try to imagine what it feels like to lose your child to another woman, however temporarily. To lose the sense of having a nuclear family, a safety net for your kids. To know that another woman is scrutinizing your children's behavior and blaming you for their shortcomings (even if the father should shoulder some of that responsibility too).
The Unit is a moving and provocative allegory about the ultimate "utility" of people in a society that is at once strenuously family-oriented and brutally inhumane. It's an invitation to think about how we treat and value, or devalue, those around us, perhaps even to the point of invisibility. And it's a beautiful testament to the human impulse to emotionally connect and create a life of dignity in the face of culturally-mandated oppression.
© 2009 Jennifer Newcomb Marine All Rights Reserved