In Celeste Ng’s novel turned Hulu show series, she follows the lives of several women and their children. There is romance, teenage struggle, and mystery. However, what is most striking about Little Fires Everywhere is how it navigates the meaning of motherhood.
In a small Ohio town, residents highly praise rule-following. When it comes to motherhood, there is definitely a “correct” way to do things in the eyes of the town residents. In contrast, the paths that characters Mia, Mrs. Richardson, and Bebe take are the framework for Ng’s message that there is no “right” way to be a mother.
Ng utilizes Mrs. Richardson to show archaic stereotypes of motherhood. By sacrificing her passion, blending in with traditions, and limiting her aspirations, Mrs. Richardson checks off quite a few boxes. She suppresses her goals of becoming a writer to raise her children, and makes room for her husband to take care of the family financially. From the lens of “traditional femininity”, Mrs. Richardson did everything right.
After having four children, Mrs. Richardson devoted her life to shaping her family’s reputation. Three out of four of her children actually maker her proud, but one causes her great resentment.
Izzy, the youngest daughter, is rebellious, outspoken, and free-spirited – the complete opposite of what Mrs. Richardson wants for the family. This mother’s obsession with preserving her reputation causes unimaginable stress on her relationship with her own child. In the end, Izzy ends up running away, and leaves Mrs. Richardson questioning her cookie-cutter life decisions.
As an on-the-road photographer, odd-job worker and single parent, Mia knows how to stretch things out to make them last. When she moves to the small Ohio town with her daughter, Pearl, she faces the criticism of many people living there. In many ways, Mia is the opposite of Mrs. Richardson. She prioritizes her profession as an artist, has a mysterious past and is the sole supporter of her family- all while maintaining a loving relationship with her child.
When it comes into light that Mia had Pearl originally as a surrogate mother, many judgements from others arise. Mia ran away from the couple she was attempting to help and decided to live life on the road. To her, she felt it would be unbearable to part with the baby she was holding.
Despite the controversy of Pearl came to be a part of Mia’s life, Mia loves her daughter unconditionally. Their relationship shines through the darkest parts of the story, and serves as a testament to Ng’s efforts to normalize non-traditional motherhood paths.
Bebe is a poor Chinese immigrant who works at a restaurant in the town. She has a baby and tries to take care of her, but soon realizes she cannot properly care for the infant and gives her away. An infertile white couple adopts her a while later. When Bebe is more secure and fit to take care of her child, the question morphs: Should a child be with their birth mother or with a woman who has taken the widely accepted path to motherhood?
The story follows an entire legal battle for the baby, and Bebe ends up losing her daughter in court. Bebe, devastated, spends countless nights across the victorious couple’s home watching her daughter’s room light turn off at bedtime. That is until one day, when the adoptive mother enters the baby’s room and sees nothing there.
In the end, Bebe takes back her child and flees back to China. Ng gestures to her audience that this is the better decision by including that the baby “hadn’t cried out when Bebe had reached into the crib and lifted her up and taken her away…despite it all, she still had felt Bebe’s arms were a safe place, a place she belonged.”
Final Notes on Motherhood
In the end, Ng’s mission of de-stigmatizing motherhood as a destination one arrives at by following a pre-determined route becomes clear. Motherhood is complicated and comes with many trials and tribulations. Due to this, motherly love can show itself in confusing ways. There isn’t a clear-cut definition of how people should act when they become mothers. Sure, traditional forms of motherhood can be followed, but it is ultimately up to the person themself to decide how to be a mom.