Mothers’ Instinct, the English-language debut by Belgian author Barbara Abel, begins with a toast between neighbors. Two glasses are filled with champagne and one with water. The water is for Laetitia, who hasn’t had “a drop of alcohol” since becoming pregnant. She’s also cut out salt, fat, sugar, and red meat, and has taken up classical music, swimming, early bedtimes, and yoga in order to give her future child “the best start in life.” When her husband calls her a saint for her diligence, she exclaims: “I’m not a saint, I’m pregnant, dummy,” an assertion that sets the tone for the novel: Women will do extraordinary things for their children, born or unborn, living or dead. When the last member of the quartet arrives—Tiphaine, their host’s wife—they learn the champagne is actually meant to honor her because, surprise, she too is pregnant.
Over the span of the next seven years, we follow Laetitia and Tiphaine as they enter motherhood simultaneously, their sons, Milo and Maxime, raised like twins. Like the phenomenon of inosculation, where two trees grow separately in close proximity to one another, then merge after touching, the two families slowly begin to grow as one. What follows is a sensational tragedy, the sort which the omniscient narrator observes becomes “a ghoulish story people told at dinner parties . . . cautionary tales of horrible things that happen to other people . . . another misfortune that happened to someone else, something that could have happened to us if we were unlucky.”
A story rooted in tragedy inevitably becomes a story about guilt. Who bears responsibility? The blame is transferred back and forth from mother to mother. Could Laetitia have prevented it? Was Tiphaine negligent? If either mother had done something differently, would it have happened? The fathers never find themselves at fault because both are absent when calamity strikes.
Mothers’ Instinct was originally published in France in 2012, the same year as Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl, and the two texts bear a structural similarity. Abel’s tragedy occurs in the center of the book—a combustion that serves as a physical release and a schism that upends everything that we’ve come to understand about these couples. In many ways, what happens next mimics life. After something horrific happens, something that, in a just world, shouldn’t have happened, all the rules of morality and social convention dissolve.
The absence of the fathers is no accident. It accentuates a point Abel is making about how in heterosexual couples the burden of parenthood ultimately falls on the mother. Mothers’ Instinct, which was first published in France under the title Derrière la haine, or “Behind the Hatred,” arrives more than a decade later for English-language audiences, in a translation by Susan Pickford. It also arrives in the aftermath of a pandemic that exposed the reality of worldwide gender inequity with regard to childrearing.
The title is a stark departure from Abel’s original, but it is the literal translation of an entirely different book—one that first brought her success in France in 2002: L’Instinct Maternel, for which she won the Cognac Festival Crime Novel Prize. In translation, title changes are often marketing decisions, but here, the change also fundamentally alters the reader’s entry point to the book. Behind the Hatred leaves space for ambiguity, gesturing toward sourness without declaring its source, whereas Mothers’ Instinct explicitly builds upon the myth of “maternal instinct,” the innate drive through which mothers automatically know how to care for their children, perpetuating the societal pressures placed on women.
Because our collective societal expectations for fathers are so low, neither of the husbands reads as an absentee parent; they both just read as men. The first decision they make after the birth of their sons is to leave “their wives snuggling with their new babies—one at home, the other at the hospital” to go out on a bar crawl. They appear most frequently and notably throughout the narrative to criticize the mothers for being paranoid and for their failure to mother correctly.
After a six-year-old Milo makes a public scene, which both his parents are present for, Laetitia yells: “You brought shame on me,” suggesting that Milo’s behavior is a direct reflection of her—which, of course, it is. Historically, women have been judged for their children’s failings because historically children have been considered their responsibility. When someone is your responsibility, you wield power over them, and that power often takes the shape of possession. The question of who possesses these children becomes complicated when each of the four parents eventually refers to Milo or Maxime as my son, asserting absolute ownership. In French, possessive adjectives agree with the noun they refer to, transforming the word “my,” which is ungendered in English, into “mon,” which is masculine in accordance with the French word for son.
The desire to own something is a desire to take control of it. Control in parenthood often manifests out of a desire to construct an illusion of safety. It allows parents to convince themselves that if they hold on to their children tight enough, they can protect them from danger. It’s a fantasy, but one that many parents feel they need to be able to send their children to school each day, or to leave them in their cribs while taking a shower. It’s simply not possible for a parent to watch over their child for the duration of their life, every hour of every day.
We see this desire before the children are even born. Laetitia not only curates an ideal womb for Milo, she also plans how she and her husband will parent him. This list includes no Nintendo before age ten, which is immediately undone by a flash-forward featuring seven-year-old Milo with his eyes and fingers glued to a Nintendo. From the very beginning, we understand that the promise of perfection cannot be fulfilled. That once a child emerges from the womb, parents inevitably lose some of their ability to protect them. No amount of discipline or punishment can or will prevent that.
The narrative is regularly interrupted by Child Medical Records written by the children’s doctors that function as a means to track time through the boys’ ages, as well as to place judgment on the parents’ successes and failings. Milo and Maxime are only ever referred to as M in these documents, a nod to their twinness and a further suggestion that they’re interchangeable.
Once a milestone in the Child Medical Records is presented, if the child does not meet it, the parent is responsible. Can your child dress themself? . . . Is your child’s speech clear to people they don’t know? . . . Does your child take part in class? These questions are a reminder that parenthood is private until it becomes public.
When the boys turn five, Laetitia discovers they’ve drawn mustaches and wrinkles on each other’s faces with permanent markers. “Your mother is going to kill me,” she says to Maxime, who explains: “We’re playing at being old.”
Laetitia warns them that if they don’t behave, they’ll grow up to have children who are just as difficult, because that’s what happened to her. To which her son replies: “That doesn’t make any sense . . . because if I am good because I don’t want a bad [child] . . . it means you’ll never be punished for all the bad things you did when you were little.”
This scene functions as a prophecy. The threat of impending punishment reverberates through the text, the suggestion that for every wrong committed, a penalty will follow. When Laetitia returns Maxime to his mother with a face full of permanent marker, Tiphaine is quick to express judgment:
“So as a reward for . . . drawing on each other’s faces, you let them watch TV? . . . That’s an unusual approach to improving behavior.”
“I was hardly going to whip them, was I? . . . They’re only five . . . of course they’re bound to act up from time to time.”
“And of course they should be punished for it.”
“What are you trying to tell me? I’m bringing my son up all wrong?”
“It wouldn’t even occur to me to leave them alone together in Maxime’s room.”
“What exactly do you think will happen to them?”
What exactly do you think will happen to them? is the question that returns to haunt the reader as the narrative unfolds. Once the inevitable tragedy occurs, Laetitia and Tiphaine attempt to regain control of the story of their sons’ lives through accusation and selective retellings that paint the other as the villain.
Abel is at her best when she allows her meticulous plotting to unfold quickly and cleanly. In other moments, her language is overwrought with metaphor and explanations that threaten the reader’s connection to the characters, as do some stilted lines of dialogue. But these concerns largely fall away due to how well-orchestrated each of the psychological turns feel. Everything takes on heightened meaning as the story progresses, each joke, each gesture, each throwaway detail building to an essential plot point that grows horrifically in scale by the final act, crescendoing in violence that feels simultaneously outrageous and believable.
If your child was in danger, how far would you go to protect them? What lines would you be willing to cross? What would you do for the chance to restore a broken family? These are questions that transcend language, oceans, time.
Mothers’ Instinct by Barbara Abel, translated from the French by Susan Pickford (HarperVia, 2023).
© 2023 by Jenessa Abrams. All rights reserved.