Reading Group Guide
A Scribner Reading Group Guide The Mothers by Jennifer Gilmore This reading group guide for The Mothers includes an introduction, discussion questions, ideas for enhancing your book club, and a Q&A with author Jennifer Gilmore. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.
Jennifer Gilmore’s The Mothers introduces us to Jesse and Ramon, a loving couple who, after trying to get pregnant for years, have decided to pursue open adoption. The myriad pitfalls and hoops to jump through surrounding the process confound the couple as they try to follow all the rules set forth by adoption agencies, while also hoping to attract a birthmother to choose them. Through heartache and challenges, The Mothers follows Jesse and Ramon for over a year as they do all they can to bring a child into their lives.
Topics & Questions for Discussion
1.Discuss “The Mothers” we meet in the novel and Jesse’s relationships with each of them.
2.Jesse and Ramon find themselves discussing race and drug and alcohol use as they make their way through the adoption process. Talk about the pom-pom exercise they did in Raleigh.
3.Talk about Jesse and Lucy’s relationship with Claudine. Lucy calls her “practically my mother” (p.116). What role did Claudine play in their lives? Why were they so close to Claudine and what does this say about their relationship with their own mother?
4.Heritage plays an important role in The Mothers; Jesse knows the precise details of her dog Harriet’s family tree (p. 61). What are Ramon’s plans for teaching their child about his heritage? Why does this upset Jesse? What does she feel she has to offer?
5.Jesse takes some time away and meets Anita upstate. Describe Jesse and Anita’s time together. Were you surprised by what happened between them?
6.In their Birthmother Letter Jesse and Ramon describe their interests. Revisit the passage on p. 112 that shows Tiffany and Crystal’s suggested edits. What did you think when you read this?
7.Jesse was raised Jewish. How does her religion play a part in this novel? Think about Lydia and how Jesse felt in their first informational session with her (p.135).
8.While Lucy is in Belize, she calls Jesse and they discuss happiness on p. 158-159. What makes each of them happy? How do you think “happy moments” are different from sustained happiness? Compare this with what Jesse considers to be the opposite of happiness (the bottom of p. 196). Do you agree?
9.Throughout the novel there are flashbacks to Jesse’s struggle with cancer. How would you compare what she went through then with what she is going through now?
10.Lydia’s home visit to Jesse and Ramon’s Brooklyn apartment is a significant moment. How would you feel if you had to host a near-stranger in your home charged with evaluating your living space and its appropriateness for a child? How would you prepare?
11.The moment Jesse sees Lucy for the first time in years, Lucy has physically changed. What is different about her? How does Jesse react? Imagine yourself in Jesse’s position; what would you have done?
12.Michelle and Jacob’s party in the Catskills is filled with children. When Jesse finds Ramon alone in the gazebo, what does he tell her (see p. 208-209)? How does this effect what she’s been feeling? Were you surprised by Ramon’s reaction?
13.In Part 3, Jesse begins to speak with the birthmothers. What happens in their phone calls? What did you think of Katrina? What does Jesse’s online research tell her about these women? Imagine going through the same process, but without the Internet. Do you think it would be harder or easier? Why?
14.The adoption process puts considerable strain on Jesse and Ramon’s relationship. What was their relationship like before they decided they wanted children? How does it evolve? What do you see in their future?
Enhance Your Book Club
1.Visit Jennifer Gilmore’s website and read some of her further writings, specifically on adoption: http://jennifergilmore.net/writings.html. You can even contact Jennifer directly and ask her to join your book group discussion of her novel!
2.Schedule your book group to meet in the morning and prepare banana bread and coffee as Jesse did for her home visit.
3.Readers and critics have remarked on this novel’s ability to show us “the possibility for anything.” Have each member of your book group come up with their scenario of what that means for Jesse and Ramon.
A Conversation with Chris Cleave
1. The Mothers is such an honest and powerful portrayal of adoption. What was your inspiration for writing this novel?
My husband and I were going through a long adoption process and I found the issues emerging from that experience—race, class, what it means to be a mother and a parent—captivated me as a novelist.
But I was also motivated by the way motherhood is discussed and sanctioned in our culture. The arguments we're having as a culture now—for instance, can women have it all?—was a hot debate when I was young and my mother worked full time. It's incredible—and a little dull—that we are still in that same place. When I was writing this book, motherhood was an abstract idea. For Jesse, the war between the stay-at-home moms vs. the moms with (the best) nannies, is also abstract. Having it all for her means something entirely different, as it does for many women, even those with children.
2. You based The Mothers in large part on your own experience trying to adopt a child. Can you describe that experience?
Like many couples we know, we experienced a good deal of heartbreak, from not being chosen by birthmothers, to scams, to briefly having a child we were forced to give “back” when the birthfather came forward. It’s the Wild West out there in regards to laws protecting prospective adoptive parents. There really are none.
Adoption is not for the faint of heart. When it works it’s a wonderful thing. But it was hard on my spouse and me emotionally and financially. And the stress—of wanting a child, and of always being on a quest to make a family—had a deep impact on our marriage.
3. Ramon and Jesse intended to adopt a baby internationally. Why did they switch to open adoption? What role did timing play in terms of international current events?
International adoption is pretty volatile. There has been a recent ban on US adoptions in Russia and US adoptions in Guatemala has recently closed. Single women can no longer adopt from Ethiopia. Politics, as we know, directly affects even our most intimate and private choices. For this reason, a lot of people, Jesse and Ramon, and my husband and myself as well, turned to domestic adoption, which is largely open. This means everyone—the parents, birth parents, and children—know each other in varying degrees.
What we didn’t know, and what a lot of prospective adoptive parents don’t realize is, how difficult the process of a domestic adoption can be. The laws are not federalized. Every state has different laws, and some are not terribly current. It can take a long time and there is a lot of heartbreak. It can be tremendously expensive and a lot of money can be lost. There is a lot of coded language that makes people feel they will get a child sooner than they might.
And while there are laws to protect children and birthmothers and birthfathers—as there should be—there is no protection for the prospective adoptive parents. A lot can go wrong and in my experience, and the experience of most people I know in the adoption community, a lot does go wrong. While it may end well for all parties, there is usually at least one tragedy before your happy ending. It can be a very long and grueling process.
4. Why did you choose to write a novel and not a memoir about your experience?
I’m a novelist—which in some ways means I can’t stick totally to the truth. These are fictionalized characters. I felt I could see this couple more clearly—and perhaps be harder on them—if they were fictionalized. The issues that adoption brought up for me was better suited, in my experience, to the novel, which is the filter through which I tend to see the world.
5. In the book you write that, “Wanting, like denial, can be a very powerful and dangerous thing.” Please explain.
People will do a lot of things to get what they want. Often, they don’t recognize themselves. But often discussing want—when it is not merely material, like desiring a chandelier—is difficult and unacceptable.
6. When Jesse and Ramon abandoned the in vitro fertilization path to pursue adoption, Ramon is “relieved.” Why?
Due to his non-American upbringing, Ramon is not a fan of the intervention of science for parenthood. He is more accepting of the hand they have been dealt and he comes to the conclusion more readily than Jesse that being parents is what’s important, not the genetic link. He also is concerned about her health, and worried she will stop at nothing for a child.
7. Jesse often asks herself, “What is a mother?” How would you respond?
It is a complex question and she answers it in a variety of ways. But Jesse has had a lot more time to think about the prospect of being a mother than most. During each step of the process she has been forced to think about every aspect of parenthood, where for many, it’s really just part of a biological cycle.
8. “When you are adopting a child, the rules of social conversation are not applicable,” Jesse states. What does that mean here?
Because one has to make hypothetical decisions about your hypothetical child—race, drug exposure, mental illness history—one has had to think in clear and distinct ways what one is open to in the children one will raise. If you don’t see yourself as able to raise an African American child—which is not the case for Jesse and Ramon—you don’t check the African American box. This is all considered acceptable—as if you don’t think you want an African American child then by all means you shouldn’t get one. These topics—the boxes checked; those left blank—are spoken about openly and without nuance in the way that race is not spoken about in our society.
9. At a party at which Jesse and Ramon are the only childless or unexpectant guests, Ramon tells Jesse, “You’re always talking about the mothers, but the fathers are here too.” What does he mean?
The point he’s making is simple: wanting to be a parent is not saved for women. And she has not seen or acknowledged his desire. She has been selfish about who their childlessness is affecting. Having a family is as important to men as it is to women.
10. What would you tell someone who is just starting the domestic adoption journey.
That open adoption—or any kind of adoption—is often about loss. All parties are grieving. Adoption is not for the faint of heart. You will be wrecked. You will go beyond whatever limits you felt possible—financial, emotional, perhaps even ethical. If you stick with it, you will likely get your child, but it will not be an easy road.
11. What would you imagine Jesse and Ramon’s life to be like ten years after the novel ends?
I imagine and hope they get a child and all of their negative experiences fade. I wish for them all the problems and anxieties and joys and wonders of having children and not those of being without them.