Cover of Celeste Ng's book "Our Missing Hearts"

When Moms Get political: Protest and Parenthood in Celeste Ng’s Our Missing Hearts

by | May 9, 2023

The activist called Tortuguita had been dead for a week when the parents at my child’s preschool called a meeting. 

The activist called Tortuguita had been dead for a week when the parents at my child’s preschool called a meeting. 

For the past year, we had joined our children in protesting the destruction of the Weelaunee Forest, the future site of one of the largest militarized police training facilities in the country (dubbed “Cop City” by protestors). The grassroots effort had garnered popular support but little media attention, until a protester who had been living in the forest was gunned down by Georgia state troopers during a raid. 

According to the official autopsy released to the public (finally) in mid-April, there were 57 bullet holes in Tortuguita’s body and no gunshot residue on their hands. An independent autopsy commissioned by Tort’s parents had shown exit wounds in their palms, indicating that they had been raised in surrender. But in January, we knew none of this. All we knew was what the police claimed: that a bullet from a gun purchased by Tortuguita had injured a state trooper during the raid, forcing law enforcement to fire in self defense.

Suddenly, a movement that had felt tiny and hyperlocal to our community was now national news. Lawmakers painted the protesters as violent and charged 23 of them with domestic terrorism, a felony that can result in decades of imprisonment. Committed to nonviolence and striving to introduce a counter-narrative, the director of our preschool invited a New Yorker reporter to visit the classroom and interview our young activists. 

Some parents thought things had gone too far. 

“I’m not sure it’s my child’s responsibility to be the voice of a movement,” said one father at the meeting.

“I just want my Black boy to be a little boy for as long as possible,” said a mother.

“What if the alt-right gets a hold of this coverage and someone comes to shoot up the school?” another father asked. 

The parents raised valid points about consent and communication and privacy. They also seemed to be saying: Not my kids. Not my problem. 

I didn’t share their concerns, but I wondered if I should. I wondered if my husband had too readily signed the release form. I wondered if it was narcissistic of me to feel pride at my daughter’s first name in a magazine where I will likely never see my own. And I also wondered if I had a duty as a white woman to take risks where others couldn’t. 

During all of this, I was reading Celeste Ng’s latest novel, Our Missing Hearts. In it, protagonist Margaret Mui lives in a near-future dystopian society where anti-Asian sentiment has led to the U.S. government forcibly removing children from their parents. Politically uninvolved at the start of the book, Mui survives by keeping her head down and avoiding attention, just as her parents taught her. She’s a poet, but she doesn’t write about policies. She writes about pomegranates. And yet, when a woman copies a quote from one of Mui’s poems onto a protest sign and then is publicly killed by police, it no longer matters what Mui’s intent for her writing was. Trouble finds her anyway. 

Forced to go into hiding to prevent the removal of her own son, Mui transforms from apathetic bystander to mascot of the revolution, ultimately giving up her own freedom and even her reunion with her son, Bird, for the larger cause. 

Much has already been written about this book’s commentary on social issues, which range from anti-Asian violence to book-banning and family separation at the US-Mexico border. And Ng’s first foray into speculative fiction is admirable. But I believe the real strength of her writing—in all of her books—is her nuanced exploration of parenthood in its various forms. To me, Our Missing Hearts is about a mother’s confrontation with the same conundrum all parents face: At what point does my child’s individual safety become inextricably linked to a larger, societal wellbeing? And what is my responsibility, therefore, to the latter? Like me, Margaret Mui is the mother of a half-Asian, half-white child. But unlike me, she doesn’t get to choose whether to engage in political conflict.

In another book, the incredible Mother Brain, journalist Chelsea Conaboy outlines study after study demonstrating that parenthood—biological or not—changes the human brain in often irreversible ways. When caring intently for a child, our cortisol levels become heightened, causing us to fear things we never have before: the loose blanket in the crib; the too-high temperature in the child’s bedroom; the open second-story window; the crumbling of our democratic institutions.

And yet, we also summon new bravery. When I became a mother in 2019, it felt in some ways like I had become a mother to every child, not just my own. And I know I’m not the only one who feels this way. A friend’s mom in her 60s who injured her ankle at a Black Lives Matter protest told me, “All those people who were killed—they were somebody’s baby. I couldn’t not be there.” At my child’s preschool meeting, another mother said that when her older daughter does drills in kindergarten to learn how to turn her backpack into a bullet-proof vest, she feels hopeless, but that protesting Cop City makes her feel hopeful.

Of course, not every parent chooses activism. In Our Missing Hearts, Mui’s husband, Ethan, stands idly by as a Chinese-American man is berated by a pizza shop employee right in front of him. The nice white progressive, Ethan avoids intervening so as not to draw attention to his own endangered son. It’s an act of self-preservation that many of us can relate to, and it works—for the moment. But as readers, we know it’s only a matter of time before the state comes for Bird anyway. 

Nature abhors a vacuum; if you don’t get political, someone else will. The latest season of the podcast White Picket Fence documents how right-wing groups such as Moms for Liberty have helped advance legislation like the Stop W.O.K.E. Act and “Don’t Say Gay” bill. As has become increasingly clear in our political landscape, there’s no such thing as sitting out the debate. To remain silent is to campaign for the status quo.

Ultimately, Mui’s rebellion leads to her own demise. The book culminates in Mui’s final act of bravery and self-sacrifice, then she is captured, and we don’t know what becomes of her exactly. She simply disappears from the final pages. This conclusion confirms in fiction what already feels true about parenthood: that to become a parent, particularly a mother, is to bring about the annihilation of the self. This is of course figurative (the death of free time and hobbies, of ambition and career), but sometimes quite literal (the U.S. has one of the highest maternal mortality rates among high-income countries). In Mui’s final moments, she reflects on her time as a mother with a mix of longing and guilt that will feel familiar to many readers: 

They settle on her with their dark wings then, nearly suffocating her: all of her many mistakes of motherhood. Each and every time she’d brought pain to the one she most wanted to protect. Once she’d swung Bird to her shoulders and his head hit the doorframe, a plum-colored bruise blooming on his forehead. … She’d snapped at him, mid-tantrum, and left him alone to cry. She’d put him in danger, with a line of a poem, and then she’d left him alone for so long, and soon he would be alone all over again.

Here, Mui has come face to face with the double-bind of parenthood: You love your children so ferociously that you will do anything you can to protect them. And in doing so, you will inevitably cause them pain. I think that’s what the parents in my child’s preschool were feeling with the fears they voiced. Standing up to injustice always comes at a price, whether that’s tension at the Thanksgiving dinner table, or a rifle bullet to the face in front of a Memphis hotel room. And with every headline announcing another mass shooting—and another, and another, and another, and another—speaking out can feel increasingly futile. 

In America in 2023, the responsibility of keeping a child safe—from police, from assault rifles, from depression and suicide, from the steady destruction of our planet—feels impossible. It is impossible. But I want us to be like Margaret Mui. I want us to try anyway.

Acree Graham Macam (she/her) is a Stonecoast MFA candidate and the author of the picture book, The King of the Birds (Groundwood, 2016), inspired by the life of Flannery O’Connor. She lives with her spouse and two young children on Atlanta’s east side.