Tie Your Mother Down: Terrible Mums in Literature

Has anyone else noticed that mothers get really bad press in pretty much all forms of literature? From YA to the classics, with plenty of examples in literary fiction, it seems to me that if you’re a character in a book and you decide to have a kid, you are going to end up getting blamed for a lot of crap.

dorothy.jpgLet’s talk about some of the terrible mothers in recent YA fiction. The mothers in Dorothy Must Die and Suicide Notes from Beautiful Girls are both drinkers, rendering themselves incapable of caring for their daughters properly; in the case of Danielle Paige’s book, we are two novels and a handful of novellas in, and still unaware of whether Amy Gumm’s mum has noticed that she’s gone. We also have ineffectual mothers, like Mrs Everdeen in The Hunger Games and Jonah’s mum in When We Collided by Emery Lord, both incapacitated by grief for their dead husbands, leaving the childcare and housework to their teenage offspring. Even in my adored Mosquitoland by David Arnold, we see the absent and incapacitated mother, with the extra treat of a hated stepmother. One of the most horrific examples in contemporary YA, for me, is Emma’s mum in Louise O’Neill’s Asking For It: a woman who somehow manages to turn her daughter’s rape and humiliation on social media into her own private trauma, showing no empathy for Emma. This one made me particularly annoyed.

Then there are the mothers who show an insufficient amount of interest in their nesschildren. Mikey’s mum in The Rest of Us Just Live Here is career-focused and thus completely absent; I love Patrick Ness and I understand the need for parents to be neglectful in order for teen characters to get up to anything exciting, but I wish working mums got slightly better press. In Jenn Bennett’s Night Owls (or The Anatomical Shape of a Heart if you’re in the US), Beatrix’s single mother works nights, and this means that she has no idea what either of her kids are up to. To take an example from adult fiction, Eva Khatchadourian from We Need to Talk About Kevin also focuses on her career; Eva had to be persuaded to have a child in the first place, and returns to her career as the founder of a series of travel guides as soon as she is able. Refreshingly, Lionel Shriver doesn’t demonise her for this, but the novel does pose questions about whether psycho killers are born or made, and Eva herself questions the extent to which her mothering influence turned Kevin into a murderer. We Need to Talk About Kevin is, incidentally, one of the most unsettling books I’ve ever read and almost singlehandedly put me off having children. Also on my list of terrible mothers is Marilyn from Everything I Never Told You, who, having given up her own ambitions to become a doctor, goes above and beyond normal levels of parental encouragement, bullying Lydia into achieving what she never did. And if you’ve read Celeste Ng’s book, you’ll know exactly how well that turned out.

Terrible mothers aren’t a new invention; in my beloved Victorian novels, the mothers who manage not to succumb to death in childbirth tend to fall into the category of ‘interfering and overbearing’ or ‘aloof and inattentive.’ So, not much has changed since the 19th century, then. Wives and Daughters by Elizabeth Gaskell features one of literature’s greatest examples of passive-aggression in Mrs Gibson, who loves talking about what a brilliant mother she is, usually after doing something resembling the actions of a rubbish mother. This martyr-ish attitude can be seen earlier, too, in the infamous Mrs Bennet from Pride and Prejudice, although repeated readings of Austen’s book do lead one to wonder whether Mrs Bennet doesn’t just genuinely want the best for her daughters, acknowledging that they don’t have that many options in society and that her husband is literally no use whatsoever.

NotifKilling off a mother is often an essential trope in fiction, with life without her having a formative effect on her children. I’ll Give You the Sun, for example, shows a mother clearly playing favourites and then dying, presumably as some kind of punishment from the literary gods of fairness. Not If I See You First and How Many Letters Are in Goodbye? also utilise the helpful trope of dead mothers, with the protagonists physically and psychologically damaged in the wake of their loss. The Girl from Everywhere takes a dead mother as the central point of the story, with the novel’s time travel plot entirely focused on bringing her back. Rebel of the Sands, so progressive in so many ways, also makes use of a dead mother (even better – se killed the dad too!) to place its heroine in greater peril.

So what conclusions can we draw? Do authors just think that no character can do anything novel-worthy if they have access to motherly heart-to-hearts and Taylor Swift singalongs (my particular brand of brilliant mothering, right there)? Think of fairytales; mothers are usually dead, and stepmothers are all evil, and then adventures happen. I put it to you, the Supreme Court of the Bookish Web, that mothers are the most maligned archetype in fiction and this needs to be addressed. As a mother myself, I would be quite pleased to see my equivalent in a novel actually doing some parenting; perhaps taking care of their child’s physical and spiritual needs, whilst simultaneously being hilarious without also being a crippling embarrassment? I fear for my life in a world where teenagers can apparently only live interesting lives if their mum is dead or unable to get out of bed.

Which fictional mothers have you speed-dialling social services? Did any of these characters particularly annoy you too? And are there fictional mums who make you think, “damn, I wish you were my mother” (to badly paraphrase a ’90s Sophie B. Hawkins song)?

Also, I’m linking up with the Discussion Challenge; you should check out all the posts on Feed Your Fiction Addiction and It Starts at Midnight. It is super-fun.

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8 thoughts on “Tie Your Mother Down: Terrible Mums in Literature

  1. Nicole @ Feed Your Fiction Addiction says:

    So, I went through my recently read books on Goodreads and this is what I came up with (in order of appearance on Goodreads):
    Dead mom (New Adult)
    Absent mom who doesn’t realize her daughter’s being abused (NA)
    Controlling mom who dies (YA)
    Absent parents who are too busy for their kids (MG)
    Dead mom (YA)
    Mentally unstable mom (who does actually get a bit better by the end – YA)
    Parents who are actually trying hard to help their daughter, who’s kind of falling apart. Yay! (YA)
    Dead mom (YA)
    Dead mom – but involved dad! (NA)

    I stopped there, but as you can see, it was looking pretty bleak for us moms!!!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Katy Goodwin-Bates says:

      I know. I am glad I am not a character in a book or I’d be installing a panic room. I suppose it is a compliment to the supreme power of mothers that fictional kids can’t get up to anything exciting if we’re around and attentive. I’d still like to see a decent mum get a storyline though!

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  2. Wendy says:

    YES! Fat Angie has possibly the worst mom ever. Gillian Flynn doesn’t write about healthy families obviously, but the mother in Sharp Objects is also a doozy. The mom in Everything, Everything means well, but…yeah.

    Like Nicole, if I think about the last few books I’ve read, we’ve got dead mom, dead mom, crazy and neglectful mom, recovering addict mom, dead mom, bitchy mom, sick mom, murdered mom, absent mom, estranged mom. Wow!

    The antidote is Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe, which features not one, not two, but FOUR decent and loving parents, two per title character.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Katy Goodwin-Bates says:

      Ooh, I’ve been meaning to read Aristotle and Dante for ages. If it has proper parents in, I’m bumping up the TBR. I forgot about Everything Everything: she’s in a category of crazy all of her own! I started a new book last night and, sure enough, the mum just died! Thank you for reading and commenting (and agreeing!).

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  3. jpschaper says:

    Interesting topic! I don’t read much YA, but I know in most of the books I read the mothers are either dead, weird, or absent in the characters’ lives. However, I was just thinking about another way authors sometimes do it: good mothers get killed. Divergent comes to mind.

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  4. The Hermit Librarian says:

    The one that sprang to mind was the mum from Surviving Haley by Brenda Baker. Not only has she lost a young daughter, but she blames her older daughter, the main character of the novel. That character spends the majority of the novel blaming herself too and her mum turns on her, not only blaming her, but also nagging on her about her eating habits as if she’s trying to give her an eating disorder. The worst thing about this is the reveal at the end that the mum is the one that’s actually to blame and has become this horrible person due to her own guilt and subsequent alcoholism. The book handled it all wrong. :/

    Mother, Mother by Koren Zailckas was another book where the mum was horrible. It’s an adult novel, but still. She’s a controlling person, which we know all along, but we find out the real depth of her mental illness and crimes toward the end where it ends even worse than you could’ve imagined.

    It’s like anime: there are hardly any parents in that, either, or at least any good ones.

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