Fixing Fictional Mothers

Mother’s Day is this Sunday in the United States, and my original plan for this post was to write a list of the Top Ten Moms in Fiction, which is something Pub Crawl alumnus Adam did a few years ago. But when I sat down to compile my list, I realized I couldn’t make it to ten.

I’ll admit that I didn’t start to notice mothers in fiction until I became one myself in 2014. But once I started looking for them I was struck by two things: there were few mothers to be found, and most of the ones I could scrounge up were terrible. 

I understand the reason for non-existent mothers. In children’s fiction we need to remove the parents or guardians of children so that they can go off and have adventures. Parents, by design, want to know where there children are, and that they’re safe, and there is no room for safety or staying put in your average adventure. The simplest way around this logistical hurdle is to ditch the parents. Kill ’em off! Boarding School is also a tried-and-true option if you’re a bit of a softie.

But even when mothers are kept on the page they’re often villainized. Wicked step-mothers have been wicked since the dawn of time. Mothers are often a cruel source of conflict, especially in YA. At best, they’re sometimes portrayed as well-intentioned but still obliviously hurtful.

As a writer, I’m guilty of this. The two novels I’ve worked on (one Adult, one YA) both feature dead mothers. And those mothers were terrible even when they were alive. Now I look at these stories (which includes my current WIP) and I struggle with these mothers. Since becoming a mother myself this trope–one I view as problematic–of the poorly or underrepresented mother has become glaringly obvious to me, and I’m constantly on the lookout for great moms in fiction.

But they’re hard to come by. When trying to put together a top ten list for this post I came up woefully short. I even took to twitter, but people quickly confirmed my suspicions: putting together a list of positive mothers in fiction is a difficult task.

I think it’s time to change the tide. I am now on the hunt for great moms in fiction. They can be complicated and flawed, but they should be present, and ultimately positive. And I’m going to reexamine the way I write mothers in my own work.

Here’s the list I was able to come up with for Best Mothers In Fiction. I look forward to adding to it in years to come!

Marmee from Little Women. Marmee is the iconic fictional mother. She’s supportive of her four daughters, and has a unique bond with each of them. She gives them the space to learn some lessons on their own, and is right there ready to talk when the girls need advice or a bit of tough love.

Molly Weasley from Harry Potter. Molly is the fictional matriarch of our time. Molly is a flawed character; she can be meddlesome and overprotective and her instinct to shelter all children (her own as well as those she has taken under her wing) can be frustrating for both Harry and the reader. But she is a woman raising seven (SEVEN!) children in an extraordinarily dangerous time. While her actions may sometimes be misguided it is always obvious they come from the deepest place of love.

Connie Nicolson from the Confessions of Georgia Nicolson. Connie is a fantastic example of how to write a realistic mother in YA. Most of the time, Connie is grating on her daughter Georgia’s last nerve. She is both dismissive of and  exasperated by Georgia’s melodrama (and often amused by it, too). But she and Georgia also share a few wonderful, touching moments throughout the series. Even when Georgia is annoyed with her mom, the reader is able to read between the diary lines and see that both characters love each other very much.

Ilane of Mindelan from the Protector of the Small series. Kel’s mom doesn’t get as much page time as the other moms in this list, but what little we get of her leaves a big impression. Ilane is completely supportive of her daughter’s career choice, even though it carries with it a great stigma. She talks to Kel frankly and positively about sex! I only wish we could wrest more stories about her from Tamora Pierce.

Who are your favorite fictional mothers? Let us know in the comments; I’ll be adding those books to my To Be Read pile!

10 Responses to Fixing Fictional Mothers

  1. Carrie May 6 2016 at 9:51 am #

    From children’s lit:
    Marilla from Anne of Green Gables
    Ma from Little House on the Prairie
    Mrs. Quimby from the Ramona series
    Ma from All of a Kind Family

    From YA:
    Vane’s mom from Let the Sky Fall (Shannon Messenger)
    Razo and Rin’s mother from The Books of Bayern (Shannon Hale)
    Caymen’s mom in The Distance Between Us (Kasie West)
    America Singer-Shreave from The Heir and The Crown (Kiera Cass)

    It’s really sad, though, how hard I had to think to come up with these. And I’ve made a personal vow not to kill off parents in any of my own mss!

    • Kelly May 6 2016 at 9:54 am #

      MARILLA! Yes! She was actually on my list when i was brainstorming and I forgot to include her in the final count. She is wonderful, and I love how her relationship with Anne evolves over the series.

  2. Julie May 6 2016 at 9:58 am #

    Hi Kelly. Great post! As a mom and a writer, this is something I think about! I’ve written my share of missing mothers, but I try to keep the balance in the stories I write. If you’ll forgive a shameless plug, I think Kol’s mom in IVORY AND BONE is a great mom. 🙂 She cares a lot about her family and she’s present and involved. (Maybe it’s because of the setting, but that doesn’t necessary mean she can keep them safe.)

    Thanks for drawing attention to moms in fiction! <3

    • Kelly May 6 2016 at 10:01 am #

      oooh! Now I’m even MORE excited to read IVORY AND BONE when it comes out!

  3. Katie May 6 2016 at 10:54 am #

    Meg Cabot’s books pop into my mind. She has a romance focus, but many of her stories still incorporate elements of fantasy or paranormal. The moms in her stories don’t often play a particularly large role, but they’re there and they’re usually positive and support of their daughters. I know Mia’s mom plays a particularly large role in the Princess Diaries series (although it’s been so long since I read it and I never finished it, so I can’t give much more detail than that).

    Actually, two mom’s from Brandon Sanderson’s high fantasy Stormlight Archive series also come to mind. The first is Kaladin’s mother. It’s a little unclear yet if she’s still alive, but since the general rule of fantasy is “alive until proven dead,” I’m betting she is. There’s a lot of flashbacks to Kaladin’s childhood that showcase her as an awesome mother. The other is a relatively important secondary character named Navani, who is not only a love interest to one of the main characters but is also mother to two other main characters. She’s a good mother, but in a different way.

    Anyways, I love this post! I feel like this is something I should have been paying more attention to all along (especially as both a mother and a writer!), and I’m so glad that you pointed it out. 🙂

  4. Jamie Rose May 6 2016 at 11:15 am #

    I knew this was a thing, but not until I read this did I realise exactly how pervasive it was – I’ve just been to my bookshelves (which are not small!) and the lack of mothers in almost every book I have is astonishing – and I’m a mother myself, so I ought to have spotted it before!

    Only two to add to your list – The Mortal Instruments (City of Bones etc.) by Cassandra Clare – Clary’s mum Jocelyn is portrayed as a rounded character with a complicated past, doing her best in a bad situation and making some wrong choices, but despite Clary’s own problems with her, not demonised. The Lightwoods’ mother (forgotten her name) gets less page time but again is pretty well-rounded, a mix of good and bad like most people, and just as fiercely protective of Jace as her own two children, even if again, the ways she chooses to express that are not without flaws.

    Also, tentatively – Truthwitch by Susan Dennard. Iseult’s mother doesn’t get a lot of page time, and there’s three books to come so we don’t know whether she’s going to play a bigger part in the future, but she’s portrayed as competent and thoughtful, and even Iseult herself has to rethink her poor opinion of her once some of the facts start coming to light.

  5. Marc Vun Kannon May 6 2016 at 11:31 am #

    Cordelia Vorkosigan – Ship Captain, Countess, explorer, regent mother to the Emperor. She’s one of the strongest women in SF.

  6. Candice May 6 2016 at 2:28 pm #

    Bernadette Fox in Maria Semple’s WHERE’D YOU GO, BERNADETTE? She’s a very flawed character but the love she has for her daughter Bee and their banter is amazing. It definitely showed me how to be a better mom.

    • Candice May 6 2016 at 2:29 pm #

      Lol, though I do realize after posting that she is technically absent.

  7. Faith E Hough May 7 2016 at 9:36 pm #

    Madeleine L’Engle wrote some great moms: Mrs. Murray and Mrs. Austin come to mind first!
    Recently, Jessica Cook in “All Rise for the Honorable Perry T. Cook” was super!
    Billy’s mother in “Where the Red Fern Grows.”
    The Penderwick’s stepmother.
    Mrs. Ray in Betsy-Tacy (I love how supportive she is of her daughters’ creative pursuits.)
    Anne Shirley, in the later Anne books when she has kids
    Sylvia from “Ballet Shoes.”
    And did anyone say Ma Ingalls yet??

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