Michaeline: Fictional Mothers who Kept a Sense of Self

A Japanese woman with an open kimono sits with her small son behind her. They are both looking into a mirror.

Motherhood in fiction: can the mother still see herself after she has children? (Image via Wikimedia Commons)

In genre fiction, many heroines and heroes have lost their mothers. Before medical advances, moms died. A lot. Childbirth, exhaustion, diseases that we can fix with a round of antibiotics . . . people in the 19th century knew about motherless children and orphans. Everyone had a cousin or a friend who had lost a mother (or had lost one themselves), so as a literature plot point, it packed a lot of punch and came with built-in baggage.

When mothers do appear, they are rarely the main character.

This is somewhat understandable. As a mom myself, I didn’t have the energy or the time to be a hero, unless it was the Hero of the Gastroenteritis of 1997 (when the child was exploding out of both ends), or the more everyday adventures of Dinner on the Table. Nobody wants to read a 75,000 word novel about that.

However, moms often have great reasons to go beyond and above the call of duty. After all, these “mama bear” chestnuts don’t get thrown around for no reason. If you mess with a woman’s kids, you can’t predict the results. Moms get proactive, creative and, to be honest, sometimes irrational when their children are in danger. They’ll push their kids out of the way of cars, donate a kidney, fight a pouncing cougar or rush into a burning building to rescue their children.

Two fictional mothers stick in my mind. One was the fiercely independent Stella Johnson (played by Barbara Eden) of the Harper Valley PTA. I was only nine or ten when I saw the movie, but I still remember how this mom kept her humor and was true to herself. Being a mom wasn’t integral to the plot (except, perhaps, that she needed a reason to be part of the Parent Teacher Association), but it was an essential part of her identity. She was a make-up saleswoman with style and flair, and she bested all the fuddy-duddy conservatives in town with the help of her free-spirited neighbors who were also sick of the oppression.

The other mom I admire greatly is Cordelia Vorkosigan, mother of Miles (by Lois McMaster Bujold). Barrayar is the book that chronicles her transformation into motherhood; she begins the book pregnant, homesick and worried that her husband has abandoned her for his career concerns.

And let me digress here a little bit – this is a brilliant characterization. I don’t know if it’s the hormones, or natural wiring, but I felt a terrible need for security when I was pregnant. Cordelia’s husband Aral is the prime minister of Barrayar, and one of the few people qualified to guide her adopted planet through the turbulence (and even he fails, as we will see). So, she feels guilty about her need to have him near her, supporting her – and most of all, alive. (He’s the target of assassination attempts, and war breaks out during the story.) There’s tension between what her head knows is practical, and what her heart knows is necessary.

Cordelia knew her inner strength as a single woman. In Barrayar, she discovers her inner strength as a wife and mother. An assassination attempt on Aral poisons her and her fetus, and doctors dramatically transfer the premature child to an artificial uterus. And now, the heroics begin. Civil war breaks out, the other side takes the uterine replicator hostage, and within weeks of her major surgery, she’s got to gather a band of adventurers and cross the country to save her child. She’s an amazing mom hero.

In other books, Cordelia takes a supporting role that’s more traditional of mothers in fiction. She provides the sharp prod to the conscience for her son Miles, and gives the reader a different POV on our hero. She’s a hands-off model of motherhood, but when she’s asked to give her advice, she pointedly finds the heart of the matter. I’d argue that she’s a great model for my fictional mothers, as well.

Sometimes our narratives of motherhood can be downright depressing. I’m not going to dismiss those – they can be healing for some people to recognize that mothers aren’t perfect. But when googling “mothers who save their daughters”, even real-life news, our narrative is skewed towards the moms who are totally self-sacrificing, or on the other hand, mentally ill. I did find a Mental Floss article that described kick-ass moms. Some moms in the article did it for their children (such as when Sojourner Truth sued a white man to get her child out of slavery), and others did it for all the children. Maybe it’s up to us, as fiction writers, to connect the dots and make at least some of our mothers into heroes who don’t sacrifice their entire selves to the business of motherhood.

(Thanks to Justine, who got me thinking about this with her post last Sunday: https://eightladieswriting.com/2019/05/05/justine-what-to-give-your-book-loving-mom-on-mothers-day/)

13 thoughts on “Michaeline: Fictional Mothers who Kept a Sense of Self

  1. The heroine of my current WIP (The Seeds of Power) is Christal, a pragmatic princess with top-notch gardening skillz. She’s twenty-eight, the de facto mother of her dead sister’s fourteen year-old daughter. The first big turning point happens because Christal has to choose between her own hard-won independence and protecting her niece. Guess which she chooses? She tackles the niece problem first, then sets about saving herself. (Spoiler alert: it all turns out well in the end). I think she’d pass your test, Michaeline.

    In my GH-finalling story (Alexis’s book), Christal is still around, except now she’s the sixty year-old, tough, aristocratic mother of the hero. With her own farm 😉 . When the going gets really sticky she girds her loins, wades back into the fray, confronts her nemesis from TSOP (another mother and now grandmother, behaving very badly indeed). Christal makes some difficult personal compromises for the sake of her family. I like her a lot!

    I’m planning to publish TSOP later this year (fingers crossed), but then I *think* I want to write another story (The Light of Calder) before I publish Alexis. That book would be the story of Alexis’s mother (Annis), who makes major changes to the story world and faces some tough choices of her own. Annis’s pregnancy, and her actions, have far-reaching consequences. Hence Alexis and her adventures.

    So lots of dynamic, active mothers in my story world. Some good, some bad, all driven by family. I’d never thought of it in those terms before, so thanks to you (and Justine) for this interesting post 🙂

    • That’s so cool!

      I think when writers write blog posts, sometimes they are writing to their own problems and muses. It’s hard for me to get a mother in naturally, but it seems like it would be such a cool idea!

      The society-baggage surrounding mothers is a big problem, though. Fictional mothers are often missing, or total martyrs, or narcissists. So, I think I’d have to make the clues really clear that this is a “good mom”, not an antagonist mom. (If that’s the kind of mom I wrote.)

      In Disney’s Tangled, I think they did a good portrayal of the step mom/kidnapper. I had a lot of empathy for the character, but it’s true that in the end, the witch was manipulating her daughter for her own selfish means, not for the good of the daughter. Classic gaslighting; some of the advice was actually excellent, but the witch used it to contain her daughter instead of sending her to explore a different, outward path.

      • My own mother died when I was twenty. I think that’s why I have a hard time imagining what a relationship with your mom would be like if you’re an adult.

        In fact, I just started work on plotting what was to have been Book 4 but not appears to have become Book 3, and I’ve given my heroine an aunt she lives with. I have no idea where her parents are. Florida, maybe?

        • In a way, though, you are free to imagine any kind of mother you’d like. In some fiction series, it seems like the author is fighting the same fight with their mothers (or fathers, for that matter) book after book with different characters/mothers.

          Or people can be afraid to write anything about mothers in case their mom takes it personally when she reads the book.

          I don’t want to diminish in any way what you shared; it sucks to have your mom taken from you so early. And if anyone doesn’t want to write moms, that’s perfectly OK. Heaven knows, I am not very good at directing my Girls. They send me what they send me, and I either work with that, or say, “You know, I don’t see that being worth my time; nobody’s going to read that.” (However, that makes the Girls sad, and sometimes I’m not the best judge of what people will read.)

  2. When I first started writing fiction as part of my regular schedule, I ran across a how-to article that was eye-opening for me. It was a discussion of how to focus your story and keep your plot on track. The lead was, “First, kill the parents.”

    I think the article was primarily focused on Regency historicals, but the point of that bit of advice was that an unencumbered hero and/or heroine 1) has the power to lead and 2) can make the true-to-themselves hard choices that define their lives and make them heroic. It’s an exaggeration, I think—we can all think of stories where parents play a role, even if it’s minor. But I had, years earlier, read an article by a mystery writer, who said that her female protagonist would never get married, because she couldn’t spend any time on the page having the husband calling and asking what was for dinner. These bits of advice made me think about how to structure characters, because you want to give them context and community, but—yeah. It’s hard to have them save the day if they’re busy saving leftovers.

    Your books are terrific, Jilly! A good example of how pregnancy and motherhood can bring out the heroics in a character.

    • I think I’m really trying to convince myself to add a Good Mom character in. But (as you mention) it would probably be better to write a story (or series) where the Good Mom IS the main character first. As writers, we really do have a lot of things to concentrate on, and if we’re busy developing Good Mom Secondary Character, it’s possible that we neglect Main Characters.

      But a good mom who comes from a line of Good Moms? That’s a difficult scenario to illustrate properly. We see Miles Vorkosigan’s mom — she gets a few books on her own to develop, as a matter of fact. But how well do we see Cordelia’s mother? We know a lot about her, but she hasn’t been given her own book. She’s nowhere as vivid as Aral’s father, for example. (Aral’s mother is a Sacrificed Mom.)

      I would like to have more strong women characters in my books, but the fact remains that I need to stay in service of the story. Scattering the focus (in one story) across too many characters (especially as a beginning writer without all the skills to handle a Cast of Thousands) is a disservice to the story.

  3. A mom that I like is the Duchess of Salford in Georgette Heyer’s “Sylvester.” She’s pragmatic, self-effacing, and when it comes time, prodding and willing to point out her son’s foibles, tell him the truth, and not just deliver him platitudes. She’s also excellent for Phoebe, allowing the girl to get everything off her chest in a sweet and motherly fashion (for Phoebe surely doesn’t have anyone really motherly in her life — her stepmother is a dolt and her grandmother, while she loves her very much, doesn’t have the tenderness that the duchess has).

    In my own story, Susannah’s parents are dead, but Nate’s mom is still alive, and she can be meddlesome and a pain in Nate’s arse, but not in a malicious way…more because she’s just nosy. I have plans for her to have her own novella someday, a come-to-love-again story for 50+ year olds, because while she loved her husband, she deserves to find love again.

    • Oh, nice! An over-fifty story would be really cool to have in a collection.

      Heyer has all sorts of characters throughout her books; it really is amazing! I’m going to have to re-read Sylvester. (-: I really like that kind of mother in fiction — the one who minds her own business and lets her kids lead their lives, but when asked, will deliver her frank opinion in a warm but direct way.

      There are two kinds of mothers in fiction who talk to their kids like that. Some have had very bad experiences, and tend to deliver advice that’s not helpful for growth (because their own efforts at growth were stymied in a mean and cruel way?). For example, Min’s mom in Jennifer Crusie’s Bet Me delivers advice that is in line with what society thinks: gotta get thin, gotta get a man, gotta keep a man by keeping your looks. And she’s speaking from her experience (although she doesn’t seem to really hear what her husband is saying). This kind of mom is a great source of conflict.

      But other mothers in fiction offer advice that pushes the MC towards growth. They don’t provide direct conflict (maybe that’s why I like them, LOL), but they push their kids into conflict with other characters who have non-growth ideas.

      Maybe that’s what is going on? Hmmm. I’ll have to think about it.

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