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/)