Yesterday was Mother’s Day, where mothers are brought breakfast in bed, given floral bouquets of appreciation, and celebrated by everyone with Hallmark sentiments. Well, perhaps not “everyone.”
North American social norms tell us mothers are this mid-twentieth century wonder woman, taking care of her children, ensuring they are fed and nurtured in every sense of the word, juggling the needs of the family and always putting herself second.
Except mothers are people and therefore complicated human beings who can find a home in your stories far outside of the ideal. Here are 10 “kinds” of mothers you can consider in your writing. These mothers can offer conflict, safe spaces, scene-stealing, selfishness — they can hold the promise of the future or inject fear, confusion or coldness into your stories.
Villains or saints, mothers hold power in your fiction.
1. Birth Mothers
This group of mothers offers readers reflections of beginnings, the vital importance of nurturing and often suggests a position of power/strength. Birth mothers hold the promise of the future through the next generation. They also hold the lineage and that echoes the stories and traditions of the past.
In Camilla Gibb’s acclaimed novel, Sweetness in the Belly, the story begins with a birth in a rain-damp alley behind an old hospital in London, England. The infant girl’s “mighty and unconscious wail” sets the tone for power even in grief that our main character, herself an orphan, must draw on.
Long held to be vessels of great wisdom from years of life experience, grandmothers are seen as elders and teachers rich in unconditional love. A fine example of a selfless grandmother is in Roald Dahl’s The Witches. In Dahl’s usual quirky style, this grandmother is a retired witch hunter, and teaches her grandson (an orphan) how to spot the evil witches in their disguise. Expect the unexpected in any Dahl story.
And who can forget Little Red Riding Hood’s dear sweet bedridden grandmother? But if we go “unexpected” in this classic tale, what if Granny conspired with the Big Bad Wolf to get rid of Little Red? Can you think of a reason for Granny to turn bad? There. We knew you could do it.
Long painted as the villain in fairy tales, stepmothers work well as an interloper/newcomer character. They can add the quality of the unnatural, of being outside the family “clan” and subject to suspicion and even hatred and perhaps a target to kill off. From Snow White’s cruel stepmother to the artificial stepmothers in Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale where slave women are forced to bear children to be raised by ruling class women in a patriarchal dystopia.
But turn the “evil stepmother” upside down, and you have dear Mrs. Dashwood in Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility. The second wife to deceased Mr. Dashwood, she suffers at the hands of her stepson and his conniving wife. Kicked out of the family home with a small annuity, she must find husbands for her two daughters.
4. Absent Mothers
These characters will serve any longing for/searching for scenarios in your stories. Because mothers are key figures in our lives, an absent mother calls our attention. Like stepmothers, absent mothers are not “natural” in terms of social expectations. A fine option for a mystery can be made with a missing mother. Or a simple set up could be a mother who is dead. But even there, fiction holds a lot of possibility and complexity.
In Yann Martel’s brilliant Life of Pi, we see his mother as a loving and caring parent. But with her death, as related by Pi to investigators about the ship sinking he survived, readers are never 100% certain about what happened. Except that she is gone during much of Pi’s story. And because she was a memorable character, we feel her absence.
5. Adoptive Mothers
Like the grandmother figure, an adoptive mother can be a source of unconditional love. She symbolizes a form of motherhood but from a distance. Whether she adopts by choice or adopts by circumstances, the adoptive mother can be either wonderfully selfless or perhaps an opportunist.
In Heather Tucker’s haunting novel The Clay Girl the caring adoptive mother figure is found in Aunt Mary who offers Ari temporary sanctuary by the sea but constant unconditional love. But what if there’s an inheritance to be had or the need to put on a show and appear selfless? There’s room for a calculating adoptive mother to find life on a page somewhere. A page of yours, perhaps?
6. Neglectful Mothers
Careful writer. This one is a minefield of missteps if you don’t bother to humanize even the most neglectful mother. We’d all like to believe that no mother could be intentionally neglectful. If you’ve read Tucker’s The Clay Girl, you already understand why Aunt Mary is so necessary to Ari’s tender soul as her birth mother consistently and completely misses all the marks for even basic motherly instinct.
Fiction is full of selfish, vain, flighty, inattentive mothers, or mothers who (Jane Austen once more) like Elizabeth’s mother Mrs. Bennet in Pride and Prejudice who manipulates and plans and frets to get her daughters married off. But she’s not a cardboard character once you recognize the fate of husbandless women. Mrs. Bennet is highly motivated but neglects the fact that like and love are essential ingredients in a happy marriage.
7. Overprotective Mothers
Well, the average mother might question herself on whether she’s being too cautious in the raising of her children. So, it’s good to have your mother characters doubt themselves from time to time.
But in the hands of the psychological horror master, Stephen King, the overprotective mother can get notched up to an awful (in)human being. His blockbuster of a first novel Carrie gave us Margaret White, Carrie’s fanatically religious mother who swears to keep her daughter “safe” from her developing teenaged body. The results are, well, an inevitable explosion of repression let loose with horrific consequences.
8. Animal Mothers
From Bambi’s ill-fated mother to Peter Rabbit’s cautioning mama, there are plenty of animal stories that feature loving mothers. Animal mothers are instinct-driven, protective and nurturing. The top animal that demonstrates all this and more is the female elephant. Pregnant for 22 (!) months, these massive beasts deliver calves that are blind and completely dependent. But that mother instinct kicks in for the entire matriarchal herd, and all the females (grandmothers, aunts, sisters, etc.) pitch in to nurture and protect the very young. Unless you want a full-on trampling, never be a threat to a baby elephant.
Some females in the animal kingdom offer the ultimate sacrifice after doing their “mother” thing. For example, salmon, octopus and squid devote all their energy to laying their eggs before dying.
And then there’s the not-so-perfect animal mommas that neglect their young or kill and even eat their newborn young. Pigs, rabbits, prairie dogs, and other species commit infanticide but fortunately, it’s a rare behaviour. Check out Wikipedia if you want to follow that “rabbit hole” of horrifying facts.
9. Mother Earth/Mother Nature
Oh my, this Mother has been personified and worshipped for as long as sapiens walked the ground. In Greek mythology, she is Gaia. To the ancient Romans she is Terra. In Indic faiths, she is Prithvi (the Vast One) or Bhumi (the mother of gods) representing the earth. Throughout the world, various cultures and faiths cast our planet as an all-encompassing nurturer and revere her for her many gifts.
And yet, we do make a mess of Mama Earth, don’t we? And sometimes, Mother Nature gives us a good whipping: hurricanes, floods, earthquakes, droughts, landslides, avalanches and — dare we suggest it — pandemics serve to remind us that she, like most mothers, is a powerful force. And silly us, we’re not serving her very well. Let’s hope that with more interest in harnessing her renewable resources and reducing our carbon footprints, we might get her to settle back down.
10. The Mother Of All…
So it seems only appropriate that this figure in all our lives — yes, until cloning becomes fully automatic, we all have to be born — that this figure should somehow represent the ultimate, where we can simply use any noun to notch up something to the biggest, the greatest, the most impressive. The mother of all construction projects. The mother of all vacations. The mother of all wedding receptions. But it is not always complimentary. For example, the mother of all headaches. The mother of all snowstorms. The mother of all… well, you get the drift.
So, as we’ve just got through the second pandemic-restricted Mother’s Day let’s not wait for the next second Sunday in May to celebrate a woman special to you. Mother, grandmother, stepmother, adoptive mother and so on, why not designate a random day in the future to make it The mother of all Mother’s Day.