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The problem with literature’s fascination with bad mothers

It is nice to laugh at bad mothers on film. In the movie, ‘Bad Moms’, exhausted, fraught and irreverent mothers behave badly as similarly frazzled mothers watch on in glee, recognising extreme versions of themselves in the actors on the screen.

However, in literature, bad mothers are often quite different – few would like to identify themselves with these matriarchs who are cruel and neglectful, more interested in their social position than their offspring.

I’m not sure if it’s the particular books I’ve been reading, but recently, these mothers are appearing everywhere, from children’s books to adult novels, classics to contemporary fiction. After spending a day begging, coercing and bribing my children to stop wrestling, put their shoes on and stop drawing on the white kitchen chairs, I settle down to read a book that depicts a mother who has done far worse. Perhaps I should be taking comfort in their failings.

Among them has been the socially ambitious mother in The Painted Veil, who cares little for her two daughters, other than how their marriages can improve her social standing. Initially, the more beautiful of the daughters, Kitty, receives bountiful attention from her mother, compared with her plainer sister. However, when Kitty fails to attract the kind of husband her mother had hoped, she is pressured to accept the hand of an unsuitable man. She understands that her mother wants her out of her hands, and so accepts the hand of a man who will take responsibility for her.

When Kitty’s life is later turned upside down, she realises that she has no-one to turn to, including her mother, who sees her as a burden.

A similarly ambitious and pretentious mother appears in The Elegance of the Hedgehog, the story of the relationships within an apartment building in France. The narrator, Paloma, describes her mother as being no genius, but inclined to sprinkle conversation with literary references, taking copious sleeping pills and attending regular yoga classes. Paloma refers to her mother’s ‘holier-than-thou-left-wing-intellectual pose’ and lack of psychological subtlety. She is shallow, naïve and disinterested in her children.

In Behind the Scenes at the Museum, a mother flees her husband and young children one night, taking a punt on the prospects a travelling photographer offers and leaving her family with no idea of her whereabouts. She is replaced by a cruel stepmother (a representation of motherhood with a long tradition in fiction).

In reading David Walliams’ Mr Stink, I was surprised that bad mothers were also a fixture in contemporary children’s fiction. Here is a cruel mother who favours one child over another, lies, ignores her husband and strives only for social and professional success.

While her daughter is kind and considerate, befriending a homeless man (Mr Stink), the mother vows to remove all ‘tramps’ from view on the streets of her town. When her plan is derailed, she takes credit for her child’s kindness.

Walliams’ predecessor Roald Dahl was also fond of writing about the bad mum, alongside similarly cruel and unsavoury fathers, aunties, grandmothers and schoolmistresses.

So, what is the fascination with the bad mum in fiction?

Does it stem from the significance role a mother plays in protecting and nurturing a child, meaning that an unkind or neglectful mother can leave a deep imprint – resulting in the kind of flawed and damaged character that is the stuff of great literature? As readers, we want our stories to comprise of complex personalities, and know about how they came to behave in certain ways … usually as a result of the nature and behaviour of their mothers.

Another reason might be that literature exposes deep-seated fears, and perhaps the theme of the trapped and ill-treated child is one of our greatest dreads.  A child is powerless to escape, fight back or even understand the situation in which they are confined or targeted.

Or, perhaps it is the very nature of literature to turn what we know or expect on its head. A calm, patient and kind mother provides little that is unexpected or unusual. A cruel, conniving mother is far more interesting, distorting a social, and even biological, norm.

Of course, all literary mothers are not unkind and neglectful. It is difficult to imagine a better mother in a worse situation than in The Room. In the book, a mother is trapped in a small room with her young son, and she goes to great lengths to ensure he is safe and happy, against all odds.

It would be remiss to reflect on motherhood in literature without drawing on We Need to Talk About Kevin, although it is hard to be sure of whether Kevin’s mother is flawed or a victim of her particular child. While by the end, she is unquestionably a victim, author Lionel Shriver seems to urge the reader to question her culpability as a mother. It is an ambiguous portrait of a complex character.

In some ways I feel that representations of mothers as being either ‘good’ or ‘bad’ are in some ways doing a disservice to mothers who might often be caring, patient and kind, and at other times be impatient and selfish. Just like fathers, teachers, grandparents – any other individual – their inner lives and personalities are complex and changeable, and so very few are simply ‘good’ or ‘bad’.

These representations tend to offer a simplistic view of a far more complex relationship, between a mother and child, damning the imperfect among us (and who can claim to be otherwise?), to a criticism as cutting as any could be – of being a bad mum.  And does this tendency to categorise and judge somehow align with our desire to see women as Damned Whores and God’s Police, as Ann Summers suggested in the ‘70s? Now, the ultimate judgement can be whether we are good or bad mothers.

Perhaps, next, I will read more about fathers and their complex roles in family life. Or maybe they have been there in the books I have been reading all along, unnoticed as I was captivated by the bad mothers, who might not have been so terrible, after all.

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