With Mother’s Day fast approaching here in the States, I’d like to use this post to apologize to moms.
Firstly to my own mom, for any stretch marks she’s suffered on my behalf, and for the hormone-spurred grief I caused her during my teenage years. Secondly, apologies to the mothers of childhood friends, whose fancy seashell-shaped soaps I did not realize were only for show, and into whose rec room carpets my Keds ground the staining orange dust of a hundred dropped Cheez Balls.
But perhaps most of all, I’d like to apologize to my characters’ mothers, whom I’ve mistreated so egregiously it boggles the mind.
I have fashioned them into lamentable shrews and saddled them with a shocking proliferation of emotional disorders and substance abuse issues. I’ve even killed them, with diseases both common and rare, with accidents, even with murder. (We authors do love to off our characters’ mothers, don’t we? We have that in common with Disney films.)
I’ll preface this by saying my own mom is the balls. Mama McKenna is kind, brilliant, calm, intuitive, fun, fit, brave, and one of the most functional people I’ve ever known. And psychic! She’s also a psychotherapist, but she’s never once made me feel analyzed when I’ve come to her in the midst of a breakdown (and I’ve had my share). She’s soft-spoken and about a hundred and ten pounds, but she’s counseled violent prisoners, parolees, addicts and recovering addicts, kids and grandmas and teen moms and the whole gamut of folks who seek social services (sometimes freely, sometimes ordered to by a judge.) As I said—the balls.
So I’ve got nothing against moms. I hit the mom jackpot. So why do my books seem to suggest that I believe motherhood is synonymous with dysfunction and tragedy? I did some list-making, and of the twenty books I’ve completed (not counting sequels with recurring characters) I’ve got the following crimes against protagonists’ mother figures to confess…
Four counts of making them plain old lousy—abusive, neglectful, or complicit in abuse perpetrated by their shady boyfriends.
One count of making them cheat on their husband.
One count of making them walk out on their family.
One count of making them a crack-whore.
One count of making them a rape victim.
One count of making them lose their arm in a car accident.
Six counts of saddling them with an emotional or behavioral issue—clinical depression (times two), bi-polar disorder, agoraphobia, compulsive hoarding, and whatever the fuck was wrong with Gabriel’s spooky-ass grandma.
Two counts of making them drug addicts—one cocaine, one undisclosed.
And EIGHT counts of making them dead—cancer, car crash, overdose (times two), consumptive neurological disease I made up, old age (she was an adoptive mother), suicide, and shot in cold blood (sorry, Ian.)
That’s twenty-five crimes against maternal character in not even as many books! All told, those crimes make me a pusher, a pimp, an enabler, a murderer…all manner of shoulder-dwelling devilry. Worse even than that? Of all the mothers I created who knowingly did harm to their children…I don’t think I redeemed a single one.
So do I feel bad? Kind of. But I also know I’m not the only guilty party. Fiction writers have been creating messed up moms for as long as stories have been told. Ask yourself, why are so many fictional protagonists orphans? Or saddled with cruel mothers and stepmothers?
It’s not that we hate moms. If anything we exhalt them too much, suggesting they forfeit their rights to imperfect humanhood when they take on the monumental task of nurturing a child. So why, then? Well, I’ve got a couple of theories.
The first is that it’s easy. Characters need layers, and layers require damage. Giving a character a dysfunctional or absent mother figure scores you instant underdog points. It gives you a hero betrayed or deserted by the person who was supposed to love them most and shield them from harm when they were most vulnerable. And in the case of male heroes, the person who would set the tone for their relationships with women for the rest of their lives. Blammo, insta-angst!
Not that it’s a conscious process. I’ve never sat down and thought, “Okay, got the hair color, eye color, height…what else? Oh right! Life-long maternal scarring! Let’s just throw a dart at the Mom Trauma map and we’ll go with…oh sweet, alcoholism!” For me, I think it’s more that I write a lot of effed up characters, because they’re the most interesting kind, and effed up characters are usually effed up from something terrible that happened to them as kids. And who are your God figures as a kid? Who can let you down the worst? Mom and Dad. You’ve got the culprit, now all you need is a parental crime or shortcoming that’ll scar little Billy for life.
My second theory is that when writing romance or one of its sub-genres, very often what your characters must crave above all is love. Denying them that most primal and formative mom-love creates a gigantic (and yes, convenient) hole in their soul, which a) often makes them cagey, which leads to romantic conflict and b) makes their eventual ability to feel unconditionally valued all the more essential and satisfying.
A third theory, the one I’m leaning toward, is simply that authors are punitive and cruel, gods testing our poor little literary Jobs. We delight in putting our heroes through hell. In that respect, we’re the sadistic mothers, torturing the people we’ve brought into the world. Again, sorry Ian. Sorry Shane, sorry Sarah, sorry Didier, sorry Fallon, sorry Emily, sorry Colin, and dear God, I’m sorry, Badger.
But above all, let me reiterate my apologies, O fictional mothers I’ve slandered so selfishly.
And to my own amazing mom, a gigantic thank you for raising me in a home with both a DSM-IV-TR and a Kama Sutra (if one knew where on the shelf to look, which I did). Reading is fundamental. Happy Mother’s Day.