Susan Sarandon as the indulgent Mrs. March in Gillian Armstrong's Little Women (1994)

Where Have All the Mothers Gone?

Mothers must be dealt with if we are to get on with the business of growing up.

In the words of Rosanne Cash:

Motherless children have a hard time

When the mother is gone

Motherless children have a hard time

When the mother is gone

Her song, “Motherless Children”, paints a poignant, haunting picture of the woes facing a child who is left to face the world bereft of a mother (or, for the purposes of this article, a “mother figure” — it isn’t gender that’s the issue here). The loss goes deep into the fabric of our physical being.

In 2010 a study was conducted by Dr. Joan Luby, Professor of Child Psychiatry and Director and Founder of the Early Emotional Development Program at Washington University in St. Louis. It was part of an ongoing project to track the development of children with early onset depression. The study found that children who are well nurtured, protected and confident in their mother’s love, have a better developed hippocampus than those who are not. The hippocampus region in the brain is important for learning, memory and stress responses.

Indeed, our interactions with our mothers are the cornerstone of the edifice of our personality. From our beginnings, mothers contribute the very molecules that form our physical self and the early experiences that inform our intangible adult selves. Their actions cast long shadows over our lives, affecting our happiness and that of our loved ones. Without loving mothers to give us a good start in life, we are less, lost and diminished.

Unless of course, we are the protagonist of a story in which we court danger, act heroically, and have perilous adventures. How can we search for our lost identity, look for treasure, defend kingdoms, and save humanity if we have to stop everything and come in for dinner? Mothers, in other words, must be dealt with if we are to get on with the business of growing up.

In many of the most loved books for children, the power of mothers, for good or ill, is neutralized or diminished, and often altogether eliminated. It’s no accident that these books are often first encountered and embraced whole heartedly when readers are old enough to read on their own, and just entering a crucial stage of development when the family circle begins feeling less like a comforting cocoon and more like a stifling prison. There’s a frustrating, annoying barrier blocking the nascent adult from an uncertain, tantalizing future, and the keeper of the keys is, more often than not, the mother.

So, how to dispatch with mom? Here are a few successful strategies from the classics of children’s literature. (SPOILER ALERTS follow for all the deprived souls who never read these great works at the right time in their lives!)

The Saintly Mother

She is the mother who can do no wrong. She dispenses sound wisdom. She provides a haven from which a child can find solace when battered by bullies and coping with the unrelenting pain of the world. She provides unconditional love.

She is also boring. She provides a measure of breathing room for the protagonist, like a helpful sideline volunteer who hands out water bottles to tri-athletes. To any actual mother, given her superhuman achievements, she is annoying as hell.

One of the prime examples of the saintly mom is Mrs. March of Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women. Could this mother, known by her adoring clan as Marmee, be any more understanding? So when feisty Jo turns down Laurie, the rich, age appropriate childhood friend and ends up with the professor, an impoverished older man with a questionable attraction to much younger women, Marmee offers only support. This clears the way for the two sequels, Little Men and Jo’s Boys.

The Evil Mother

An evil mother flips the script entirely, making the mother’s power the impetus, and the necessity for the adventure. A child with an evil mother, very often a step mother, but not always, has every justification to break free, to seek relief, to find a place where they can be appreciated, and to grow into their own true self. No need for second thoughts, recriminations or misplaced guilt. There is one imperative: GET OUT!

Mrs. Wormwood of Roald Dahl’s Matilda may not be the most spectacular of evil parents, but she’s certainly one of the most terrifying because she’s just this side of plausible. Every child who has ever felt stifled, forced into a Procrustean bed to fit a mother’s implacable vision resonates to the suffocating life that Matilda endures. Matilda eventually allies with Miss Honey, a saintly mother figure if there ever was one, but that’s the end of the book, not the beginning.

The Pointless Mother

The pointless mother is decorative detail. Characters in books need a place to live, they eat, drink and sleep, they probably have bodily functions just as we do, but there isn’t much need to spell it out. Sometimes the mother character is around at the beginning, sometimes she hovers in the background, sometimes mentioned by the author, sometimes thought of by the child, but always taken for granted.

Mrs. Laura Hardy of The Hardy Boys, a series penned by many authors under the pseudonym, Franklin W. Dixon, is a prime example. A random survey of friends revealed that most of them didn’t realize the Hardy Boys even had a mother. But they did. Mrs. Laura Hardy is described as petite, shy and stay at home.

The TV show derived from the books did away with her altogether.

The Absent Mother

The absent mom is the best plot point of all. There’s nothing between the motherless child and a desperate fate but their own pluck and scrappiness. The mother’s absence is the driving force, the inciting incident, the reason things happen. How many ways can you make a mother disappear? Here are just a few:

1. The mother can be murdered. In Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, JK Rowling dramatically dispatches with Mrs. Potter (and Mr.Potter, for good measure) years before the action of the story begins. This is both convenient and necessary for the seven volumes that ensue.

2. She can be misplaced, as in The Nancy Drew Mysteries, a series penned by a number of authors under the pseudonym Carolyn Keene, as in “Nancy lost her mother when she was three.” Careless toddler!

3. She can be a disembodied ideal. The mother in Astrid Lindgren’s Pippi Longstocking is simply said to be ‘in Heaven’ after a very early exit from Pippi’s life, perhaps from exhaustion after coming up with Pippi’s full name-: Pippilotta Delicatessa Windowshade Mackrelmint Ephraim’s Daughter Longstocking.

4. Forced separation is another tidy method of disposal. Mrs. Pevensie of The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe by C. S. Lewis sends her brood to the country to escape the London Blitz. This stratagem keeps her from asking them why they spend so much time rooting around in a closet when they should be doing their homework.

5. Then there is the emotionally distant mother. Indifference is what we all imagine to be a specialty of upper class English parents, thanks to all the books where the action is in the Nursery while the oblivious Mater and Pater drink sherry and eat beef Wellington served up by Cook. James Barrie gives Mrs. Darling of Peter Pan the added distinction of putting a dog in charge of the mayhem.

Mrs. Banks of P.L. Travers’ Mary Poppins and Mrs. Lennox of Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden are cut from the same frosty cloth. For good measure, Mrs. Lennox is also fatally stricken with cholera.

6. An author can ignore a mother’s existence. Mark Twain wasted few words on the mothers of his heroes, Tom and Huck. The Mrs. Sawyer in The Adventurers of Tom Sawyer is simply dead, no explanation, no back story. Twain doesn’t even mention Mrs. Finn, perhaps because even such a master storyteller as he couldn’t imagine a female who would mate with Huck’s Pap.

* * *

Each of these books, while providing an escape, also serves as a guide to growing up. Physical maturity is inevitable. Any other kind of maturing is not a given. Each one of us follows a path to the edge of a cliff called childhood, and face the chasm before us. On the other side is adulthood, where the path continues.

We all have to cross that chasm if we are to become functioning, responsible individuals, and we all have to cross it alone. For some of us, a tight rope gets us over, some more fortunate find there’s a sturdy bridge with handrails, and for some it requires surviving a tumble to the bottom and a perilous clawing up the rock face to get to the other side. However we get there, we go without our mothers, who sometimes reluctantly, sometimes enthusiastically, sometimes inadvertently, must allow us to find our own way over.

The stories endure, eagerly read by generations of children standing on that cliff’s edge, to provide some measure of assurance that what awaits on the other side is worth the risk. Our mothers wait behind us so that our own stories can happen: it’s the ultimate sacrifice.

Pamela Monk is a writer, teacher and storyteller. She is a member of the Journalism faculty in the College of Communications at Penn State.