Missing Mothers – A Mother’s Day Thought

When I was a young mother, I used to resent how invisible mothers were in children’s fiction. Think about it: Both Mary and Colin in the Secret Garden were motherless along with Sarah from The Little Princess, Pippi Longstocking, Tom Sawyer, Huckleberry Finn, Harry Potter, Bastian from Never Ending Story, and Ann of Green Gables, The Bastables in E. Nesbits books – to name but a few. The roll call of children in classic fiction whose mothers have died on them is long and venerable. Some of the afore named characters had also carelessly lost their fathers too but absent mothers probably outnumber absent fathers by two to one.

Recently, I read a review by Ruth Starke where she lamented the number of children’s and YA books currently being published where the mothers were dead. But it strikes me the authors are only continuing a very old tradition of matricide in children’s fiction. Why are mother’s so often dead, disabled or totally absent from so much children’s fiction?

It wasn’t until I had written a few novels that I started to understand why ‘getting rid of the mother’ is such a key motif of books for younger readers. Mothers risk their lives to keep their children safe (which, essentially, makes them the heroes of the stories). Mothers discourage risk taking, try and prevent nasty situations from arising and generally thwart the possibility of children experiencing any heart-wrenching drama or action. C.S. Lewis could never have made the Narnia Chronicles work if he hadn’t got the mothers out of the story as soon as possible. Lily Potter stood between Harry and Voldemort. If she had survived, Harry would have had to put up with her protecting him for the rest of his life and there would have only been one short book, not seven. Mothers simply take up too much space. Their heroism completely undermines the possibility of a child protagonist have a truly big adventure. Mothers stand between the child and the wider world ensuring their offspring reach adulthood safely. And wrecking millions of exciting stories, for which, in the real world, we are endlessly grateful.

In removing mothers from stories for children authors allow young readers to safely explore the world through fiction, to take risks in their imagination, to understand courage and fortitude without personally experiencing suffering. The absent mother in fiction is a reflection of how mothers are towering figures in reality.

Kirsty is an Australian author of books for children and young adults.

“Every adult was once a child and the child inside them never disappears.”

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