Bad Mothers

Robin just put a thought-provoking post on the Bad Mother in romance fiction over at Romancing the Blog, and I was writing a comment on it that went way too long and rambled. So I came back here to take the time and space to figure this out rather than sound like an idiot in her comments. You really need to read Robin’s post in its entirety but here’s her central question:

. . . is it a bit odd how many bad mothers there are in a genre that so strongly validates and celebrates domesticity and fertility? Or is that exactly the point?

Robin ends her post with this question:

So help me out here: why do you think there are so many bad mothers in Romance and what purpose(s) do they serve? And is this an element of the genre you love, hate, or are largely indifferent to?

so you should go over to her blog and join in the discussion there which is excellent. But my answer is long and convoluted, so I’m doing it here.

First, I don’t think it’s that there are so many bad mothers just in romance, I think bad parenting is a staple in storytelling in general. I would defy you to find a worse parent than the father in As I Lay Dying, but that kind of discussion could go on all day because bad and/or absent parents are the norm in fiction, not the exception because bad parents make good stories. I want my protagonist in as much trouble as possible. If she has a strong, good mother figure behind her that she can turn to, she’s not desperate so it’s just good narrative strategy to have an absent, weak, or debilitating mother. And father. And siblings. Get that protagonist alone out on there on the ledge and you’ve solved a lot of story problems already because your reader will feel sorry for her and want her to win. In the nineteenth century most romance heroines were orphans. At least we’re letting the mothers live.

As a fiction writer who writes for women, I also want my protagonist in a kind of trouble my readers can relate to at a deep level. And for a lot of women, that’s mothers. I don’t care how much you love your mother, you have issues. They may be very benign, but they’re there. So the mother-daughter tangle is one of the few psychological tropes that is as close to universal to women as we’re going to get. Even so, whether you like the Bad Mother trope or hate it depends on what you need psychologically from fiction. If the Heroine Overcomes the Bad Mother story gives you a vicarious victory, you’re going to like it, and I don’t think you need to have had a Bad Mother in real life to want that catharsis because I think it goes back to basic human outrage over injustice: a mother should be loving and protective and the protagonist’s isn’t so the story rights that injustice by providing her with the love she’s missed before. That sense of outrage in general is crucial to reader satisfaction, that reaction that this situation is just wrong and must be remedied, and so the reader reads on to see it fixed. If this is not a trigger for your outrage reflex, if reading this as it plays out does not give you that catharsis, then it’s not going to work for you. No catharsis. That doesn’t means that the Bad Mother isn’t a valuable trope.

As a woman who has mother issues, I’m naturally drawn to the Bad Mother. I think one of the things that happened to my generation is that our lives were not our mothers’ lives, so many of them labored hard to prepare us for their kind of reality when we knew that what they were teaching us was completely irrelevant and actively harmful to the things we were going to need to survive. My mother tried desperately to teach me to be a lady, to keep my voice down, to not attract attention to myself, to wear white gloves on Sunday, to find a good man to support me and my future children. Meanwhile I was out protesting the war without a bra and yelling about equal pay for equal work. This caused conflict. Then my daughter’s generation was completely different from mine, so while I was teaching her to fight the good fight, to ignore her emotions and work like a man to get ahead, she knew that the good fight had been fought, that ignoring her emotions would make her insane, and that acting like a man was non-productive in both the short and long runs. The cognitive dissonance between the modern generations is so great that it takes a really phenomenal mother to bridge that gap, especially while she’s still growing and learning herself. I became a good mother in my forties when I finally put all my garbage behind me, but by then, my daughter was grown. So now we have issues. (As a side note, the mothers in historical fiction may need to be truly vicious instead of just misguided because they could prepare their daughters for the same lives they were living; women’s realities didn’t shift that much between generations then.) Every woman I know has issues with her mother, and when we talk about them, we tend to demonize them because it’s cathartic, even as we know that they were doing the best they could, even as we know our daughters have issues with us, even so we demonize our mothers over wine because it helps to get the pain out. And again that’s one of the major functions of fiction: catharsis.

Of course almost every woman I know is a writer, so that may have some impact on our conversations since many writers have miserable childhoods they draw on. Let’s face it, if we were essentially happy people, we wouldn’t have to make up worlds where everything turns out all right. I don’t think my experience is universal, but it is my experience and it is what I draw on unconsciously to write stories. That is, as Jennifer Crusie, I write the Bad Mothers because they’re the ones who show up. I would take exception to the idea that my mothers are all completely bad–the only truly bad mother I can think of was Cal’s in Bet Me, and yes, I know mothers like that–but I’ll agree they’re all flawed. It’s because they walk into the story that way. This is probably indicative of a deep psychological problem but it’s still true: I write the stories, the characters walk in, I say hello and keep writing. And truly I think the stories I wrote would be much weaker with Good Mothers. If Min’s mother doesn’t harp about her weight, trying to prepare her for the kind of life she has instead of the kind of life Min wants, Min is not going to be the person she is. If Gwen in Faking It isn’t adrift in a sea of denial and detachment, Tilda doesn’t end up looking for a painting and more than that, Tilda doesn’t become the take-charge person she is because she had to take over the family early in life. Our mothers shape so much of what we become that if we have all Good Mothers in fiction we’re going to have too many Heroines Without Baggage, and frankly, I’m not interested in them. That doesn’t mean other writers shouldn’t be or that readers should be, it just means you’re not going to get a Crusie novel with a Good Mother any more than you’re going to get a size four Crusie heroine who hates dogs and eats a lot of salads. Okay, you may get the salads, but you see my point.

I’m thinking about this now because I just added a mother to Always Kiss Me Goodnight. I’d had the hero’s mother in there, somebody who exasperates the hell out of the heroine and tries the hero’s patience. Now I’m adding the heroine’s mother who also exasperates the hell out of the heroine and who tries the hero’s patience in a completely different way. The things is, I love these women, but I know some people are going to read them as Bad Mothers, the way they read Gwen in Faking It or Quinn’s mother in Crazy For You or Maddie’s mother in Tell Me Lies or . . . well, any of the mothers I’ve written that I liked. I once read a review that said all the mothers I wrote were awful. I don’t get it. They’re not perfect, but they’re not bad. They’re all pursuing their own ends, not sitting around bitching and moaning. They’re active. Well, okay, Gwen was passive but she wasn’t doing the passive aggressive thing on her kids. They’re flawed, not evil.

I think the question of Bad Mothers in romance tends to be a political question more than it is an art or craft question: is the rash of Bad Mothers bad feminism, does it make the genre look bad, does it send a dangerous message, whatever. I don’t care about that and I don’t think most readers care about it. A Bad Mother badly written is going to be Bad, period, just as a Good Mother badly written is going to be awful. A Bad Mother well written in a good story is going to work because she’s necessary to the plot and character development, not because she’s a Bad Mother.

I also take issue with the idea that romance as a genre validates domesticity and fertility–I’d argue that it validates pair bonds, family, and community, not housekeeping and childbirth–but that’s another blog post. Basically I’m here to stand up for Bad Mothers. Bring ’em on, I say. Without them, our characters wouldn’t be the people they are and our stories would be the worse for it.

82 thoughts on “Bad Mothers

  1. I love Gwen, although Maddie’s and Quinn’s moms were less attractive. I think your point is made in the ante-pentultimate paragraph: these are women pursuing their own goals. For some people, Good Mothers can’t have goals, other than the care of their offspring – which I think not only makes them vacuous human beings, but is very debilitating for the offspring.

    Certainly pursuing one’s own ego-fulfillment at the expense of one’s children’s health and safety is probably a violation of the implicit contract involved in motherhood (if motherhood were always entered into in informed consent, which it, unfortunately, is not). However, refusal to have a life outside of one’s children is a) a pretty bad role model for the children and b) quite a burden on them. Thank goodness Maddie finally gets over that behavior she learned from her mother!

    I don’t like caricature Bad Mothers, any more than I like stories peopled almost entirely by wretched human beings: hero and heroine against the world. Most people aren’t going to throw themselves into the maw of a dragon for you, but even most strangers will help you pick up your packages when you drop them, so if H&H don’t have any people, they must have been working pretty hard to alienate all of their acquaintance. In the same way, while most mothers have individual agendas, they are also, in their possibly confused and even disturbed way, trying to do what they think is good for their children.

    But then, my mother lives 2500 miles away.

  2. It surprises me that anyone would label the mothers in your story as ‘bad’. I don’t think I ever really clocked them as ‘the mother’ to be honest. They were characters, part of the hero/ heroines’ lives, just being themselves and dealing with their own struggles. Even Cal’s mother – now that I think about it, I clocked her as a silly bitch but not necessarily a bad person.

    Maybe this is part of the mother-child struggle; how much to be separate and how much to be as one, especially with your firstborn. For we start as one. I’d say the cord is still floating around with all my children, particularly the first. He claims to hate it, but I think he finds it secretly reassuring.

    1. I hadn’t thought of that, but you’re right, Strop. I do see them as characters first and mothers second. I should look to see if that shows up in the POV. That is, when Min thinks of Nanette she thinks, “Mother,” and the story from her POV is structured that way, but when Cal thinks of her, he thinks “Obsessive perfectionist” or whatever because she’s not his mother. From that perspective, I don’t think I’ve ever written a Mother.

  3. Well, first off, I don’t think the romance genre necessarily reveres domesticity and fertility. Maybe it did back in the fifties and sixties but not today, except maybe in some of the Harlequin and Mills &Boon lines.

    In my opinion the contemporary romance genre is more about celebrating the courage of the heroine and watching her grow from a lack of strength or understanding in one or more areas and overcoming whatever it was that held her back. Then she gets to enjoy the HEA. Whatever that may be: a commitment to love, or marriage, understanding of a lacking parent, giving birth, creating a loving community, or climbing the ladder to success in the workplace.

    Mother/daughter issues will always be there, even in the most loving of relationships, in both fiction and real life there will be some. A mother’s job is to love, nurture, protect, guide, and then release. But many other issues come into play, like a parent being unable to give love, needing to control (sometimes out of fear, sometimes out of knowledge from their own hurts), being abusive because that was how they were raised, being unable to let the child go, personality issues, not keeping up with and understanding the differences in the younger generation’s time, and an inability to see the child not as an individual but as an extension of self. It’s a tough job.

    The purpose of the imperfect mother is strong in a romance because the daughter/heroine in search of her identity has the images and voices from her youth packed into the same luggage she’s taking along on her journey. There’s no getting away from it. That mother’s voice is going to naturally color a lot of her choices in life.

    In fiction, the imperfect parent gives the reader an insight into the H/H’s psyche. It’s not a writing device, it’s part of life. The parents are colored the way they are to show who the H/H are and why. It’s as simple as that.

  4. First, I should have taken your road instead I left a confusing as hell post over there. But I think you hit on why I couldn’t really answer the question. (Amongst other reasons)

    I think the question of Bad Mothers in romance tends to be a political question more than it is an art or craft question: is the rash of Bad Mothers bad feminism, does it make the genre look bad, does it send a dangerous message, whatever.

    Though her first definition of bad mother really defines a bad mother to me–abusive, cruel, etc. When she goes on to give examples that’s where some of the “bad” becomes “human”.

    Diane: Sadly I have to agree. Women are supposed to worship their role as Mother. Mother comes before all. But, I don’t think it’s a motherhood contract. I think it’s just old-fashioned peer pressure by society’s standards of what and how a mother is supposed to act. Kind of like a checklist. At the end of the day everyone won’t agree what a bad mother is. I’ve met BAD so mother’s like Min don’t fall into the list. Yes, I would avoid all calls as long as possible from a mother like that but I wouldn’t deem her bad.

  5. I guess because I know my mother isn’t Bad — in fact, the older I get, the more I appreciate what an awesome, strong person she is, even as she continues to make choices of which I disapprove and do things that totally grate on and annoy me — all of the versions of her I see in your books never struck me as “Bad” either. Gwen’s passivity, check. Min’s mom pressuring her about weight because of the all-importance of getting a man, check (though that’s getting wreaked more on my older sister than me). Maddie’s mom worrying about what the neighbors think, check. Cal’s mom is the only one that struck me as outright Bad, because she’s overtly cold and nasty, and that’s one way in which my mother’s many faults never manifest.

    Also, I liked how a significant part of The Cinderella Deal was actually the hero’s coming to terms with his mother and how she felt she had failed him in his adolescence. I don’t think there’s a lot of mother-son resolution (mostly the mother-son stuff out there is Philip Roth type misogynistic crap), and that aspect of the book made me happy.

  6. My grandmother was a very cold, hard woman to my mother. She was deeply unhappy as a mother and a housewife, but she lived in a world without a lot of options. My mother was a late in life “surprise baby” and my grandmother told my mom things like “you’re the reason your father and I have a terrible marriage.” Nice lady.
    So my mom, in reaction to that, is almost smothering me with love and a level of attention that I feel is inappropriate for a daughter that is almost 30 years old. On the other hand, I know there’s a lot of people out there that would love to have that kind of assurance that they are cared for. So I feel guilty that I get frustrated, you know?
    I have a little boy that is about 7 months, so I’m kind of hoping that I will not have to deal with a difficult mother daughter dance. But of course mother son relationships can also be complicated and I want to have one more child, so I’m not out of the woods yet.

    1. Wow do I commiserate on cold, hard grandmothers. My older sister had a miscarriage before having her first child and my grandmother said, “God must not have thought you deserved a baby.” I can tell you who didn’t deserve her grandchildren…

  7. (Preview doesn’t want to work for me, so I’m apologizing in advance for the rambling and any bad grammar/typos.)

    I had a long and interesting conversation with someone a few years ago about the lack of “family values” in Disney movies. Stay with me, because this really does apply. They thought it was shocking that kids are so often portrayed in fairytales and children’s stories in general as parentless or having an evil step parent or suffering benign neglect at the hands of a parent. I said, if the kid’s world is all hunky-dory, then there’s nothing to be overcome, no reason for the adventure to begin and thus no story. The stories show a kid facing a challenge and through the use of their wits overcoming same and usually saving the day with little or no assistance from the adults. The kid gets to be the hero, in other words, which is the whole appeal to kids. Doesn’t everyone have that fantasy once in a while. No? Just me? Okay, forget I said anything.

    Anyway, I don’t see all moms in romance as being “bad mothers” but there has to be stuff there for the heroine to overcome, turning points and growth and arcs, right? She’s gotta come into her own. She’s gotta have some kind of big bad that she conquers. With the hero’s assistance makes for good romance, but isn’t necessary to the story. IMO this is why modern romance novels have a bigger market than the bodice rippers of yore which basically had the girl (who was not really a heroine) doing something stupid and needing to be rescued from the hero. Still, even those were as much about adventure as romance. So romance novels aren’t so different from fairy tales, in that respect (which might be why Bet Me is still a favorite). In children’s stories, the kids find their way home/discover the treasure/outwit the bad guys/save the village and so on. In romance, there are similarities – society’s or family expectations to face down, holding her own in a man’s world by saving the ranch or whatever, and many more. Basically, they’re all venturing through the woods and batting witches and wolves and finding HEA.

    1. Very interesting.

      Jenny said “And other than yardstick-breaking, fathers weren’t supposed to be all that present, that was mother’s work. The difference in the generations today is HUGE.”

      I think part of the emphasis on Bad Mothers is that the character needs an emphasis on a Bad Parent, and fathers just kind of fall to the waste side. Take for example in Bet Me. Cal’s dad is just a distant as the mom, but we and the author place more emphasis on Cal and his mom. Min’s dad never steps in to say “hey, my daughter is beautiful, back the hell off Nanette,” but we don’t vilify him the same way, though his lack of response can be as damaging as Nan’s pushing.

      I think we as a society still believe that parenting is the role of the mom, with the dad as a periphery part of the parenting, if at all. There are plenty of bad dad’s in romance land (from the absent father to the deadbeat to the abuser to…) but overall when a parent needs to be bad (esp for those f-ing heroes who can never trust again and vilify all women cause mom was cheating on dad, so obviously she is an example of ALL WOMANKIND…*ahem*) we lay the blame at mother’s feet. I think society is slowly changing the idea of what a Dad is (stay at home dads, single parent dads, the two dads, etc), and romance is getting there too.

      As for why there is a need for a bad parent, I ditto the rest of the comments.

      Also, I really don’t think we can discount the role of the first story. Whether it be fairy tale, Disney, or some other work of fiction, the Bad Mother is usually part of the story. And so when we write our own stories, we have in the back of our mind all the Horrible Mothers we have been reading about since we were little.

  8. I think the bad parenting, both by mothers and fathers in romance is a way of “damaging” the character of the H/H. We love to read of the H/H running to the rescue of the H/H who has been damaged by the past and showing them that the future is a bright, shiny silver dollar kind of place where nothing like the past will ever be replayed. It is the type of psychological damage that is supposedly “fixable” by the end of the story and makes the HEA more likely. More likely than say a problem with drugs, alcohol, sex addiction, pedophelia, etc., etc.
    I’m in agreement that the role of the child is to break away from the nest. Often in doing so, the parents are villified and scorned – thus the old saw about how dumb my parents were before I reached 25, and then suddenly how bright they became overnight!
    I’m of Jenny’s generation and was expected to marry and have children. I remained childless by choice and have been pilloried several times by “friends” who couldn’t understand how that decision was possible – certainly not in good mental health! Maybe it’s all the lobster syndrome – put lobsters in a pot and if one tries to escape, the others will pull him back into the hot water. We all have expectations placed on us – mothers to daughters, friends to friends, fathers to sons, etc. It’s tough to break a mold fashioned for us by others.

    1. Too true. It’s not just the ‘traditional’ mold, either….I get pointed looks/comments because I chose the husband/kids route and many of my friends think that’s only for people who can’t do anything else.

  9. This reminds me of that line at the end of Hope Floats. Something about your childhood being what you spend the rest of your life trying to get over. I think there’s a lot of truth to that. Even the best parents, with the best intentions, can make mistakes.

    As a single mother, I worry all the time about messing things up. Will she have abandonment issues? Will she be leery of trying marriage? Will she have a million other issues I can’t even fathom, but will ultimately be my fault?

    We may be writing fiction, but we’re still writing about real life. And in real life, parents aren’t always perfect. Heck, sometimes they aren’t even all that nice. My guess is the *bad parent* is commonly used because it’s common and real and makes for a more interesting story. We don’t empower women by writing them as perfect creatures with no fault and no problems. We empower women by telling stories in which female characters overcome their flaws and problems. In which they grow and maybe give us a bit of faith that we can do the same.

  10. Wow, I have been having this conversation with myself a lot lately. Random thoughts: yesterday I finished Tell Me Lies for the nth time and was thinking about Maddie’s mom as being a GOOD mom (and then there is the grandmother). And for the record, I just saw a Maurice Sendak exhibit (adults are not helpful and may even be scary), have been reading lots of Larry McMurtry books (mothers often dropping children like litters and then just leaving them or not) and when you mentioned mothers flashed on Mrs. Dashwood in Sense and Sensibility. I have no children, so I get to analyze the mother-daughter relationships of my friends and family and try to avoid analyzing my relationship with my now-deceased mother. I have been doing lots of genealogy research lately and have been struck by how all those kids just struck out across the country or across the world to find their own places, leaving behind their mothers to – grieve? Be happy for them? Follow them to the new place? When you have 13 children, what is your emotional tie to the oldest, the ones in the middle, the youngest? If you send off your daughter, Fanny Price, to live with relatives are you a bad mother? a good mother? crushed? Indifferent? I think mothers in books, EVEN romance books, are just characters.

    1. I don’t have 13 children, I have 7, but I do personally know families with 10 or more. You have an emotional tie to each of them, in a different way. The oldest and youngest have a special place, but so does the oldest girl, the boy that has his father’s sense of humor, the girl with the can-do attitude, the boy with the dimples, and so on. Each one is a world.

      Fanny Price’s mother wasn’t a bad mother, she was an incompetent mother. She didn’t know what she wanted for herself, for her children, or how to achieve the little that she did expect. The fact that Fanny “got out” was just luck.

      I agree with everyone above – the heroine’s relationship with her mother is necessary to understanding her other relationships – which is what romance books are all about.

  11. “Well, first off, I don’t think the romance genre necessarily reveres domesticity and fertility. Maybe it did back in the fifties and sixties but not today, except maybe in some of the Harlequin and Mills &Boon lines.”

    Robena, have you seen Stephanie Laurens’s essay in which she claims that the romance genre is responsible for the US’s high birth rate? She writes single titles.

  12. I agree that bad parenting makes a good story and makes a reader root for the protagonist, but I also think that the bad parenting trope is also an example of how often people in real life don’t actively deal with their baggage. Again and again, we see the bad parent as stuck in some out-dated, antiquated struggle over something he/she forces on his/her children.

    As for Crusie ‘Mothers,’ I’ve never seen them as bad. I’ve seen them as a reminder that once people become parents, they don’t stop being people. Oftentimes it seems like the things one worried about before becoming a parent are then amplified after the fact, so the worry becomes 10 times greater than it was before. Crusie ‘Mothers’ to me are women who still struggle with things in their lives and sometimes really aren’t sure what to do, which is cool because I don’t know that you really get the ‘parents are people’ perspective outside the romance genre. So hooray for humanized and flawed characters!

  13. That post, altough I didn’t reply, made me think for days, and the funny part was that I had just read Faking It and thought that Gwen wasn’t a bad mother. Not perfect, but not bad-or to say, mine was worse. *g*

    The mother relationship matters becuase it’s one of our first imprinted loves, and romance is about love. So of course it’s there. How we love our parents sets off how we love for the rest of our lives. We adjust, we grow, but that imprint is still there becuase while we may have changed the way WE love our children, we still may unconsciously react in ways that were learned.

    At least that’s where I am with it right now. And Bad Mothers are awesome.

  14. In the psychology field, “good-enough” parenting gets talked about a fair bit. That is, as parents everyone makes mistakes, but as long as there are good intentions and normal mental health on the parents’ part, the kids will most likely be okay in the end. Plus, a lot of how an event affects a kid is how it is dealt with afterwards. If there is respect for the kid’s feelings and point of view, and the kid is believed and supported, again, most likely, everything will be okay in the end. That’s not to say there won’t be some distress and upset in the process, but that the scars at the end will be minimal, if any. In any case it’s important for kids to see their parents make mistakes and deal with them appropriately, that’s major learning experience for the future.

    Most of the mothers that have been mentioned so far don’t fall into the big leagues in terms of “bad mothers,” if you use these criteria. Imperfect mothers, sure. Maybe could-do-better. But, apart from Cal’s mother, they’re not being abusive. Difficult, or annoying, or vague, but not abusive. Which is good, because as was mentioned earlier, it needs to seem possible that the H/H could be really okay now that they’re in love with this wonderful other person. If the parent really was nastily abusive, that becomes a lot less plausible, at least for me, and it makes the book a lot less enjoyable.

  15. I had a similar converstion with my friend regarding children’s stories years ago. We had been watching a lot of Disney at the time and saw the wicked and evil step-mothers and the shot by hunter mothers. We realized though that if the mothers were there, they would have solved the problems, and there would be no story.
    It makes sense that in any story, a strife with a parent makes for an interesting story. They are our first closest attachments. And in romance, there are a lot of heroines who are at the age where they are carving out their lives. And even good mothers can cause friction when they push, pull, or just be around at the wrong time. I always liked the mothers you mentioned — Nadine et al. I thought overall they were going with what they saw as the best interests of their family. In other words, they were being moms.

  16. Well, if Disney kids had loving, supportive, mentally there parents, the kids would never be allowed to have adventures. Period. Would you mothers here let your kids do that stuff? Over your dead body, right?
    Really, that’s true of everything if you think about it. How often do people who came from loving, supportive families end up doing anything other than marrying (probably young) and making more loving, supportive families? (Example: Bridgertons.) If you didn’t get that love growing up at home, you have to Go Out Into The World to go look for it, to become famous so you can boink hot star tail, to become a politician so you can boink young girl tail, to conquer Mount Everest so you can impress the ladies in bars, whatever. You have to DO something in order to try to get what some people were just born with having. And that’s what bad/nonexistent parents do: they get your ass out the door and into the world.

  17. Hi Laura:
    Thanks for the link to Stephanie Laurens’ article. It was interesting. Romance novels as female viagra? That’s a hell of a sales pitch. Ha ha.

    I think modern romance novels are escapist storytelling, a way to transcend the day to day problems. Most women realize they are pure fantasy, and they don’t need the HEA of a wedding or an engagement between the H/H, just a sense of completion and satisfaction and that the couple will remain together for a significant time. But that’s just my opinion.

    1. “Romance novels as female viagra? That’s a hell of a sales pitch.”

      And a fertility wonder-drug. Maybe that’s the reason for all those heroines who get pregnant with secret babies 😉

      I wonder if different readers tend to gravitate towards the kinds of romances that best suit their tastes/outlooks, but perhaps we also (a) notice elements that particularly annoy us and (b) interpret the elements in different ways – so what one person interprets as a “bad mother” or a gratuitous baby-filled epilogue might be another person’s “individual with a quirky personality” and “a happy family.”

      Perhaps those differing ways of perceiving things, combined with the way each of us selects which books we read, skew our views of what the genre’s like as a whole?

  18. I know this post is to be about the Bad Mother and I agree, I have issues with mine and she has different issues with hers. My biggest issue with my mom is that she thinks I shouldn’t have any issues with her… Anyway, the thing about the fertility and domestic push being the purpose of romance, well, that upsets me WAY more than the Bad Mother thing. Please blog on that too so my comments have a place to go. Simply put, I don’t like being around children and I really don’t like cleaning, but I love romance. So, your last paragraph is my favorite in this posting.

    1. Agreed with Kelly — I am all about romance’s validating “pair bonds, family, and community,” not necessarily “housekeeping and childbirth.”

      As for whether the consumption of romance novels affects fertility, from what I understand romance novels/ chick lit are very popular in Japan, yet the Japanese have extremely low birth rates, to the point of threatening their society’s survival. (Especially since they also disfavor immigration.) The best explanation I have seen for variation in birth rates in the developed world (North America, Europe, Japan) is actually the level of gender equality. Italy and Japan have low birth rates because women delay having children as long as possible, because there’s so little support for working mothers. Once you have a child, you’re expected to stay home for years. How many young women want to sign up for that before she has to? In contrast, Scandinavian countries that provide good support for women’s reentering the work force after having kids (state-mandated long maternity leaves AND significant paternity leaves) have higher birth rates than their European neighbors. The U.S. is a bit of an exception here: while we have good gender equality in some respects, we don’t provide as much support for working mothers.

  19. I hadn’t noticed the Bad Mother motif – probably because I don’t have mother issues – but after a recent afternoon watching the Shelley Duval fairy tale videos I was struck by the number of fairy tales that were written to explain infertility. I don’t see the opposite where the romance genre promotes fertility necessarily unless you are pointing out the ‘female viagra’ issue, in which I can say it certainly doesn’t hurt – especially when infertility is an issue and somethings have to happen on a schedule and not necessarily when you actually feel like doing them. If you get my drift;)

  20. Don’t forget that Brenda in “Agnes and the Hitman” is a bad mother. Somebody who tries to kill your Dad and also steals all your money definitely is beyond flawed.

  21. Long time reader, first time post. This post is fascinating reading, particularly given that I’m just in the middle of cleaning out a whole lot of old study notes on fiction, fantasy and feminism (while my friends were all sweating their theses, I got to read The Hobbit, and Snow White. It’s a tough life.) I always liked the theory that Wicked Stepmothers were rampant in fairytales because the protagonists had to have someone in the mother-role who was okay to hate and rebel against and eventually kill off. And, obviously, you can’t do this to your mother – she’d never let you hear the end of it. So, the real mother got bumped off in a blameless fashion in the first sentence of the fairytale, and enter the Wicked Stepmother, a surrogate mother all ready to symbolise all sorts of Jungian and Freudian conflicts, and make Snow White’s and Cinderella’s lives difficult.

  22. Not only are all mothers multifaceted, I believe the role of motherhood changes drastically throughout a mother’s and child’s life. My daughter through her teenage years would yell at me that she was all grown and didn’t need to be mothered anymore. What she didn’t need, I believe, was to be mothered in the same manner she was accustomed. So realizing, and explaining to her if I couldn’t put her back when I realized a week home from the hospital that something so small and delicate could scream through an entire night, I certainly could not put her back when she was taller than I. Now I had to do the work of finding out what mothering meant when your daughter is and teenager, an adult, a wife, and now (hurrah, hurrah, hurrah) a mom. And though I found out it is very different, it is also very much the same. I just look for reasons to say yes, and that’s great, and I agree. The no’s and don’ts still come too often without looking for them. And the what is needed today is definitely a day at a time thing, which I too often get wrong, and which can still braid thinking process just as it did when my daughter was 16. So bottom line, outrageous behavior is more fun to read about than goody goody, IT IS FICTION, and we learn to mother from all examples, not just the good ones. All this is to say a snap shot of anyone of us on would show us as clueless moms, bad moms, loving moms, controlling moms and uninterested moms. Its when the snap shots get linked together it gets interesting.

  23. Everyone has a bad mother in that a child believes he/she is the center of the universe and the mother must burst that bubble.

    When I was young I had a recurring dream that my beautiful mother (as depicted in her wedding picture) was sent away and replaced by my actual mother – who was overweight and had wild hair in the dreams (but only occasionally in real life).

    All of Krissie’s heroines have bad mothers or dead mothers or bad, dead mothers I believe.

    The bad mother in fiction makes us feel better about our mothers in real life. We need them.

    1. The everyone has a bad mother because the child is the center of the universe line?


  24. I wonder if there might be a generational gap in views here. Disclaimer: I’m 55.

    What my parents viewed as teaching, nurturing and laying down the law, are now viewed as abusive, hence Bad parents. Just more strict for lack of a better word.

    My mother does not have button eyes. She just appears to be the Other Mother at times. Just like Min’s Mom.

    1. Oh, that’s definitely true. My dad used to break yardsticks over my butt. We never thought of it as abuse. Every kid on the block was getting beaten. And other than yardstick-breaking, fathers weren’t supposed to be all that present, that was mother’s work. The difference in the generations today is HUGE. Although I have found that once my daughter had her daughter, the gap closed somewhat because she asked me questions about herself as a baby, and babies, thank God, are timeless and universal.

  25. Since Deb brought up the Other Mother, that’s a story with two Bad Mothers, one who’s too busy working to pay attention to the daughter she clearly loves and the Other Mother who wants to take Coraline’s soul. It’s an interesting dynamic because they could be two sides of the same Mother. I like the idea that the Bad Mothers are there in fairy tales to help children act out their need to reject their mothers so they can grow. Maybe the Bad Mothers in romance perform the same function on a (slightly) more sophiticated level.

    1. “I like the idea that the Bad Mothers are there in fairy tales to help children act out their need to reject their mothers so they can grow.”

      Or the corollary, that Bad Mothers exist in fiction so that we all can work through the idea that a person can be flawed, but still be loved, lovable, and/or redeemable. I think the ultimate goal in life is not that we have to reject our Mothers and how they view life and think we ought to view life, but to get to a point of acceptance–that is how they view it, however flawed. I can view it another way, and still love her.

      I think that there’s a deeper psychological twist at work–that a “flawed” mother, a bad mother, implies to the child that they are somehow responsible for the badness. For if they had been a “good” child, everything would have been easier. It’s a burden bad mothers would like the children to bear as well, for it acts as a good rationalization for behavior they know is not acceptable. These two components form a fulcrum, where on one side is complete rejection (i.e., no relationship whatsoever) and on the other side is complete submission (i.e., my mother must be right, therefore I am completely wrong, because she is my mother, and mothers cannot be flawed). In the middle, balancing those two extremes, is acceptance: mothers are flawed, but I can accept her for who she is without compromising who I want to be.

      The fundamental truth I learned after I had my first son (I am 47) was that I could be horribly flawed, even when I had the best of intentions, but that my son was only going to know the intentions if I admitted to the flaws and taught him that yes, moms were not perfect. This was a complete revelation to me, and probably the only time I had that big of a leap in self-awareness. (Thank goodness I had at least one.)

      The second fundamental truth I learned is that, as an adult, I was just as responsible for my relationship with my mother as she was with her relationship with me.

      I think really good fiction, particularly really good genre fiction, uses the notion of negotiating toward that balance to show a character’s arc. They have to come to a place of acceptance of the flaws of the people–especially their parents–surrounding them, because that acceptance leads to self-acceptance. [Occasionally, that acceptance means coming to the realization that the relationship with the mother and/or any other antagonist, is toxic and as such, the heroine would be well within her rights to decide that such a relationship can not continue. That “acceptance” means accepting one’s own limitations as well as the limitations of others and recognizing that a person has the right to good mental health and that if another person–be it a parent or other–is toxic, that person is not allowed to continue disrupting the heroine’s life unless they change behaviors.]

      In romance, particularly in modern romance, self-acceptance is necessary for a heroine to have a true HEA, and if we witness some of those skills in action as she navigates through the minefield that are the flaws of those who purport to love her, if she has gained skills in that process, then we can have reasonable hopes that she will be able to continue to negotiate the HEA as she–and the hero–live together in Happily Flawed Future.

    2. That’s what I thought about Coraline’s Mother at first, too. At the end, though, I think it showed that the ‘too busy working’ was a temporary thing(although there were other issues–like not wanting to get dirty, over-controlling etc.) that loomed large in a child’s sense of time. Let’s face it, there are times that Real Life has to intrude and kids end up not getting what they think they need. I remember feeling horribly wounded and neglected when my mom wouldn’t drop everything for some terribly-important-at-the-time crisis. Looking back, she was usually well within her rights. A great parenting book, ‘Girlfriend’s Guide to Toddlers’, accurately calls kids black holes of attention–you can never give them enough, and it’s sometimes impossible to tell what’s real need and what’s just being demanding. To be honest, they don’t know either.
      I think I’m with the ‘not ‘bad’ mothers but flawed mothers’ concept; or even just ‘real people who happen to be mothers’. Sometimes, I think that ‘bad’ mothers aren’t universally bad; just that there is a mis-match with the personality of the mother( I should say ‘parent’) and the kid. I definitely know that what is the perfect parenting style for one child is completely–sometimes disastrously–wrong for another.

  26. Brenda was a nightmare, but LL? I admired her. I had the feeling she had come to terms with the reality that she had a rotten mom, a runaway dad, and had ultimately decided to just get on with life. It was bad luck, but not her fault. That came as something of a revelation – you have a Bad Mother – so do lots of other people. You can make a family with someone not even related to you. And I loved LL as a mom, too. So what if she drove her kid a little nuts sometimes? When she did, she tried to change and that made her a great parent, I thought. So thank you, Jenny, for writing at least once about a REALLY, REALLY Bad Mother. It was something of a wake-up call for me – the nicest kind, too, delivered with a sense of humor. Sure beats therapy.

  27. LL was a survivor, and Brenda gave her that. Whatever else you can say about Brenda, she was a fighter, and LL watched that growing up and learned how. Of course, Brenda was also missing a few pieces, but even she wasn’t completely bad. She really did love LL. Not unconditionally, but she loved her.

  28. OK, I get the conditional love Brenda had for LL and she certainly was a survivor. The Maizie affair alone could send some women around the bend. But still, it was the thieving, head-bashing, hit-man hiring Brenda that I enjoyed. I think there’s a degree of comfort in the “mine’s pretty bad, but not as bad as yours” image. And the image needs to be fictional and it helps if it’s humorous – real life and true to life horrors can draw you into the heartbreak until you can’t step back. But a character like outrageous, awful Brenda gives you space to acknowledge that your situation could be a lot worse, and maybe it’s even a little funny at times. That’s a pretty big gift from a Bad Mother character.

  29. A lot of this has been said, but some random thoughts that occurred as I read the original blog post:
    1. Measuring against, say, the Madonna, very few moms are good moms. And it’s hard to find a mom who judges herself a great mom, isn’t it? (-:
    2. A good mom isn’t terribly exciting, usually. She’s there to support the character, not upstage the character.
    3. Separation issues make the child/parent struggle intrinsically interesting, and almost everyone can relate.
    4. There sure are a lot of no-mom stories. Avoiding the issue? (Although, some posters did say it gives the author a chance to set up Evil Mom without slamming on Real Mom, so I can see that.)

    Great posts — both original and Jenny’s response! Very thought-provoking.

    BTW, fictional good moms: Bridget Jones’ mom (and dad). (Helen Fielding)
    Cordelia Vorkosigan (and her mom, Mrs. Naismith). (Lois McMaster Bujold)
    I’m not really coming up with many others, but I am sure they are there.

    1. Can I just say how happy I am to see Cordelia Vorkosigan mentioned here. She was an amazing woman and mom and yet so completely believable.

    2. I didn’t think Bridget Jones’s mother was presented as Good. She gives Bridget ugly clothes, scolds her for living in the city, pushes her on various men, and ends up leaving Bridget’s perfectly nice dad and running off with another man. She’s not Bad — she clearly loves Bridget and is trying to help her, and at the end of the second book she gives Bridget some good life advice that keeps Bridget from screwing up her romance with Darcy — but Good? Uh uh. Bridget’s dad falls into the popular “benevolent, clueless and pretty much useless” category of fathers.

  30. Off the topic but not.

    When are the anticipated publication dates for anything Crusie? My relationship with my mother is entirely too functional so I must live vicariously through you (don’t worry everyone else in my genealogical tree is bonkers). Also, come to think of it you write dysfunctional aka real families regardless of gender. Gamblers, mafia, thieves, lying art dealers, etc. Fathers are Baddd, too.

    Would you ever teach a course as part of an MFA program? I ask because life sucks and your books make me happy. Thanks so much for choosing writing as your path.

    P.S. I don’t think you ever went into the reasoning behind such a sudden surge of interest in all things supernatural/other worldly/spiritual?

    1. Eve, next year is packed with reissues and at least one new book, Wild Ride. I’ll put up a tentative schedule in the next post.

      Supernatural. I don’t know why. Well, there was Buffy, but Turn of the Screw has always been a fave, and Dracula, and Topper and I loved Blithe Spirits (used to know all the songs, too) so it’s always been there. Eileen Dreyer had the idea for the witches in UMF and then D&G came along. Bob had always done supernatural, and I loved the idea of a haunted amusement park. And I’ve been thinking about doing my version of TofS for years, since my original MFA. But the next project is a non-supernatural series, so there’s that. The book I’m thinking of after that is supernatural again, ghosts, but it’s a spin-off of AKMG . . .
      This is rambling. I don’t know why all the supernatural. It just showed up.
      MFA: I’d love to but I don’t want to travel so it would have to be around here. Plus most colleges and universities draw the line at romance writers.

      1. Xavier doesn’t have an MFA program but they’d probably like to have you teach. Not sure where you are in southern Ohio (I try not to be too crazy stalkerific a fan) but they’re fun and friendly and give free wine to teachers and students one Friday a month!

        Also, a series? For some reason I thought I had read that you were opposed to ever doing a series because it meant that each novel after the first would be the second, third, etc most important moment in the character’s life. But maybe I made that up in my head. I’d be excited for it.

  31. Also, I have to disagree with Micki. Bridget Jones’ mom was in my opinion a la Min’s mother. She dressed her daughter horribly, picked on her weight/lifestyle/etc. Cheated on her husband.
    She wasn’t awful but she had ISSUES, for sure.

  32. Are we talking about Bad Mothers here, or Real Mothers? I’m a Real Mother, and some people may say I’m bad, some would say good.

  33. Also, there have been periods in my children’s lives when I can say ‘I did a good job there’ and other periods where I am ashamed to look back.

    Which comes back to individual definitions: what is your idea of a good mother? What is bad? My bad is someone who puts her partner/ love life before her children.

    1. I had a period where I was nuts. No, really, manic. I don’t know how Mollie survived. Believe it or not, I’ve MELLOWED. It must have been like growing up with old Wire Hangers. That was Bad.
      I think there’s a trade-off, though, in putting the kids first. I’ll buy that up until about sixteen. Then you get to have a life again and they should pull up their socks.

  34. {Sorry for the repeat. Originally put this as a reply to another post cause that’s how I opened the other window to write it out.)

    Very interesting.

    Jenny said “And other than yardstick-breaking, fathers weren’t supposed to be all that present, that was mother’s work. The difference in the generations today is HUGE.”

    I think part of the emphasis on Bad Mothers is that the character needs an emphasis on a Bad Parent, and fathers just kind of fall to the waste side. Take for example in Bet Me. Cal’s dad is just a distant as the mom, but we and the author place more emphasis on Cal and his mom. Min’s dad never steps in to say “hey, my daughter is beautiful, back the hell off Nanette,” but we don’t vilify him the same way, though his lack of response can be as damaging as Nan’s pushing.

    I think we as a society still believe that parenting is the role of the mom, with the dad as a periphery part of the parenting, if at all. There are plenty of bad dad’s in romance land (from the absent father to the deadbeat to the abuser to…) but overall when a parent needs to be bad (esp for those f-ing heroes who can never trust again and vilify all women cause mom was cheating on dad, so obviously she is an example of ALL WOMANKIND…*ahem*) we lay the blame at mother’s feet. I think society is slowly changing the idea of what a Dad is (stay at home dads, single parent dads, the two dads, etc), and romance is getting there too.

    As for why there is a need for a bad parent, I ditto the rest of the comments.

    Also, I really don’t think we can discount the role of the first story. Whether it be fairy tale, Disney, or some other work of fiction, the Bad Mother is usually part of the story. And so when we write our own stories, we have in the back of our mind all the Horrible Mothers we have been reading about since we were little.

  35. I’m totally intruding in a place I don’t belong here, but I saw a link to this and I read about anything about writing I come across to. I want to be a writer. I have characters I experiment with, stories I want to write. But, most of all, I LOVE to read.
    I get it that you’re talking about romance here, and, even though I don’t read romance itself per se — only romantic suspense and romantic comedies — and it’s never really for the romance — I don’t agree about the ‘bad mother’ thing. I mean, I don’t agree that writing bad mothers is necessary for a heroine (or any character) to have issues. Some of my favorite books — about some of the most beautifully troubled characters — have wonderful parents, both mothers and fathers. Of course, characters have issues with their parents, but I think everyone does at some point.
    The thing is, they have others issues, issues which make their self-confidence weak or make them scared of living or give them a hard time waking up in the morning. And, even with a good, supportive mother, who tries and understands them as they are, they still have issues. I suppose, though, that having bad mothers would make heroines (or hero) lonely so they’d run to the hero’s (or heroine’s — I’m all for gender equality) arms, but… I don’t know. I see that my favorite books have good mothers — and I mean the ones that stand out and I read over and over again — whether they’re the heroine’s or the hero’s, even they’re not perfect.
    I haven’t had a crappy childhood, on the contrary, it was mostly very happy, and my mother is not as bad as I can make her sound. I love her and adore her and she’s everything to me. We have issues, of course, bigger than I want to realize, to be honest. And, maybe, I just can’t conceive the idea of having a really bad parent. But, I have no problem with the heroine having a mother she can go to in the end of the day, and have her source of main issues away from home. (There’s a lot of psychos out there to mess someone’s life — they don’t need to come from inside their home). Or maybe I’m all ‘rainbows’ and ‘unicorns’, as someone said once. I don’t know.
    What I do know is that a bad mother isn’t necessary for a good book, or an interesting heroine. They can have good mothers, too, and be just as damaged and carry so much baggage. I guess I just wrote all that to say I can’t see a necessary relation between the two of them. Of course, someone with an alcoholic, drug abuser, that sold her for money as a child would have deep issues, as would someone who’s been kidnapped by a psycho killer and kept captive, being tortured. Issues are everywhere — I don’t see why they have to be about mothers to be interesting.
    Or maybe I’m just being a big, big hypocrite. I’ve been going through the mothers I write, and I’ve been thinking, very thoroughly I might say, and, I realize that of ALL of my main characters, only ONE has a good mother (a wonderful mother, I might say), though, they pretty much all become good mothers themselves. But, yeah, I have a whole family — seven siblings and ‘daddy’ — and ‘mother’. Umm.. yeah. I’m off now.

    1. Everybody who wanders in belongs here, so welcome to the pool.

      I agree, a bad mother isn’t necessary for a good book. The heroine can have other kinds of baggage, although I’m with OH on the I’ll-never-love-again meme being a wall-banger. I do think if you want to knee-cap her effectively, a bad mother is a good way to start. Or at least a flawed mother. Which is all mothers.
      Well, that got me nowhere.
      The mothers in the WIP are both flawed but not insanely so. Of course, this heroine has ghosts to deal with, so maybe the Bad Mother is superfluous here. “I’m being haunted AND my mother is a bitch.”

      1. Little Women was interesting in how it dealt with this: Marmee was presented as the bestest mother ever, but by today’s helicopter-parent standards I think she would be seen as slightly neglectful. She certainly believed in letting her children learn through experience and have to cope with certain amounts of social humiliation and sadness and just plain real life. I suppose the bigger plot-driver in that book was actually the gap between the Marches’ class and their income — the gap between the socio and the economic. So many of the episodes in their lives stem from that.

  36. I wonder if a flawed or missing parent is almost a necessity for decent character arc? The character has to grow and overcome something, right? As a reader, I’m more sympathetic to a flawed character and more likely to cheer on their arc if the character got off to a less than perfect start. If the character’s childhood was all Mayberry-esque and mom and dad were straight out of a 50s sitcom, it’s more likely I’ll want to smack the character around some.

    1. No, I think as long as you have a good-enough conflict in the story, a character can have a good childhood. It’s just that since the good childhood probably has very little to do with the here-and-now, it probably won’t be mentioned in the story. Scarlett O’Hara probably had a very good childhood, after all. She loved her parents.

  37. Back to Bujold’s books – Cordelia was certainly a good mother (although with plenty of self-doubts), and Miles faced discrimination and physical challenges. I think that a bad mother is a very easy/natural way to bring adversity to a charcters life, but not a necessity. Being that I agree with Jenny that most good romances are about community and character arc, it becomes even more natural for some of the adversity to come from relationships, and mother-child is a pretty fundamental relationship. I’m pretty sure Tolstoy covered this when he talked about Anna Karenina – all happy families are happy in the same way – all unhappy familes are unhappy uniquely. Okay – I realize that’s a paraphrase, but the bottom line – there’s got to be interest generated, and in romance, the mother-child relationship is so natural it’s going to show up, a lot.

    1. Just to balance things out, though, Bujold also had Neglectful Mom Ista (who was stuck in her despair and psychological trauma until she got her own book to figure things out in).

  38. The Bad/Flawed mother isn’t necessary for a good book, but it sure gives a writer plenty of ways to make a character interesting. I don’t agree about the Mayberry-esque childhood producing a character you want to smack just because. I think that lends itself to making a character interesting by virtue of her struggle to find what her parents have. Children, even when they’re adults tend to see their parents through their childhood memories when looking at the good and the bad. I think adults spend a lot of their lives unconsciously doing things opposite of their parents or trying to do them just like their parents; yes, we all are individuals, but we tend to learn by example. If you live with someone (parents, siblings, best friend, significant other, spouse) you are going to have issues and THAT makes interesting stories. Bad mothers aren’t necessary, but they sure are fun. Min is my all time favorite, for her it was much easier to stand up to Cal’s mom than her own, but she finally does it. I think I need a donut.

  39. SueG – while I agree with McB that some characters come off as feeling so entitled that they are whining about nothing, I think your insight that it’s still a struggle to GET the life they think is natural is an important one.

    Heaven knows it never occurred to me as a child that I wouldn’t marry: my parents’ marriage is far from perfect, but it’s lasted 45 years and counting. Everyday triumphs are still important!

    1. I meant the comment in general; that not all characters that are products of “happy perfect homes” automatically become annoying to me. Like all characters there are some you like and some you don’t. Yes, the entitled, whiney heroine/hero is a turn-off and a writer has to be darn good to turn that character around. Most of us don’t want to read about whiners, we get enough of that in real life. I just think good, bad, even indifferent parents can make a good read in the hands of a great writer, (Jenny!).

  40. Great moms and great shoes have a lot in common. One size does not fit all, and even the greatest can pinch and hurt, especially during those teen years. And, the greatest are few and far between. The rest of us do the best we can and try to learn from our mistakes.

    I believe that when you become a parent, you’re non-negotiable obligation in all things is doing what’s best for your child. Where people go wrong, IMHO, is confusing this with putting your child first. Not the same thing at all. There are many times when putting your child last is in her best interest. Divining those times is the bitch.

    I really can’t understand why anyone would say Jenny doesn’t write good moms, because most of her books are full of good moms. If the criteria is doing what’s in the best interest of your child, there are darn few bad moms in Jenny’s books. But, there are a boatload of good ones. I can’t think of a single book that doesn’t have one or more good mom in it, and frequently the community itself is one of them. I love that.

    For romance in general, though, I think Bad Mom is just a change up from Dead Mom. In the olden days, the usual orphaned romance heroine’s only flaw was poverty. Character flaws required justification or their heroine status was revoked. Dead Mom, Bad Mom, Bad Dad, Bad Uncle, Bad Boss, Bad Boyfriend. I just don’t see Bad Mom as standing out, especially in romance. Nutty mom, yes.

  41. I don’t have a problem with “Bad Mom’s” in romance novels. I think for most of the authors I read the Mom’s aren’t truly “bad”, they are just human and flawed. And we all go through issues with our moms so I like reading about the heroines going through it too. To be honest one of the highlights of romance novels that I enjoy are the relationships between the women, not just the main romance story. The only genre I have a problem with bad moms is all the Disney movies. But that’s another topic.

  42. “I believe that when you become a parent, you’re non-negotiable obligation in all things is doing what’s best for your child. Where people go wrong, IMHO, is confusing this with putting your child first. Not the same thing at all. There are many times when putting your child last is in her best interest. Divining those times is the bitch.”
    Now ain’t that the truth?!

    I believe that the perception of mothers probably makes the best fiction – a mother does not necessarily need to be bad, just perceived as such. Or the protagonist feels that they were the recipient of bad parenting in one form or another. That lays the foundation of most “issues” right there. All emotional baggage = potential for conflict and goals.

    I’ve been reading children’s/ya fiction recently – Eoin Colfer’s books , Chris Bradford’s Young Samurai, Sisters of the Sword by Maya Snow, Sherman Alexie’s Absolutely True Diary of a Part-time Indian. Most show that in some way the parents were ineffective and that resulted in the young protagonist needing to “quest”. The inefficiencies may not be by choice – but they serve to initiate action and character development.
    I hope this made sense!

  43. Words of a very wise woman I have been fortunate to know…”all mothers screw up all of their children. Think of it as tradition and stop beating yourself up.” Sure we need bad mothers for all of the reasons previously mentioned here, but how about those books with horrible mothers–whatever your definition of horrible–that have us swiping our brows with a “Whew! At least I never did that to my child.”

    1. It took me two days to rewrite this post until it made sense. I kept going off track, arguing that there shouldn’t be a proscription against bad mothers, which of course was not what Robin was saying. So I kept cutting and revising and trying to figure out what I wanted to say. Really a blog post and not a comment.

  44. I’d say it’s 2D vs 3D mothers (or 1D vs 2D if we’re talking Disney), but in terms of Crusie Bad Mothers, what about Park’s mother in Strange Bedfellows? I think she’s beyond ‘I’m screwing up your life because I want the best for you, you’ll thank me in the end’ and into ‘I want the best for me’ psychopathy… But I love it when Park grows a spine 😉

  45. Ages ago, I wrote an article on absent and bad mothers for the Romance Writers Report. Basically, it’s been a tradition in women’s writing (or writing that has a female protagonist) since the ancient days. You pick up any fairy tale and a huge number of them feature an absent or bad mother/stepmother. Part of that is because in the old days, women died young and a young girl had to try to survive amongst competing younger step-siblings if her father remarried (which he usually did), and that meant competing for dowries, etc. And fairy tales were mostly stories told by women to women.

    Second, as others have said, the absent or bad mother is something that forces the heroine to be independent/find her own identity quickly in the short time span of a book.

    These days, however, mothers live longer than they used to, so the dynamic in today’s stories are going to be more complex. IMHO, of course.

    1. Plus the absent or distant father who remarries and doesn’t take care of his daughter. I think he’s there (or isn’t there) so the stepmother will have more scope, but I think he also follows the traditional pattern of distant fathers. Mom was the one who had the power.

  46. I’m still scratching my head as to why Min’s Mom took the heat in the original post. She was neurotic, of course. But she got thrown in with whores and abusers for the other Bad Mom examples.

    Sure, Min’s mom had food issues. But she’s not exactly Medea. Min’s still alive and high functioning and has a relationship with her, even if it’s flawed.

    And frankly, when it comes to Bad Moms, you’ve done worse.

    Maybe the question should be, “Why do we call her a bad mom?” or “Why do we have to define flawed parents as ‘bad’ to make the heroines ‘good’?” and not “Why are there so many in women’s fiction?”

    But who am I to judge? I’m the daughter of the mayor of crazytown. Selling that story as an Oprah book is pretty much my whole retirement plan.

  47. One aspect of the bad/seriously flawed mother is that it gives a built-in way to develop, or demonstrate, the personality of the heroine without excessive exposition. After all, by their nature interactions between mother and daughter are usually very intense, especially if there are significant personality differences(or too close similarities). Also, everyone has an idea of what that interaction *should* be (in their experience) and can use it as a way to identify with them.

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