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.