Flawed Mothers in Fiction – or are they?

To celebrate International Women’s Day on March 8th, from today until the end of March I’ll be writing articles about ‘flawed’ women in fiction.

As a psychologist and as a woman, I have never warmed to passive women in fiction. I see them as a foil to the ‘bad man’ and isn’t that too easy? Of course, the concepts of protagonist and antagonist demands that we have conflict and I’m all for it, but, in my opinion as a reader and a writer, it is lazy to write passive, simpering female protagonists and active, evil male antagonists.

Yet this trend persists in the guise of overly ‘sympathetic characters’. If women have a strong voice or a social habit, or god forbid a range of sexual partners, they are portrayed as damaged. One facet of this that has been heavily commented on is ‘flawed’ or ‘bad’ mothers in fiction. From Mrs Bennett  to Adrian Mole’s mother, Pauline, these fictional women have been described with the usual adjectives especially reserved for women who do not conform to the ‘quiet, reserved, unconditional love’ mother motif that pervades the social norm but rarely exists outside the patriarchal gaze. Women love their children and love motherhood, but have multiple identities which they carry out consecutively. This, in real life, is not flawed, but necessity.

Of course we want mothers to be good; we want them to care for children and provide for them, but isn’t part of being good providing a strong basis for independent living in a world that, once you leave the nest, becomes the savage reality of dog eat dog? I do not see women in fiction who, in addition to being a mother, show their personality, as ‘flawed’.  Or ‘bad’. I see them as interesting and intricate. Unless they are criminal, obviously, but even then, I need to see the psychological motivation which is separate to the crime and not simply ‘mad and bad’ or ‘stupid’. I want to know what they are thinking and feeling so I can make my own mind up.

I would argue that commercial fiction today needs mothers who women can identify with. Novels are not a lesson, but a resonance. The skill in writing realistic mothers in today’s world lies in characterisation of women who have children and who let their individuality and everything that comes with it – alcohol, joy, painkiller addiction, confidence, body image issues, love, neurosis – shine through, but enough that we still know them and kind of like them. That we would still go to the pub with them, meet them for lunch. Or at least tolerate them. That they have a rounded story.

I recently met two of these mothers in books I read last month. I picked them up at random, but both turned out to be about mother-daughter relationships, but from very different perspectives.

The first was The Child, by Fiona Barton. This novel centres around the skeleton of a baby found on a building site. It is narrated from four points if view, and focuses heavily on a reporter who investigates. All these women are mothers and this is the central message of the story, but the author makes an impression with Jude, the mother of one of the other narrators. Jude is a narcissistic woman now, seemingly uncaring, but Barton has made us see Jude’s past and why she is like this. We see, through Emma’s viewpoint and Jude’s narration of her inner self, the conflict she has suffered throughout her life. It is this exploration that allows us to understand Jude’s motivations in the story.

The second book was The Queen of Bloody Everything by Jo Nadin. There are two mothers in this book, Edie, the single parent hippie, and Angela, a Stepford Wife-ish suburban housewife. They are thrown together as their families grow and this relationship alone provides a conflict which compares but never judges the different ways they care for their children – and they do. Despite their quirks and ticks, they care deeply. This subtext adds an extra delicious dimension to the novel, but it is Edie’s extraordinary determination to live her own life that shines through. She pushes the boundaries for sure, but we see her so well through the eyes of her daughter Dido that she is entirely forgivable and, as Dido grows up a little bit pathetic. But never flawed or bad, because don’t we all know mothers like Jude and Edie?

It is important that women as mothers are portrayed realistically. Not as bad or flawed if they make a mistake or – shock horror – have a life outside childcare, but as people living lives that are affected by the past and expectations of the future. Multi dimensional characters whose motivations lie with and outside their children and partners. It is the stereotyping of women is all areas of life that has led to the misogynistic ‘good girl’ culture that presses women and girls into a single-dimension pastiche of what women and their lives are really like.

As I mentioned above, commercial, and indeed, literary fiction are not lessons in life, but they are cultural markers. They are ways that we can feel not alone and see glimpses of ourselves in our resonation with the characters. Writers observe life, readers resonate. Most of all, commercial fiction is escapism, and while we want to escape into a story that is different to our own, we still need to recognise the players.