I’ve put off focussing on the family in children’s literature, but I’ve decided it’s important to talk about how not only children are viewed, but how adults are viewed as well- You can’t have children without adults. I’ve talked about fairy tales before, but in terms of the roles they play in driving the plot. This is meant to coincide with my Gender and Sexuality course blog, I thought I haven’t written here, so I may as well stop putting it off.
In fairy tales, “the Grimms chose in later editions to turn mother into stepmother, no doubt because they did not wish to confront their child-readers with such unnatural maternal behaviour.” (Hallett, 140) This is why heroines such as Snow White, Cinderella, and Beauty have no mother. What is ‘unnatural maternal behaviour?’ Or what has it been? That’s what this post is all about.
In the Puritan times, “the child was obliged to grow up quickly and fend for him or herself, so in a world where mere survival is a constant challenge, it is reasonable to speculate that the emotional attachment between parent and child was sometimes less intense than in our own world of relative affluence and leisure.” (Hallett, 139) Forming relationships was not as important as today- who people knew was not important as what they did- to survive they needed to know how to do so. Children often died very young, so parents weren’t expected to have a close attachment to them. With the rise of the cult of childhood, as the view of children did, so did the role of the mother. “Until the beginning of the 21st century the drama between mothers and daughters were made relatively unexplored in literature…The images of mothers that did exist were rather sentimental.” (Humphreys, lecture).
In this clip, Wendy is explaining to Michael what a mother is. Her view of them as angelic and protective was the stereotypical view of how mothers were meant to be viewed in the nineteenth century. It is also worth noting that she takes on the role of the mother in the absence of her own. A mother is necessary in a child’s life: fathers are allowed to be absent, but if a mother is absent, there must be a mother-like figure (an older sister, an aunt, a stepmother or adoptive mother) to step into that role. With the death of a mother- including the absence of one as seen in the clip above or in stories where orphans figure, the mother is mourned, as someone who “would have been always present. A mother would have been a constant friend, her influence would have been beyond all other.” (Austen, 132). Even in fantasy books, which children turn to as an escape from the real world, mothers are still present. In the Harry Potter series there are several examples of the ways that mothers interact with or have an effect on their children.
This image of the mother is limited to Western culture. “In Aboriginal ideology, producing life and raising children are understood as the creation of a people, a nation, and a future. The Iroquois recognize this authority both informally and formally, as exemplified by their traditional political system. In this system, older women (clan mothers) are seen as the most suitable members to choose the upcoming chiefs by virtue of the fact that they have watched all the children closely from their earliest years. They have overseen the growth of the future community members, and thus can make well-informed decisions about who should carry which responsibilities.” (Anderson, 170). These women have power because they raise the children, it is not limited because it is seen as the only role they have, as in Western culture. Mothers are treated this way in indigenous culture because of the way children are viewed. Children are seen as a part of the community- they aren’t sectioned off as a group of their own. There is also no single mother in charge, children have several mothers whom they can turn to: it is not seen as a loss if a child is with their grandmother, or aunt, or adoptive mother because “in the Aboriginal ideology of motherhood, all women have the right to make decisions on behalf of the children, the community, and the nation. The Aboriginal ideology of motherhood is not dependent on whether, as individuals, we produce children biologically. Women can be mothers in different ways… They are thought of as mother and grandmother in the figurative sense, and their role is the same as that of any mother: to teach, nurture, and heal all people, not just their own.” (Anderson, 171) In Will’s Garden, the family situation is described as a wheel: “The whole clan moves as a unit, and the feelings of its women are the center of its unit. Us kids are all spokes in the family wheel, the women stand at the hub and the men wrap themselves around those to make sure the wheel turns around free and easy.” (Maracle, 43) The women have control not only over the children, but the other members of the family as well. The job of the father is simply to support the ideas of the mother. “In a Sto: loh house the kitchen is the domain of the women and the not-yet-talking kids…We are allowed to be anywhere we please but in the kitchen the women only pay attention to the kids still wearing diapers, and to each other.” (Maracle, 8-9) The role that mothers play is to look after the very young children, older children are expected to look after themselves. The role of the grandmother and the mother are interchangeable. “Mom’s…eyes are as warm and as happy as ever, but her body has about had it with kids. Twenty-seven years of us and now she is in the home stretch. She has one of Callie’s babies in her arms. She strokes the baby’s hair and gives her such a sweet look. I picture her looking at each one of us like that, stroking our hair, and getting ready for ceremony after ceremony, year after year. After I am grown up, things will change. She will be like Gramma, sitting in the corner making whatever she feels like. Staying up till she feels like turning in, then just going to bed not worrying about what’s done and not done, just going to sleep in Grandpa’s arms. Gramma always had one of us sleeping on her ample lap. She still does. The one Momma is now holding is snoozing away on Gramma’s lap till she turns in. Momma lays the child on a blanket in the kitchen until she is ready to take her up to bed with her.” (Maracle, 100). One of the maxims in Will’s household is that “‘The head woman is always someone’s mother.’ She is not elected, nor is she self-appointed. She seems to be recognized by her siblings and the men around her the way my mom is recognized and it seems to have something to do with her knowledge. It is a slippery kind of recognition. If my mom doesn’t know anything about something she hands over the reins to some woman she knows does know about whatever. Everyone switches allegiance to this other woman. It is never said out loud in any direct kind of way. She will just casually ask Ellie what she thinks and like magic we all know-Ellie be the boss here. No votes, no election, no platform, just simple acknowledgement.” (Maracle, 41-42) Women make the decisions, and everybody acknowledges them, not just as mothers, but as people with knowledge. The role of the mother is important, and it is because they have raised children that they have knowledge-raising children is just as important, or more important than supporting the family like in Western society. Knowledge is gained through the family in generations. Despite that, Will admits that “I don’t really know this woman called my mother. Her touch is familiar, but not her being…For fifteen years I have watched her work, heard the odd quip from her, seen her love my father in her looks, her small devotions, a clandestine touch when she believes no one is looking, but I have no idea how she thinks or what she thinks. I used to wonder what she thought about when I was small and I watched her during those hours of labour so tied to our living, our being. I know I have seen her mothering, felt its embrace like a soft folded full skirt and I have seen her as a new grandmother, but she is still such a stranger to me.” (Maracle, 70) He knows her role as a mother, and a grandmother, but is struggling to see her role as a person. She identifies to Will as a wife, a mother, part of the household, but nothing more. He does recognize that she has several other things which define her and he wants to see them.
The loss of a mother affects many children in these books. They struggle to find a replacement, and a place to call home.
In many children’s books, the loss of a mother is something which is seen as nearly traumatic, and these children often seek to find a substitute. In Anne of Green Gables, Anne has never known her mother so relies on information that others give her and her imagination to create an image of her mother. “Mrs. Thomas said I was the homeliest baby she ever saw…but that mother thought I was perfectly beautiful. I should think that a mother would be a better judge than a poor woman who came in to scrub, wouldn’t you? I’m glad she was satisfied with me anyhow; I would feel so sad if I thought I was a disappointment to her-because she didn’t live very long after that… She died of fever when I was just three months old. I do wish she’d lived long enough for me to remember calling her mother. I think it would be so sweet to say ‘mother.'” (Montgomery, 39). The very act of calling somebody ‘mother’ would cement Anne’s identity as part of a family. When Anne is debating what to call Marilla after the Cuthberts have decided to keep her, she tries to compromise on this notion of a family by trying to acknowledge Marilla as an Aunt. “I’d love to call you Aunt Marilla..I’ve never had an aunt or any relation at all-not even a grandmother. It would make me feel as if I really belonged to you. Can’t I call you Aunt Marilla?” (Montgomery, 54). She is constantly trying to find an attachment to others who could serve as a mother-like figure since she has never had one of her own. She believes that the act of calling someone ‘mother’ or ‘aunt’ is needed to formally recognize herself as part of a family.
In The Belonging Place, Elspet has doubts about her adoptive mother after seeing the way that her neighbour reacts to an orphan which she has to take in. She thinks it is a sense of duty which caused her aunt to adopt her, and thinks of distancing herself. “I thought of pulling away. I could not make myself do it. All day, I had been longing to lean my head against her and feel her arms close around me. I already guessed that the story would change everything back to the way it had been. I so wanted to be my mother’s own Elspet Mary again. I yearned to return to being the cherished child I had been ever since Da gave me into her arms.” (The Belonging Place, Little, 114) As she becomes more aware of the different reactions which adoptive mothers may have towards their new children, she questions her mother’s own feelings. Her mother reassures her that “I would not have let you go anyway, heart of my heart. From the moment you got your little hands out of that plaid shawl and reached them up around my neck, you were my own little bairn. I had lost two little ones, just like Jeanie’s mother lost her son. I needed you as much as you needed me. What an enchanting babe you were!” (The Belonging Place, Little, 115-116). Her mother cares about her as if she were biologically her own, and Elspet feels as if she has always grown up with the family that she has been adopted by. She does not remember her own mother, much like in Anne’s situation, but she does have more support than Anne had, and does not feel the need to hold onto her biological mother as much because she has a substitute family.
Being with a mother is supposed to feel like this-sentimental, loving, safe.
Awake and Dreaming by Kit Pearson has both the image of a good mother, and a bad one. In Theo’s real life, her mother is self absorbed. She puts her own needs first and neglects her child. “The only times Rae really seemed to care about her was after she had hit her. But those were the times when Theo felt the most removed.” (Pearson, 40) She only seems to care about her child when she feels guilty. When she speaks to Theo over the phone she “went on and on about Cal-the parties they’d been to, the trip they’d taken to Cultus Lake. She complained as usual about her boss and customers. She never said anything about coming to visit. At the end her voice became strained as she asked Theo how she was. ‘Good,’ said the puppet Theo.” (Pearson, 151) Theo is the last person on her mother’s mind. Part of this could be her age- Rae is only twenty-five, but she is also neglectful and scares Theo with her rage. “Theo could feel the heat of her mother’s temper like a flaring flame beside her. She quaked inside… When she was sure Rae was gone, she closed the book and leaned back against the seat, trembling and trying not to cry. She looked out to the side window and saw Rae’s back… Theo kept staring out the window. If only her mother would never come back!” (Pearson, 58) She despises her mother because her mother is selfish, and it is also relevant to point out that Theo refers to her mother by her first name-Rae. Rae either does not deserve the title of a mother, or has refused the title of mother, so when Theo creates a new family, she is thrilled when the first interaction she has with her “new family” is about what her new parents should be called. “Laura leaned forward, her eyes full of affection. ‘Dan and I have been discussing what you should call us, Theo. Of course we aren’t your real parents, but since you’re part of this family now, do you want to call us Mum and Dad like the others do? Or would you prefer Laura and Dan…It’s entirely up to you, and you don’t have to decide right away.’ Theo almost fell off her chair. ‘Part of this family now.’ Then it had happened! But how?…But Theo didn’t want to think about how or why. She was here in this safe, cozy house. Somehow her wish had come true-a pleasant woman was sitting beside her asking Theo if she wanted to call her ‘Mum'” (Pearson, 81-82). Laura welcomes the position as a mother, while Rae does not. She is conscious of Theo’s need for a real family. Theo has created one in the fantasy world. In the fantasy world, she lives with two older siblings, two younger ones, a father, a mother, and a dog. Part of the initiation of being in a real family is being able to acknowledge the parents as parents- “Mum and Dad” and not simply recognizing them as people. Theo can’t help comparing the two. “She thought of Rae compared to Laura-Laura who had once been her mother, but only in a fantasy.” (Pearson, 220) She has to create a fantasy because her mother is unable to fill the role that Theo needs in a mother. “As children… we don’t have full agency. We’re still very much attached to our passionate attachment-Your parents… The people who are going to or whoever keeps you alive when you are basically a larvae. You come out, you can not walk, you can not feed yourself. That’s when you create that attachment…” (Humphreys, lecture) She needs to be able to depend on her mother, as she cannot support herself, she has to know that she will be able to rely on her mother for her basic needs. “That passionate attachment is powerful… The cultural encoding of what it means to be a mother…[The caregiver needs to be] complicit in her role to the extent of mother and wife so that she can use proper names…They were deposited into these roles. Your social role completely changes. Your cultural encoding is now completely different. It’s not just that you have this new larvae to look after, you now have all of these words that you must take on and make a part of your being….If you are a mother you are supposed to be… nurturing, loving, emotional… self sacrificing.” (Humphreys, lecture) Rae is none of these things. She is “like a child, wanting attention.” (Pearson, 221) and manages to upset her sister with her ambivalent feelings and actions towards Theo. “Do you think you can just dump your child on people until it’s convenient for you to have her again?… She’s not my child-she’s yours. She needs you. She needs you to be a real mother to her…You’re not a good enough mother to be entirely on your own. You said yourself she needs the stability of staying here. I can’t take care of her but I want her in my life. I want to make sure she’s okay…When are you going to get it into your empty head that you have no choice? She’s your child! You chose to have her and you have to take care of her!” (Pearson, 227-228) She has been given the role of mother, although she will not accept it. Refusing that role makes others very, very angry, mainly because of the cultural significance of the mother. “The mother is the main caregiver… The strategy of Western patriarchal society is to use language and other social markers…In patriarchal society the mother must take on this role and if she doesn’t get it right it’s her fault. It’s her problem. That guilt is placed upon the child as well.” (Humphreys, lecture) Rae has refused to adapt to the role of the mother which she has been forced into. This causes stress, tension and instability in the family.
Sometimes, real life seems more like this- conflict with mother shows that they’re human too. Disagreements happen-They can’t be expected to be sentimental and perfect all the time.
Willow and Twig is about two siblings going through the process of being adopted by their grandmother and being invited into their grandmother’s home. Willow and Twig’s mother does not want to give up her life, just like Rae. “Mum… she likes me to call her Angel…but she’s my mother.” (Willow and Twig, Little, 104) Willow wants her to take on the role of the mother, and so calls her Mum, even though Angel has not asked for the name and it was common for Angel to ask Willow to “‘Tell them you’re my little sister,’ she had said more than once. ‘I’m too young to have a kid your size.'” (Willow and Twig, Little, 10). The attachment that they have is complicated: “Her mother had said she loved them and Willow believed her. Angel could have had abortions or given them up for adoption the way she herself had been. But she had kept them. That showed she cared about them in her own way. Even so, whenever she left them with someone, she let herself forget about them until something went wrong. Then she had to be tracked down and told to take care of her kids.” (Willow and Twig, Little, 6) She is not prepared or willing to be placed in the role of mother, but she still recognizes that she is in that role, whether she wants to be or not. Willow replaces Angel as Twig’s mother-figure. She is present when Angel is absent, and so her attachment to her brother is very very strong. “From the moment Willow had held the small, slippery, naked baby boy, he had been hers. Before she even had him washed and wrapped in a towel, her mother had fallen asleep…’I took the baby and cleaned him off and wrapped him in a blanket. He screamed and screamed. Then Lou gave him something to make him sleep…Lou gave him a bit of the stuff whenever we fed him but she kept making it less… You can’t make a baby stop cold turkey…Angel couldn’t stand his screaming. So she said she’d go and…get help. I guessed she wouldn’t be back. Lou knew too. She tried to stop her. But one morning, we woke up and she was gone.” (Willow and Twig, Little, 105). Angel abandons them, while Willow tries to embody all the cultural significance that mothers should have for their children. “I looked after Twig as much as I could from the beginning. He was my brother and I knew they didn’t really want him. Nobody wanted him…but me.” (Willow and Twig, Little, 106). She has to take the place of her mother, because they need one, and she is the only person who can be depended upon. After being with several of their mother’s friends they “were returned to their mother along with a lecture about getting off the drugs and taking responsibility for her kids… Twig, uprooted and hurt, had driven his mother crazy. A couple of months later, Angel herself had handed them over ‘temporarily’ to Maisie. ” (Willow and Twig, Little, 73) Taking on the role of mother to Twig is important for both of their survivals. “We need to project in order to be complicit…So another way to say this is we are deposited into proper names. Like ‘mother’… You are deposited into that name…While they are trapped within the cultural encoding of mother/[child] they can’t move…” (Humphreys, lecture) At the same time, once they are safe, Willow has to learn how to let go. Several of her discussions with her grandmother are about her inability to distance herself away from that role. Her job has been to take care of Twig, and she has a hard time letting go.”Willow… struggled not to imagine Twig searching the house for her but she could not keep the scene from playing over and over inside her mind. ‘I’m going to take him to see the kittens across the road,’ Gram said as though she could see into Willow’s private thoughts. ‘And we’ll go to Sears and get him… some… trucks. And there’s lots of T.V. I’ll bring him with me to meet the bus…Twig…will be my one concern all day long.’ Willow felt the weight of worry inside her lift, the darkness lighten. Twig would be all right until she came back.” (Willow and Twig, Little, 160). She still has to be reassured by others that he depends on her. Her grandmother tells her that “He’s your boy, Willow, even though that’s a tall order for a girl your age. Nobody knows him as well as you and no one else can handle him the way you do.” (Willow and Twig, Little, 204). This follows the claim made in Northanger Abbey that “The mere habit of learning to love is the thing; and a teachableness of disposition in a young lady is a great blessing.” (Austen, 127). She teaches her brother how to act, and she is his caregiver. She has a hard time letting go because of this attachment they formed. “Love…particularly in psychology it means attachment and we must have attachment in order to develop and grow.” (Humphreys, lecture). Angel has to learn to form an attachment- she finally refers to herself as a mother when on the phone to Willow. “The husky, so familiar voice sounded far, far away. ‘…It’s me. Angel. Mum, I mean.'” (Willow and Twig, Little, 224) She has a hard time seeing herself as a mother, but finally calls herself one once she gives her children what they really need. “Angel… had agreed to sign papers giving her and her brother away… She and Twig would be safe. It was what she had wanted most in the world. And they were more than just safe; they were loved.” (Willow and Twig, Little, 218-219) She does what she believes is best for them, giving them a place of comfort with their grandmother, and a place of warmth and security. She is able to eventually recognize their needs and do what needs to be done to see that those needs are met.
The mothers in cartoons are often taken for granted, and follow the role of being a housewife and caregiver while the father goes out to work.
As long as children are categorized, their parents will also have to face being judged by how they are performing the role of ‘mother’ that they are expected to. If they refuse to, are unwilling, or unable to fill that role, they are categorized as “bad mothers”. However, sometimes it may not be their fault. The first step however, in all these narratives, (except Will’s Garden) is for the mother to be complicit in her role by referring to herself as a mother. As long as the term is not applied to her, they are only seen as a substitute who can never make up for the loss their children go through. I think parents are trapped in the roles they have as much as the children. They need to be able to have the choice to accept or reject the parental roles as they see fit; and find someone who would want the job as a parent, without having to be judged for it.
IMAGES: (In order of appearance, Everything else in alphabetical order.)
- Anderson, Kim. A Recognition of Being: Reconstructing Native Womanhood. Toronto: Sumach, 2003. Print.
- Austen, Jane, and Claudia L. Johnson. Northanger Abbey ; Lady Susan ; The Watsons ; Sanditon. Ed. James Kinsley and John Davie. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2003. Print
- Hallett, Martin, and Barbara Karasek. Folk & Fairy Tales. 4th ed. Peterborough, Ont.: Broadview, 2002. Print.
- Little, Jean. The Belonging Place. Toronto: Puffin, 1998.
- Little, Jean. Willow and Twig. Toronto: Puffin, 2000.
- Maracle, Lee. Will’s Garden. Penticton, B.C.: Theytus, 2008.
- Montgomery, L. M. Anne of Green Gables. [Toronto]: Seal, 1996.
- Pearson, Kit. Awake and Dreaming. Toronto: Puffin, 1998.
- Bickford, Tyler. “Parenting, Work, and Values.” Web log post. Tyler Bickford WordPress. March 20 2013, Web. March 31 2013. <http://blog.tylerbickford.com/2013/03/20/parenting-work-and-values/>
- Hersch, Jessica “Gender Relationships: Salish Women’s roles” Web log post. A Journey of Resistance WordPress, 31 Mar. 2013. Web. 3 Apr. 2013. <http://jessicaherscheid8.wordpress.com/2013/03/31/gender-relationships-salish-womens-roles/>
- Huskies’ Adventures in Wonderland. “Mothers in Harry Potter (Fall 2012).” Web log post. WordPress. WordPress, Spring 2013. Web. 16 Mar. 2013. <http://huskiesinwonderland.wordpress.com/sample-posts/mothers-in-harry-potter/>.
- Jennpower. “The Good Wife” Web log post. What Doesn’t belong here? WordPress, 24 Mar. 2013. Web. 31 Mar. 2013. <http://whatdoesntbelonghere.wordpress.com/2013/03/24/the-good-wife/>
- Peter Pan-Your Mother and Mine(English). Prod. TwilightWander. YouTube. YouTube, 02 July 2008. Web. 04 Mar. 2013. <http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lFWc6ZwxXXI>.
- Humphreys, Sara. Class Lecture. Gender and Sexuality. Trent University. Oshawa. Ontario. March 21, 2013. “Visual rhetoric and the representation of sex and gender; decoding and encoding gender and sex.”