I’m the mother of a teen-aged girl, so I’m more sensitive to the trials and tribulations involved in parenting than those who haven’t had that particular opportunity, but let’s face it: the mother-daughter relationship is the longest relationship we are likely to have in our lives, one all of us have found troubling at one time or another. Even if we don’t have daughters, we have mothers. At best I have a difficult relationship with my own mother, and my sister, while very reliant on my mom, has an even more unusual relationship. And though I vowed I would never be estranged from my own daughter, after two and a half years of serious upheaval, we’re at a point when I’m not sure we can ever move beyond estrangement. My husband assures me that my own daughter doesn’t hate me (he, of course, is immune to her wrath), but it sure feels like it, and given the rather drastic measures we’ve been forced to take recently, I can only pray we’ll all come out of it “okay”.
I wrote the above paragraph back in January, along with part of a column on mothers and daughters that never quite came together. It gave Robin the idea to do an ATBF on fathers, and Anne the idea to do another on siblings. Now we’ve come full circle and I’ve tried again to gather my thoughts on the subject into something cohesive. I’m convinced it’s rather jumbled because try as I might, I can’t untangle all the tentacles that are part of these critical relationships in my own life.
Romance novels explore emotions and relationships between two people who come to love one another. But most romances do not exist in a vacuum, and other relationships are also explored…those between friends, siblings, and parents. I find it odd that in so many, a critical relationship often gets short shrift: the relationship between the heroine and her mother, and/or the relationship the heroine has with her own daughter.
The relationship between mothers and daughters is so ripe for exploration, isn’t it? My guess is that I’m not alone in being conflicted and confused about my relationships with my mother and daughter, so why are these relationships so often ignored? And when they’re not ignored, they rarely seem fully fleshed out. Mother’s Day may be the busiest day on the planet for the phone company, but from Medea to Freud, with Mrs. Bennet in-between, mothers have gotten a bum rap.
While most modern mothers don’t kill their kids, we’re still responsible for all our children’s neuroses – whether by being too distant and critical or too intrusive and babying. I think the view we all have in our minds of “mother” is an impossible ideal. She’s a woman on a pedestal, nurturing, loving, and selfless. But those qualities are impossible to live up to, which may explain her treatment in fiction: she’s either dead (and if replaced by a step-mom, kids…watch out!), perfect, or perfectly awful.
Some years ago we did an ATBF segment about bad mothers in romance entitled No More Wire Hangers!. I’m sure if we put our minds to it, we could create a lengthy list of memorable evil moms who create nothing but heartache for the heroine, who then must overcome low self-esteem, poverty, neglect, or abuse to emerge triumphant at the end of the book. And if the heroine’s mother is not the bad mother, she’s the idealized good mother. Instead of existing to provide conflict, she’s there to provide healing. That is, when she exists at all. In a holdover from Jane Eyre and the gothic novel, romance novel moms are absent even more often from the picture altogether.
The bad or missing mother creates instant empathy for a heroine, but in a way I think it also infantalizes her in that she is an automatic victim. Something I never realized until sitting down to write this column is that my favorite Julie Garwood historicals all feature the missing mother (or missing mother and father). In The Prize, Guardian Angel, and Castles, both parents are out of the picture. In The Bride and The Secret, the heroine grows up without benefit of her mother. In the latter, the heroine’s father remains out of the picture for much of the story, but in the former, the heroine always feels the outsider, never as much a part of her family or as loved by her father as her step-sisters.
Lucy Monroe’s December Harlequin Presents, Pregnancy of Passion, also features an outsider heroine. The illegitimate daughter of a wealthy Sicilian, her mother refused to marry because she wanted to pursue a career as an actress. This is a “bad mother” – we know this not only because her career took precedence, but because of her promiscuity. Her slutty behavior led the heroine to remain a virgin at age 24, but worse, the heroine never felt comfortable with her father, the woman he eventually married, and their daughter because of it. Because of her mother’s catting around, the heroine never had a family. (My husband and I visited his mom a few weeks back, and as we usually do, we watched some old movies, one of which was The Best Years of Our Lives. The moment I saw how messy Virginia Mayo’s character “kept house”, I knew she was going to turn out to be a slut…and yes, she was.)
Elizabeth Lowell’s 1990 Western, Reckless Love, was recently reissued, and it, too, features the missing mother. This paragon of beauty and virtue died while the heroine was quite young, and she was raised in the frontier by her father without guile and social skills. After his death, she was forced to live alone and by her wits in the wild for five years until the hero comes along. This heroine, too, is an outsider…and a victim.
Orphaned heroines are victimized, and so are heroines whose fathers remarry. Invariably these step-mothers are selfish and jealous. Cinderella’s step-mother wanted only for her and hers (her two step-daughters), but even more odious was Snow White’s step-mother. Several years ago Neil Gaiman wrote a wonderfully odd short story called Snow Glass and Apples, in which, as he puts it, the step-mother, while “possibly not as blameless as she makes out”, is “certainly maligned by history” in the “monstrous story of [a] vampire Snow White and this necropheliac prince.” What I find so interesting about the step-mother in Snow White is that her evil stems from her fears about growing old and losing her femininity. There is a natural rivalry that develops between mothers and daughters (with daddy as the prize), as any psychiatrist will tell you, but it’s probably easier to swallow when it involves a step-mother. Conversely, can you all remember a time when, as a child, you watched your mother put herself together for a party? The lotions and potions, the make-up and perfume, the silks and jewels…weren’t you envious and wished it were you instead getting ready to go out to the ball with Prince Charming?
On the flip side is the perfect mother. Two classic novels we’ve written about in ATBF – Gone With the Wind and Little Women – feature idealized mothers. And my own favorite novel, Too Deep for Tears, also features an idealized and nurturing mother, a woman so selfless that she allows her husband to leave her without guilt because it’s best for him. She’s so nurturing that years later, when he’s dying, she invites his two daughters from other women to come to her small Scottish glen in the Highlands so they can all be together as family. She is so loving that after his death, she helps heal their pain. That Mairi, she’s wonderful, but what flesh and blood woman could live up to that ideal? She’s not really a woman…she’s a saint. While I might have loved for her to have been my mother, I am not selfless enough that I would ever want to be her.
What’s interesting about all these depictions of motherhood is that a heroine’s mother seldom seems like a person. It’s kind of like being ten and seeing your teacher at the grocery store or in the movies. That’s your teacher…what’s she doing buying popcorn and a soda? When we are young, we compartmentalize people; your teacher exists for you only in school. It seems to be that way in romance too – only we’re not children anymore, we’re adults. So why do so many mothers of heroines exist only as a mother, whether she’s a good mother, a bad mother, or a missing mother? When the heroine herself is a mother, the viewpoint is more complex. A heroine’s mother is not necessarily a person in her own right, perhaps because we readers identify with the heroine, but I think we’re better than that. Obviously a heroine’s mother is not the star of a romance, but why relegate her to a stereotype…or remove her from the picture altogether?
Which leads into my next question…where are the relationships between heroines and their daughters explored? Heroines who are also mothers are few and far between in historical romance; it’s usually only by book’s end, or in the epilogue, that she becomes a parent. And unless they are women’s fiction hybrids, few of the single title contemporaries I’ve read feature children of any age, let alone teenagers. There are definitely heroine mothers in series romance, but did you ever notice that a whole heck of a lot of them feature divorced women who have moved from the big city to the small town to raise her kids, often with the help of either or both of her parents?
A perfect example actually earned my vote as best series novel of last year – Raeanne Thayne’s Dalton’s Undoing. The story features a divorced woman who moves her two kids – one a surly teenaged boy, the other a younger, asthmatic girl – from the big city to a small mountain town where her father lives. As the new principal in this small town, the heroine is very aware that her personal life is under a microscope, which nearly wrecks her chance at happiness when she and the hero, the town’s local faux bad boy, fall in love after her son stole his car and ran it off the road.
While I appreciated that the Thayne’s heroine was not only a mom, she was a working woman, a daughter, and a lover, I realized that most of the series lines aren’t about women in all these roles. It may be that I’m reading the wrong lines, but unless I’m mistaken, few of them cater to heroines who are mothers of children who aren’t babies…or they feature friends or family who stand in for a missing or dead mother.
Again, that makes little sense to me. There’s almost always a secondary storyline in a contemporary romance, whether a series novel or not. Why don’t more of those secondary storylines focus on the heroine in her role as mother. Heroines are “allowed” to be older – and divorced – these days. So where are those secondary storylines about heroines with teenaged daughters? Lots of romances include secondary storylines about the relationships – often strained – between heroines and their mothers. Why not the reverse? I think I’d actually like to read about a heroine whose relationship with her daughter is strained, and how that affects the love relationship between the hero and heroine, particularly in that we know how precarious relationships become when parental roles are in flux, or in trouble.
Although I’ve read well over a thousand romances in my time, I’ve apparently missed the incredibly rich vein that explore heroines as mothers to daughters. Women’s fiction helps fill that void, but I’d prefer the romance to be front and center, and not just part of a woman’s journey. I can’t wait for you all to share with me the titles I’ve missed, and to talk, perhaps more openly than we generally do at the back fence, about our relationships with our mothers…and our daughters. Help me discover the fictional world I’ve missed, and along the way let’s share our own experiences.
Questions To Consider:
Do you find that romance novel moms are either non-existent, more Iago than mother, or TPTL (too perfect to live)? Why do you think that is, what are some examples that fit these types of mom – or missing mom – and what did you think about the books these mothers inhabited?
Does you think romance novels lack realistic relationships between mothers and daughters, whether the heroine is the mother or the daughter? If the answer is yes, is this something you’ve never or rarely considered, and further, would you like to read about more realistic mother/daughter relationships? If the answer is no, share the titles in which the relationship is well depicted.
Do you think that a missing or mean mom so victimizes a heroine that she is infantilized as a result, or does her victimization automatically render her all the stronger in your eyes for what she overcomes?
Consider and describe your personal top ten of romances and the relationship between the heroine and her mother and/or the heroine and her daughter.
Finally, while we generally don’t delve into the personal lives of our readers, I thought it might be useful to open up this forum, for this week, to a personal discussion of relationships between ourselves and our mothers and/or daughters.
TTFN, as Tigger said to Winnie the Pooh,
Laurie Likes Books