“I want to see mothers that are more than just plot devices, who existed and had lives before and after they had kids. I want adventuring mothers, magic-wielding and sword-swinging and dragon-slaying mothers. Mothers who have done more than just look on lovingly and pack lunches for everyone else’s magical quests and epic journeys and die in the background.”
–Black Girl Nerds
Black Girl Nerds made a really good point this morning about the portrayal of motherhood in fiction. Women are already pushed to the sidelines; there’s this Hollywood wisdom that scenes are “boring” and need to be cut if they involve two women having a conversation, and this plus ageism and the fact that mothers are often seen as accessory-caretakers instead of fully realized characters means that mothers, specifically, get an even smaller piece of the pie than other types of female characters.
One of my mission statements in writing is to focus my stories on aspects of womanhood that are often de-centered by a mainstream culture focused on men first, and then women as sexual accessories to men. A woman’s satisfaction in her career, in looking out for her kids, in her patriotism, in her friendships with other women, or even in romances with other women—stories that center on these subject are confined to “women’s” stories, rather than being everybody’s, while a male character doing any of these things is assumed to be of interest to everyone.
By the third book in my series, my main character Queen Shulamit, an intense, lovable nerd focused on being the best leader for her people that she can be, is not only a mom but a “crunchy mom”, breastfeeding in public – on the throne! – and carrying around her baby princess in a wrap like my mom friends. I’ve been criticized for beating my reader over the head with my agendas before, and I guess one of them is the idea that motherhood shouldn’t quarantine the mother and that breastfeeding is not inappropriate. (Art below by Becca Schauer.)
Shulamit sees her role as her country’s leader as if her people were just as much her responsibility as Princess Naomi is, so this picture symbolizes not only her role as one girl’s mother but also her whole outlook toward monarchy.
But what about mothers of adult characters, since that’s the main thrust of Black Girl Nerd’s post–how their offspring overshadow them so that they hardly seem like people anymore? I hope I’ve done right by them.
Someone on Twitter pointed out to me that often, a fantasy character’s life is deeply affected not by the mother who raised them, but by their absent father who, in some cases, they literally never knew. My warrior Rivka (see above, the blonde) was raised by a single mother, impregnated as a teenager by someone from a much lower social class who was summarily run off the family estate in retaliation. Far from being influenced by this complete cipher of a sperm donor, Rivka’s father figure was instead her mother’s older brother, who influenced her deeply by being both role model and adversary in her journey to becoming a female knight.
But Rivka and her mother are also close, since they both bear her uncle’s ill will for her accidental origin. Tied together by a common mockery, they’re each other’s most important people as Rivka grows up, and Rivka remains loyal to her even once she’s left her uncle’s estate forever. Rivka’s mom is not a feminist role model by any means. All she ever talks about is clothes and men and jewelry, and sometimes she says annoyingly clueless (or even unintentionally bigoted) things. But part of what feminism means to me is not letting men oppress even those women for having had a teenage pregnancy. Rivka sends for her mother once she has a stable job so that Mom won’t have to live with her brother’s slut-shaming bullying any more.
And you know what? Rivka’s father is never coming back. He’s not going to be introduced in Book Eleventy as a plot device, he’s not going to show up one day in Perach and surprise everyone. He’s just absent. He’s gone. Why? Because that’s what happens in real life sometimes, and I wanted those girls to know that’s not their fault – or their mom’s fault – and that’s okay. When girls like that read books or see movies where eventually the absent father returns and theirs never will, do they feel that tiny pang of disappointment because they thought, just once, this time they’d finally see themselves?
The most heroic mother of all in my series, though, is Aafsaneh. Explaining whose mother she is would spoil a gimmick in her debut book, Climbing the Date Palm, but she’s a benevolent witch in her mid-forties, runs a vineyard by herself, and eventually rises to the throne (of somewhere else.) She also helps save the day in book four, which I just subbed to my usual publisher this week and which contains three very different queens who are all moms. If they take it, it’ll be out in 2016, and you can watch this noble, just, kind middle-aged mother perform magic and heal a damaged land.