How To Depict Mothers In Stories (Part III)

In the last two blog pieces, we have looked at how to depict mothers in stories. In the first, the mothers tended to be ‘strong’ in the sense that they were warriors, commanders or guides; while in the second, they tended to be non-existent or had little involvement in their children’s lives. In this third and final blog piece on the topic, we look at either crisis-riddled and meaner sorts of mothers that have been portrayed in fiction and fantasy.

11 – The Mother Who Is Going Through An Internal Crisis

The challenges of motherhood have been laid bare in many a film, not least Boyhood, We Need To Talk About Kevin and The Babadook (to name but three). However, sometimes the difficulties of motherhood combine dreadfully with the personal problems of the mother. The net effect of this is that they do something illogical, strange or even illegal.

Example – The Kindergarten Teacher (2018)

Lisa (Maggie Gyllenhaal) looking worryingly longingly at her ‘child protégé,’ as if he is her big find.

In Sara Colangelo’s thought-provoking film, The Kindergarten Teacher, Maggie Gyllenhaal plays Lisa, the titular kindergarten teacher. Lisa is at a crossroads in her life. She is a mother with a good family set up and a nice husband, plus she does a job she (supposedly) enjoys.

Nevertheless, she is clearly not satisfied with herself, her family or her lot in life. She once fancied herself as a poet or a writer, and when one of her pre-school children recites a poem to her, she believes he is a child prodigy. However, is he really that good? The kid is in pre-school, after-all. This makes the viewer wonder if Lisa is all right, mentally.

The answer is absolutely not! Lisa starts stealing the kid’s work and ripping it off as her own. Then, she starts taking the boy without parental permission to events at night, so that he can perform. This strange obsession lands her in hot water with the authorities for kidnapping the child.

12 – The Overbearing And Demanding Mother

The overbearing and demanding mother is another of the ways on how to depict a mother in stories. Anyone who thinks that mothers are part of the fairer sex and, therefore, more tender and gentle-hearted have clearly not come across the domineering sort of mother.

Such a mother is constantly keeping an eye on her children. She makes sure that they work toward their goal for hours every day. (Invariably, because the mother failed at it.)

Example – Nina’s Mother in Black Swan

how to depict mothers in stories - barbara hershey in Black Swan
Erica (Barbara Hershey) taking out Nina’s earring, thereby making sure that her adult daughter is exactly how she wants her to look.

In Darren Aranofsky’s psychological thriller, Barbara Hershey plays the role of a horribly overbearing and demanding mother to Nina (Natalie Portman). Hershey’s character is always watching over Nina, forbidding her to do anything that might hinder Nina’s chances of becoming a phenomenal ballerina.

It is no surprise that Nina feels claustrophobic and unable to let loose due to her mother. Similarly, it is not a surprise that Nina has a breakdown, in part because of her mother, too. Indeed, nor will it surprise anyone that Hershey’s character was once a ballerina in her youth, but didn’t make it. Thus, she is pushing her daughter hard to ensure that Nina succeeds where she failed, regardless of the cost to Nina’s mental health and life.

13 – The Nasty And Manipulative Mother

Nevertheless, in case the overbearing and demanding mother did not make you appreciate that not all mothers are gentle-hearted souls, the nasty and manipulative kind of mother certainly will.

When considering how to depict mothers in stories, this sort of mother can be split into two kinds: the mother who loves her children, and the mother who abandons her children.

13a – The Mother Who Loves Her Children – Cersei Lannister

how to depict mothers in stories - Cersei Lannister
Cersei Lannister (played by Lena Headey) looking unfriendly to match her malicious nature. But at least she loves her children.

In season 6 episode 7 of Game of Thrones, Olenna Tyrell tells Cersei Lannister: “I wonder if you’re the worst person I’ve ever met.” By God, Cersei certainly is right up there!

As a child, Cersei pushed a girl down a well so that she wouldn’t snitch that they’d gone to a witch. Moreover, she hates her brother, Tyrion, because he is a dwarf and (allegedly) made her mother bleed to death at birth; sexually manipulates her twin-brother, Jaime, to join the Kingsguards so that he will be close to her; commits incestuous adultery with her twin-brother; arranges the murder of her husband, King Robert Baratheon; has bastards with her twin-brother and claims they are King Robert’s trueborn children, thereby causing the War of the Five Kings; tries to have Tyrion killed during the Battle of Blackwater Bay; falsely accuses Tyrion of poisoning her son, King Joffrey, because she hates him; has Loras Tyrell imprisoned by the Faith Militant for homosexuality, and Queen Margaery for defending him; and murders her uncle and the Tyrell family by blowing up the Sept of Baelor.

That is some list of crimes, plus she pathologically lies to everyone, even to Jaime, in a vain attempt to hold onto power. Nevertheless, for all Cersei’s villainy, she loves her children and will do anything for them. She still occasionally slaps, chides and bullies them. But considering all of Cersei’s other transgressions, those seem relatively minor.

13b – The Mother Who Abandons Her Children – Cathy Ames

Astonishingly, there is someone even worse than Cersei in literature. In John Steinbeck’s East of Eden, Cathy Ames makes Cersei look like a good mother because Cathy cannot even find it in herself to love her children (or anyone for that matter).

She is a socio-psychopath, who abandons her children to become a prostitute and, eventually, a female pimp. Over the course of the novel, Cathy murders her parents, drives her Latin teacher to commit suicide, cheats on her husband with her brother (so that it is unclear who the father of her twins are), poisons her benefactress, and abuses and blackmails men as a whore.

There is not a single redeeming feature to Cathy’s character. Indeed, John Steinbeck made her that way to represent a female Lucifer. (Of equal relevance, Steinbeck made Cathy have character traits that were reminiscent of his ex-wife. That probably explains why he made her so sadistic and unforgivably horrible.)

14 – The Mother Who Adopts

How to portray mothers in stories when they adopt or look after other children? Well, like with fathers, mothers who adopt can be any of the thirteen we have discussed we have discussed.

Nevertheless, mothers who adopt come across in very distinct two ways: the cruel stepmother and the nurturer.

14a – The Cruel Stepmother – Cinderella

how to depict mothers in stories - lady tremaine
Lady Tremaine is the wicked, cruel stepmother in Cinderella that has changed the way we view the word ‘stepmother’; perhaps, for ever.

The term ‘stepmother’ is synonymous with meanness due to how Cinderella’s stepmother treats the eponymous character. Cinderella is another Disney character whose biological mother is never mentioned, and her father dies in the prologue of the film, leaving Cinderella in the care of her (evil) stepmother.

As we know, her stepmother takes up the position as lady of the manor, and forces Cinderella to become a servant (slave) in her own home. The stepmother makes her move into the draughty attic and gives her more chores than is possible to complete. Plus, her stepmother encourages Cinderella’s stepsisters, Drucilla and Anastasia, to bully Cinderella at every opportunity; and even attempts to deny Cinderella happiness by locking her in the attic in a vain attempt to get one of her daughter’s to marry the Prince.

14b – The Nurturer – Aunt Polgara

The narrative for David Eddings’ The Belgariad starts off with Garion on a farm on the Island of Riva. He is looked after by Polgara, his aunt (of many generations), who just happens to be a sorceress. Polgara is a kind and caring woman, who loves Garion as a son, and nurtures him as her sister would have done had she lived.

Thank You

Thank you for reading these three blog pieces on how to depict mothers in stories. I really appreciate it and I hope that you have found them useful, interesting and enjoyable. Please let me know your thoughts in the comments below; especially, if I have missed out on a portrayal of a mother.


PS: If you liked this blog post (and the other two) on how to depict mothers in stories, and wish to be the first to receive next week’s on how to get your main character out of a sticky situation, please fill in the short form below:

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