True Confession: when God was handing out maternal instinct, I must have been taking a bathroom break. In my earliest childhood I had fun playing with chubby-faced cherub dolls that sighed and cried and spoke. I enjoyed giving them names and personalities. Yet sometime in my late teens I came to realize I was imagining fictional characters, not future children. The idea of a living child dependent on me for health and safety and moral guidance struck me then, as it strikes me now, as more than faintly terrifying, a responsibility for which I am not cut out.
This does not make me a bad person, shirking my duty to the human race. Yet neither does it make me a good person, a freer and more enlightened feminist than my friends and relatives with children. In an excellent blog posted on Fantasy Cafe, Michelle Sagara explains why she finds it difficult to write romance: her daydreams have always revolved around being a superhero, not a girlfriend/wife, but she does not view herself as somehow superior because of this. Likewise, while I’ve always had my share of dreams about romance and marriage, I have never really daydreamed about motherhood. That’s why the Babies Ever After trope would be difficult for me to write. It does not spring from any generalized dislike of motherhood or children.
Children I can write about. When I finished Atterwald I was pleased to see that Ricarda’s youngsters, Hulbert and Adelyte, turned out as well as they did. They’re smart and energetic and observant, the sort of children I would enjoy being around. Yet while my heroine, Nichtel, plays with them and bonds with them, her affection for them does not segue naturally into a desire for children of her own. She never thinks explicitly that she does not want children, as does the heroine of Kristin Cashore’s Graceling. Readers who want to imagine her as a happy mother a few years down the road might do so easily enough. Daydreams of motherhood simply don’t come up in the timespan covered by the novel. I can’t stress enough that its absence is not meant as a political statement. It’s simply a sign of the limits of my own imagination.
My response to the Babies Ever After trope as a reader is a bit more complicated. Some of my very favorite characters in literature are children: young Jane Eyre, telling off her cruel aunt and standing up for her best friend at school; young Anne Shirley, letting her capacious imagination lead her into all kinds of mischief; young Jo March, galloping through the world, a hotheaded daydreamer; Scout Finch, questioning the people and events around her and taking no guff from anyone; and Harry Potter and his friends, repeatedly saving their world with only minor assistance from adults. There’s nothing anti-child about my reading. But is there something anti-motherhood? How many mother’s stories do I find compelling?
My problem, I realize, isn’t with the “Babies” part of the trope as much as with the “Ever After” part, the idea that motherhood signals the end of the adventure, and the part of the personality that took interest and action in the world beyond the back yard either goes to sleep or ceases to exist altogether. There are “mother stories” I enjoy, the ones that show a mom can take action in the wider world while still being a loving, caring mom. Holly Lisle’s Arhel Trilogy is worthy of note. In the last two volumes, Bones of the Past and Mind of the Magic, heroine Faia fights the forces of evil and saves her friends and all her people, all while being the single mother of a very precocious toddler. Patricia C. Wrede’s Caught in Crystal features a more mature single mother, Kayl, with two children, one teen and one preteen. Kayl had wanted to leave adventuring behind but gets swept back into danger. Her youngsters take part in the new adventure and get to witness their mother being a first-class badass.
I may not be maternal, but I don’t expect other women to be like me, and indeed I’m glad for all the women who are not like me. These are the women who write stories about mothers that I can enjoy, the ones who understand through experience that motherhood doesn’t have to be the End of the Story.
My response to this trope isn’t very complicated at all. I’ve been through the American high school, and it’s not a place I’m eager to revisit. I may have been interested in American-high-school stories back when I was there, back when John Hughes was directing movies like The Breakfast Club. But now, as a fortysomething adult, I find a contemporary American high school setting has no appeal for me at all. I may relish a well-written YA fantasy, but only if high-school angst is left out of the plot, or at least kept to a bare minimum. The only modern-day school I want to read about is Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, because 1) it’s magical, and 2) it’s British.
Yet my main objection to the trope is the word “ordinary,” at least as many writers seem to define it. All too often, “ordinary” is simply code for “has no hobbies, interests, or ambitions before the Call to Adventure comes along”; the Ordinary High School Student is a blank slate awaiting definition through adventure (usually if a boy) or romance (usually if a girl). I don’t see how anyone with any kind of inner life can fit this concept of “ordinary.” I would much rather see a young protagonist with interests and ambitions and maybe an actual skill or two, confronted with a situation that could change his/her picture of the future. These “ordinary” blank-slate types, after all, don’t seem to have much to lose.
Interested people are more interesting people, whatever their age.
Coming Soon: Part 3