The Invisibility of Mothers and Daughters

Another May is with us, and another Mother’s Day has just gone by. Every year, Mother’s Day brings multiple salutes to the mothers of fiction, both good and bad. Reddit Fantasy — a site I frequent because despite Reddit’s reputation, a good many insightful discussions take place there, and its moderators take the “Be Kind” rule seriously — offered a thread where members could post about their favorite mothers and mother figures of fantasy, good or evil or both. Since parents are hard to find in most fantasy fiction, I was interested to learn what people would say.

Some of the “best moms” mentioned included Molly Weasley (Harry Potter), Lady Patience (Hobb, Farseer), Cordelia Vorkosigan (Bujold, The Vorkosigan Saga), Misaki (Wang, The Sword of Kaigen), Phedre (Carey, Imriel’s Trilogy), Mrs. Frisby (O’Brien, Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH), Sally Jackson (Riordan, Percy Jackson and the Olympians), Tavi’s mother (Butcher, Codex Alera), and Polgara (Eddings, The Belgariad). As name after name rolled by, I started to notice a couple of things.

One, while fantasy fiction may include more mothers and mother figures than might have been previously thought, it could still do better. In particular, it could give us more mothers as protagonists and co-protagonists in their own right, rather than relegating them to supporting parts in someone else’s stories. Women don’t suddenly stop being interesting people with stories worth telling the moment they become mothers, and fantasy writers need to realize this.

Also, I couldn’t help seeing that the vast majority of the “best moms,” particularly those moms who claim substantial space in the narratives, are mothers of sons.

Polgara, Cordelia, Sally Jackson, Tavi’s mother, and Patience are raising male heroes. Phedre, the central character of the first Kushiel trilogy, raises a male hero in the second. Mikasi, a splendid character in a very good book, has four sons, no daughters. Mrs. Frisby has daughters, but it’s to save her son that she goes on her hero’s quest. (The passing thought she gives to her oldest daughter is to dismiss her as empty-headed.) Likewise, despite her climactic “Not my daughter, you bitch!” moment, Molly Weasley spends a majority of her page time throughout the series acting as Ron’s mother, not Ginny’s. This makes sense, since Ron is the more important character, but still it makes her part of the pattern rather than an exception to it.

Why do we see so few characters being awesome mothers to daughters?

I considered some of my favorite reads over the last several years, checking my memory for some positive mother-daughter interactions. One stood out: Melissa Caruso’s Swords and Fire trilogy, in which protagonist Amalia’s mother grooms her to follow in her political footsteps. Amalia’s relationship with her impressive, exacting, and often intimidating mother is given a good bit of attention, especially in Book 1, The Tethered Mage. Theirs is a complicated bond, and yet for all the tension between them at times, I never had cause to doubt their love and affection for each other. Even more remarkably, Amalia’s mother is still alive at the end of the trilogy. We have every reason to believe she will continue to be a supportive guide and occasional source of frustration for her daughter.

When I tried to think of similar relationships in other books, however, I found myself disappointed.

The acclaimed trilogy with the most obviously central mother-daughter relationship is N.K. Jemisin’s Hugo-winning trilogy The Broken Earth. Over the course of the series, Jemisin develops both Essun (mother) and Nassun (daughter) as intriguing, complicated characters. But while Essun clearly loves her daughter — she spends most of the books trying to find her again after they were separated — she shows her almost no affection, so that when the two finally do reunite, they’re practically enemies. In the search for fantasy fiction’s Mother of the Year, it’s doubtful Essun would crack the top fifty.

Then I considered another fantasy series I love, Lois McMaster Bujold’s Chalion, specifically The Curse of Chalion and Paladin of Souls. These two books give us three generations of women: The Provincara, Ista, and Iselle. It sounds like an ideal set-up for mother/daughter bonding, right? If only they actually shared more than 5% of total page time. In Paladin of Souls, Ista expresses her love for her daughter Iselle, and we believe her because she is a character we trust. But we never see them interact. All the affection between them is kept off page, making them a less than satisfying contrast to the story’s villain, a monstrous mother who subjects her daughter to torture for the sake of her ambitions for her son.

Another series I love, Brandon Sanderson’s Stormlight Archive, also comes up short. Two supporting characters, Navani and Jasnah Kholin, are pretty okay with each other for the most part, but they, too, share almost no page time, particularly when contrasted with the complex but sympathetic bonds between father Dalinar and sons Adolin and Renarin, as well as between Kaladin and his surgeon father. Then we have Shallan, our female lead, who has only ever been loved by men (brothers, fiance, father who was abusive to everyone but her). As a child she kills her mother in self-defense, and her relationship with her stepmother is just as toxic. So, no Mothers of the Year here. Sanderson’s work is not completely lacking in complicated-but-loving relationships between mothers and daughters, but you have to look to his (excellent) short story, “Shadows for Silence in the Forests of Hell,” to see such a relationship given any substantial focus.

After my mental search let me down, I went back to r/fantasy and started a thread of my own, asking, “Why are good mother/daughter relationships in fantasy so rare?” As you can see from this link, I got quite a few responses.

Some posters pointed out books that had good, sympathetic depictions of mother-daughter relationships: Nnedi Okorafor’s Who Fears Death, Patricia McKillip’s Cygnet duology, Mercedes Lackey’s Valdemar series (particularly those books that focus on Queen Selenay and Princess Elspeth), Robin Hobb’s Liveship Traders, Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s Gods of Jade and Shadow, and Ursula LeGuin’s Tehanu. These posts, naturally, made me happiest.

Others argued that all parent-child relationships are underrepresented in fantasy, since the absence of parents facilitates young protagonists’ following the call to adventure. I see that point, I really do. But it still seems to me that mother-daughter bonds, and as well as bonds between young women and mother figures, get less attention from the genre than parental connections of other kinds — father/son, father/daughter, mother/son — as if a male character must be in the picture in order for the relationship to matter. Some posters did point this out.

Others noted that the scarcity of mothers in fantasy fiction might be due to society’s expectation that mothers should be paragons of perfection, not flawed, not complicated, and therefore not interesting from a fictional perspective. If mother characters are less than perfect, one poster writes, they “earn titles of nagging hags and evil matriarchs.” If a number of writers decided to make it easy on themselves by omitting mother characters altogether, it honestly wouldn’t surprise me.

Then there were the saddest points of all, those that claimed good mother-daughter relationships are rare in fantasy because they are rare in real life. I’m still not certain how to respond to this one, except to say that no one should have to grow up with toxic parents. Art imitates life, but then, as Oscar Wilde famously said, life imitates art. A lack of representation of healthy relationships between women could play no small part in the social conditioning that leads many women to see each other, even their own daughters, as rivals.

The worst part of this lack is that we may not even be aware it, until or unless someone calls our attention to it. I didn’t think about it when I crafted my current work-in-progress to give my female protagonist a dead mother and a neglectful stepmother, though she does have a sympathetic female mentor. However, my next planned work, a gender-bent take on George Eliot’s Silas Marner, will focus heavily on a mother-daughter connection. I can hardly wait to see it take shape.

I’m far from the only one who has questioned the comparative absence of mother-daughter relationships from fantasy. Sarah Kozloff and Aliette de Bodard have insights that are well worth reading.