Tales of the Motherless Child

When I started doing research for Maven, most of the fairy tales I knew involved girls who were set upon by their stepmothers, girls who had no mothers present. Even Disney’s Sleeping Beauty is separated from her mother, to be raised by three silly fairies. Cinderella, Snow White, Beauty, Rapunzel, and even Little Red Riding Hood were separated from their mothers.

Boys too are often motherless, such as the youngest son in many tales,  Peter Pan,  and even Harry Potter. Others, like Jack and the Beanstalk, may have an ineffectual mother who has not been able to impart any sense into her son.

Many of the women I know from the Boomer generation seem to have mother-issues. I wonder how much of this is based on the image of the Evil Older Woman: stepmother-witch.

If you watch fantasy/sci-fi TV and movies, you’ll see that there are few mothers present. They tend to fall into three categories: the golden anima of the entire series (Martha Kent on Smallville),  the wicked witch of the series (Angela Petrelli of Heroes), or comic relief (both Sheldon’s and Howard’s mothers on The Big Bang Theory).  Mothers in fairy tales are dead.  This robs the protagonist of guidance and support, so he or she enters the story with naiveté and innocence, vulnerable to evil.

Bruno Bettleheim and Clarissa Pinkola Estes suggest that these dead,  “too-good mothers” represent the child’s desire to return to infancy, to being held, nursed and closely attended by a mother–or even a desire to return to the womb.  The real mother, the one who has her own life to lead, her own issues, is seen as the evil one, the one who says “no,” or “go to bed” or “do your homework.”  The conflict between child and mother is not negotiated in fairy tales, the child does not learn how to be an adult among older adults.

How hard it is to become one’s own self, yet at some point to see one’s mother’s face in the mirror. How hard it is to allow one’s child to grow into his or her true self, without withdrawing approval or trying to control.

Perhaps our cultural fear of the older woman comes from this story motif–the anxiety of separation that begins with the terrible twos, and never really ends. Maybe it has to do with the idea that a woman loses her value with her fertility–women are the only mammals that survive their fertility.  Perhaps it is because our great-grandmothers did not often live to see 40, especially if they had many children.

A girl born today is likely to live into her 80s or even longer, but many of the Depression babies are still around, approaching their 80s,  and the Boomer girls are entering their 60s. Nobody expected that we would live this long–Social Security was never set up for people to be retired for as many years as they worked.

Will our motherless child stories begin to reflect the very large and growing numbers of grandmothers in our society? It is speculated that the appearance of the grandmother–someone who at 30 was elderly enough to have seen an entire generation grow up and begin a new generation–was a factor in the development of civilization.

What would a preponderance of grandmothers create?  Not to mention Fairy Godmothers?

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