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The 8 Types of Imperfect Moms in Literature

Happy Mother’s Day to everyone, because whether or not you’re a mother — and whether or not that’s okay with you — we all come from mothers, whether those mothers are perfect or not.

That’s why my Frontlist pick this week is Robin O’Bryant’s Ketchup Is A Vegetable: And Other Lies Moms Tell Themselves, a collection of her columns from her popular Robin’s Chicks blog. Yes, O’Bryant is funny, fierce and honest, and more on her delightful writing in a moment. However, she had me at her subtitle. “Lies Moms Tell Themselves” — was there ever a more truthful phrase? In order to get through the process of childrearing, mothers have to tell themselves quite a few lies. For example: “I am ready to face another day changing this tiny tyrant’s waste-filled diapers.” (And I made that one up all by myself!)

More important than anything O’Bryant has to say on potty training, breastfeeding, the chaos of the dinner hour and postpartum depression, more important even than her honesty, is the fact that she’s funny without being cutesy. Anyone who has to spend time around small children (and really, even if it’s just being stared at by one on public transportation, that counts) knows that cutesy stinks. It’s also what made me think of this week’s Backlist, a.k.a. The Pantheon of Imperfect Mothers in Literature:

1. The Drunk Mom: Gloria Jones in Lies My Mother Never Told Me: A Memoir by Kaylie Jones

“If you could hold your liquor, you were not an alcoholic” is just one of the skewed lessons author Jones learns from her parents, the famed novelist James Jones (From Here to Eternity) and his forceful wife Gloria. Gloria Jones’s dissipation into an aged alcoholic is terrifying stuff.

2. The Busybody Mom: Mrs. Bennet in Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen

Everyone knows Mrs. Bennet, or thinks that they do, but if your undergraduate memory of this mom-on-the-make (all in service of her fine daughters, of course!) has grown hazy, take a bracing dip back into Austen’s excellent portrayal of a woman consumed by superficiality.

3. The Runaway Mom: Bernadette in Where’d You Go, Bernadette by Maria Semple

Ryan Adams sang “Where do you go when you’re lonely?” Bernadette Fox knows where she wants to go — but she doesn’t tell anyone else, and that includes her Microsoft guru husband and her smart, sweet 15-year-old daughter Bee. A book both madcap and meaningful, no mean feat.

4. The Adulterous Mom: Emma Bovary in Madame Bovary by Gustav Flaubert

You remember Emma B. living it up with lovers and buying too many fripperies, but you may have forgotten that she had a little girl named Berthe — and was depressed that Berthe wasn’t a boy. Nothing good can come of this, and eventually, Berthe is sent to work in a cotton mill.

5. The Absentminded Mom: Mrs. Murry in A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle

Absentminded is not the same as apathetic or disinterested (see #8 below). Meg Murry’s mother loves her children, but her grief over her husband’s disappearance, combined with her deep professional competence, sees her stirring stew over the Bunsen burner on most nights.

6. The Trapped Mom: Janice Angstrom in Rabbit, Run by John Updike

There are so many 20th-century American literary characters who could fit into this sad slot, but the angry, alcoholic Janice Angstrom may fit best due to her many flaws. What happens in this family tragedy may be her fault — but it’s also Harry/Rabbit’s fault, and our society’s, too.

7. The Nightmare Mom: The Other Mother in Coraline by Neil Gaiman

I’m still traumatized by The Other Mother, so vicious is she in her wooing of Coraline away from her kind, distracted, everyday parents. By the time readers (or viewers; this is also a very interesting animated film) and Coraline learn the truth of what she’s after, rescue seems far, far away.

8. The Disinterested Mom: Mrs. Wormwood in Matilda by Roald Dahl

Most moms would be delighted to have a smart, curious, fearless daughter like Matilda — but Mrs. Wormwood is so self-absorbed that she couldn’t care less about the child Miss Honey keeps trying to explain to her is special. She may, in a way, be the worst of this entire lot.

9. The Damaged Mom: Vivian Abbott Walker in Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood by Rebecca Wells

“Vivi” Abbott Walker wants to be exceptional, but her upbringing, circumstances, genetics and personality lead to disastrous consequences for her and her four children. When her daughter Siddalee writes about her troubled childhood, it threatens to bring out the worst in Vivi again.

10. The Baglady Mom: Rose Mary Walls in The Glass Castle: A Memoir by Jeannette Walls

Rose Mary Walls called herself “an excitement addict,” but her addiction led to desperate times. Everyone I know who has read this memoir is forever struck by the image of Walls watching her parents dig through a waste container while she rides past in a limo.

5 Comments

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