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On Mothers as Characters

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The Mother as Writer…AND as Character

Every time I create a character in my fiction who’s a mother, I run into the same problem: even when the children have nothing to do with the story, editors and agents insist I give them more story time. Thus, I have to create more characters and wrestle with a geometric increase in relationships. If I don’t develop the children, I’ve been told, readers will lose sympathy for the main character.

The obvious solution, if the kids aren’t central to the plot, is to leave them out, to not make the main character a mother. But there are times when I’ve felt it essential for a female character to have had the experience of birthing and raising kids, for it to be an element in her background, even if the kids aren’t part of the story.

I wrote a novel about an older woman who falls in love with a man with AIDS. By making the protagonist a mother, I gave her a certain depth of life experience around illness and caretaking–but otherwise there was no place in this tragic love story for children. They were fully grown and referred to only peripherally, mostly via phone calls. An agent who wanted to represent the book told me it was jarring for the kids to be mostly absent from the story, that it made the woman less likeable. I suppose this mother seemed like a dilettante for living a full adult life without her kids being on top of her.

I should have known better before I even wrote her as a mother: the same issue had arisen thirty years ago, with one of my earliest attempts to publish a novel. The main character was a mother, but the plot revolved around a specific instance of political activism. It was important, I felt, that the fact of motherhood influence her commitment to feminism, but otherwise the kids were not essential to the story. My agent, after getting feedback from several publishers, informed me that I had to incorporate the children into the story: editors detested this woman for being M.I.A. as a mother.

I’m not sure what this says about literature in our culture, but it says a helluva lot about how we regard motherhood. The central focus of a mother’s life is supposed to be her children, no matter how old they are, no matter what else she’s doing. If she’s presented as an autonomous being with other interests and activities, she’s suspect.

Just think of an editor saying the same thing about male writers and characters! Can you even imagine an agent telling Richard Ford or Phillip Roth their characters are unlikable because their kids don’t make an appearance? But in these accomplished writers’ novels, that is frequently the case. Do readers like Raymond Carver any better because his stories often include children? I don’t—although I admit I appreciate getting a father’s point of view from Carver.

I’ve certainly never felt compelled to make a male character a father in order to grant him a deeper perspective. I assume a man is who he is regardless of parental status. Could I be wrong about that? I don’t know; I only know that motherhood exerts such a powerful influence on a woman’s psyche that by merely making a character a mother I’ve performed a hefty chunk of instant character development.
EUREKA! Maybe that’s the real problem. Maybe I’m relying too much on what a woman is, rather than taking the time to develop her independent of her maternal status. The people who dislike my characters don’t realize this, of course; few agents and editors these days are savvy literary critics, so when they sense something’s lacking, they jump to the easy conclusion—the lazy conclusion, actually: exactly the way I’m being lazy!

I’ll have to do some re-reading to see if this rings true, and perhaps try creating a character without relying on the fact of motherhood to describe her….hmm…it also occurs to me I’ve been a bit sexist in relying on a stereotype to develop character.

This is what’s so wonderful about the act of writing. Just putting down these words has taken me to a new level of understanding. I love it.

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