My mom would know what this flower is, but I don't. Photo by Kate Ota Germany 2013
Happy Mother’s Day!
One trope of MG/YA books is a dead mother (if not also a dead father). You’ll also see this trend in movies for young people—specifically Disney. So where did the trope come from and why perpetuate it? I decided to do a little digging.
Where did this start?
My first instinct was that this trope is drawn from fairy tales. I took a class on Grimm’s Fairytales in college and almost every birth mother was dead, often replaced by an evil stepmother. (Though, shockingly, not Snow White. Per the brothers Grimm, her bio-mom was the murderous queen.)
Many academic papers have been written about the dead mother trope, both about modern and historical works. One paper summarized quite a bit for me and presented earlier theories as to why this trope exists: the high mortality rate in child birth prior to modern times (about 1% to 1.5% of mothers died during child birth in the 1600s and 1700s), socio-economic and family structure changes in the US since WWII, and Walt Disney’s bad relationship with his mother. The feminist take is that removing the mother character and forcing the father to step into her place makes the father look great and devalues the work the mother used to do to keep the household running, since Dad can do it all himself.
Short version: it’s sexism.
Why Kill Mother Characters?
Well, parents who do a good job parenting will often prevent the sort of dangerous adventures that make MG/YA exciting. There are some stories in which parents are alive but separated from the kids, like because of a boarding school (the Weasley parents in the Harry Potter series) or war (the Pevensie parents in the Narnia series). Either way, it’s easier if the parents can’t jump in to prevent disaster.
MG and YA also explore the themes of growing up and experiencing the world yourself (to a greater extent in YA, of course) which requires the removal of that parental safety net to emphasize that theme. And let’s face it, from a traditional-nuclear-family-type perspective, who is most likely to notice kid shenanigans and do something to stop it? Mom. (No offense, Dad.)
TV Tropes offers the theory that dead parents are the only purely good parents in entertainment, as the others need to be stand offish or absent for plot reasons and therefore come off as terrible people. The dead are held in higher regard. It’s an interesting theory, but there are plenty of flawed dead parents in entertainment, too. And the trope page didn’t discuss mothers specifically.
In The New York Times, S.S. Taylor theorized authors kill one or more parents to reassure themselves that if they died, their own real children would also find a way to be okay. A bit of therapy, in a way.
Of course, that’s all been mostly about orphans, or at least when both parents are missing. But plenty of stories off Mom and keep Dad (Aladdin, Beauty and the Beast, and The Little Mermaid to name a few). You’ll notice in these movies the father-child relationship tends to be fairly strong or develops as part of the emotional arc of the story. In fact, before Cinderella’s dad dies, they’re very close in most versions. Clearly, one way to justify or emphasize a father-MC relationship is to get rid of Mom.
Let’s circle back to the evil stepmother trope. This villain was typically jealous, cruel, and destructive toward stepdaughters. (We don’t see a ton of classic stories about stepmothers and their stepsons, but I’m sure they exist.) A biological mother was theoretically less likely to be this negative with their child. However, a stepmother had power/influence over the main character and would potentially be willing to treat them poorly. Since the intended audience was children, and getting deep into the psychology of why a parent may be cruel could be difficult for that audience, substituting in the stepmother may have been a shortcut to explain the bad behavior. This is a trope/cliché that’s certainly past its prime.
Should You Kill Off a Mother Character?
It depends. It’s a very old trope and teeters on cliché. You could use it to give your story a fairytale vibe, especially helpful if you want that feeling but aren’t doing a direct retelling. Fairytale retellings have been hot for years (I’d point to the start of the trend being Cinder by Marissa Meyer), but to stand out in this crowd, I’d recommend subverting as many tropes from the original tales as possible. That includes dead moms.
Contemporary stories probably don’t need to rely on dead moms, anyway. With the recent economic crises and the feminist movements of the late 1900s, many families have both parents working. Don’t kill off the mom, just make her busy. Historical settings may have more flexibility here, since, as I mentioned before, the maternal mortality rates were terrifying for most of human history. (And they’re still not great in the US, honestly, especially for women of color!)
I guess my advice is in general, no. Don’t kill off your mother characters unless there’s a very clear, specific reason she must be dead. Test your creativity and find another way to let your MG and YA characters explore their worlds. You may come up with an idea you like even more and bonus: one less dead mom character.
Here are some sources for more reading on this topic: