Lacking Mothers in Fantasy

The protagonist of the draft I just finished is a mother in her late 30s. She has a successful career and is also the sole parent of a teenager. When I first mentioned that I wanted to write a fantasy story driven by her, I got some skeptical looks from people unsure whether it could even work.

In fantasy, we have a preponderance of young protagonists with dead/absent/irresponsible parents. Archetypally, I understand why this works: you take a character who, being young, has a lot of growth potential, so it’s easy to challenge them and level them up over the course of the book until we reach the final climax and the hero finds themselves alone facing the Big Bad.

The first assumption is that it’s easier to do character development on a younger character because they know less about the world. The second is that if this child’s parents are not terrible, then they must have been forcibly removed to be allowing their child to face the Big Bad on their own and undefended.

Within YA, I am starting to see examples of parents that remain extant and aren’t terrible, though these narratives still center on the teens. Within fantasy, there have always been adult characters. In urban fantasy, we’ve seen a huge surge of young women actively pursuing careers. In high fantasy, we’ve seen teenage girls having adventures, and we’re getting more female characters who are fleshed out as side characters.

But within fantasy in general, I have an awful time finding mothers with agency. And I don’t just mean characters who have been mothers, if that makes sense — I love Ista dy Chalion in Lois McMaster Bujold’s Paladin of Souls, but by this point in her fictional life, her children are grown, out of the house, and no longer in need of regular parenting. Only after her children are gone does she get to have an adventure. In Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files, the mother of Dresden’s child dies almost as soon as Dresden knows he has a child. I love Tamora Pierce’s Alanna, but once she becomes a mother the narratives have shifted to follow her children or others. I haven’t read the third Natural History of Dragons novel by Marie Brennan yet, but in the previous installment, Lady Trent has adventures at the cost of not also being able to raise her child simultaneously. In Ilona Andrews’ Kate Daniels series, her protagonist adopts a teenage daughter early on, but I have an awful time thinking of many other examples.

It seems to me there’s a huge gap here: in our reality, women raise children and pursue careers every day. Although not a mother myself, as far as I can tell this is incredibly difficult. That seems like it should go naturally with stories, right? Stories thrive on conflict and protagonists having to make hard decisions. So why don’t we see women above a certain age driving stories? It’s rare enough in high fantasy for adult women to be the protagonist at all, but mothers are even harder to find.

I think that’s a problem. I think it implicitly sends a message to girls and women that once you’re an adult, and certainly if you choose to be a mother, you can’t have adventures anymore. That your time is over. That your stories are less valuable than stories focusing on men, or focusing on the next bright young thing. That your stories are not worth telling.

There are three contributing factors that meet to create this phenomenon: our culture valorizes youth and undervalues the work that goes into parenting and, of course, it undervalues women. Our fantasy doesn’t have to.

I’m certainly capable of empathizing and identifying with characters who are not like me. I can imagine and extrapolate. But as a relatively young woman, I wish I had more models of adult women in fantasy. I want at least my stories to show me that reaching adulthood is not the beginning of a downward trend. I want to see that women can still have adventures. I want to see that choosing a career or parenting or both is not a trap. We have enough space in fantasy to explore what it means to be an adult woman.

I couldn’t find the kind of story I wanted to read, so I wrote one. If you have recommendations for me, please send them my way! But I hope that in the future, I hope stories driven by adult women and mothers in particular are not as hard to find. I think we need them.

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7 responses to “Lacking Mothers in Fantasy

  1. On another note, I’m curious about how this trope works when the mother basically sacrifices her whole life to raise the “chosen one.”

    For example, Sarah Connor of the Terminator franchise. She’s shown to be the ultimate badass warrior while also being a mother to her young son. But it’s not Sarah who’s the leader of the Resistance, it’s John. And John becomes who he is because of the sacrifice and training of his mom. I feel like the entire trope could be turned on its head if the mother fights to stop the end of the world because she doesn’t want her children to grow up in that world.

    I’m sure this is not the only example, but I feel like the emotional impact and payoff is much more powerful in the latter than the former.

    • Ooh, THE FIFTH SEASON is going right onto my to-read list. Thank you!

      And yet, while the protagonist there is a mother, it looks she’s not actually parenting during the book — she’s chasing after her family, and if that synopsis is correct apparently sacrificing her entire life for the sake of her daughter, rather than pursuing her own life.

      Likewise, Sarah Connor isn’t the Chosen One; the young boy is. And even in Terminator 2, we don’t really see her raising Connor: she’s locked up for the first half of the movie, for starters. Also, apparently her entire life became about the fate of her child, and she has to throw away literally everything else in her life.

      I love Zamira Drakasha to death, and if Scott ever writes a story of any length featuring her as the protagonist I will be ALL OVER IT, but she’s not a POV character in the series: she’s a side character, and she dies within the book.

      Are there any mother protagonists who don’t have to totally destroy their lives in order to have children in SFF? Can they not have adventures that AREN’T about their children?

      I think a more interesting way to do Terminator 2 would have been to set it before John is born: have Sarah go, ‘like hell I’m letting destiny determine my life or bringing a child into that nonsense’, and take care of the whole thing while pregnant. Then not only does her son get to grow up without that weight, she doesn’t have to sacrifice everything for it, either. She fights not just for her child’s future, but for her own.

  2. Sherwood Smith’s Sasharia en Garde pair, Once a Princess and Twice a Prince, has a mother’s adventure interlaced with her daughter’s. The daughter is grown and has more than half the screen time, but not all of it! It’s a nice entwining because they fix things together, not one stepping aside for the other.

    • Oh, I’d forgotten about that one! I haven’t read Sasharia en Garde yet, but it’s been on my to-read list for ages. *bumps it up the list*

  3. It’s certainly familiar to those of us whose mothers couldn’t set an example of how to be a mother/chauffer/cook/housekeeper/accountant and have a life filled with adventure.

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