The Laissez-Faire Mother in YA

My brother at three years old was what you would call a “demon child.” My mom always tells the story of chasing him around a family gathering in a particularly child-unfriendly house – following his every move to prevent him from squeezing his head through the second floor banister, tumbling down the stairs, or – most importantly – placing his hands flat against the burning glass fireplace with which he had a particular fascination. She tells this story not because my brother’s behavior was out of the ordinary (this Tasmanian devil behavior was actually quite typical), but because of her interaction with a woman who shall remain unnamed. After watching my mom run around, this woman – a fellow mother mind you – suggested, “Why don’t you just let him touch it [the fireplace]? He’ll learn his lesson that way.” My mom just stared in horror. What kind of mother would suggest third degree burns as a teaching tool for a toddler? I still remember her packing up our stuff and marching us out the door before the gathering was over. That was how deeply upsetting she found this challenge to her mothering.

It seems that, much like there is always a new “best” diet in society today, there is always a new way to be the “best” mom. A plethora of books, articles and TV specials (all of which were clearly consumed by my mother), produced or endorsed by a self-proclaimed “expert,” tell mothers what to look out for during every step of childhood from infancy to teenager-dom. Since the time our parents were the ones being parented, the ideal of motherhood has evolved from a laissez faire or “let them figure it out” style to the newly-coined “helicopter mom.” If this overly involved approach is the new motherly standard, why is it that the lovable mom in contemporary young adult literature is one who passively lets her teenager screw up – or lets her toddler touch a burning fireplace?

In Steve Brezenoff’s Brooklyn, Burning, the main character, Kid’s, mother’s perceived lack of concern at her child’s disappearance is absurd and even negligent by today’s parenting standards, but somehow results in a strengthened mother-child bond. Upon their reunion, Kid asks, “‘Why did you let me leave?’” to which his mother replies “‘Sweetie, … I didn’t know. I never knew [that her husband essentially kicked Kid out].’” Because she had no idea that her child was kicked out of the house, she must have just assumed that Kid ran away – meaning she went a whole year without knowing whether or not her child was alive. This negligence somehow endears her to Kid rather than making him/her upset that she did not actively express her concern. Though it is clear that she loves Kid as much as any other mother would, her passive way of expressing this love appears like neglect to the modern young adult reader who has probably been raised by a helicopter parent. For Kid, it seems as though this adoration for a “neglectful” mother comes from the fact that she allowed him/her to be an individual and experience the difficulties of the world while still loving him/her as much as ever.

This passive mothering is represented again in Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight when Bella’s mother allows her daughter to move away. Her mother is the subject of the first sentence of the first chapter, initially placing her in a position of authority – a position that she does not uphold after the first sentence. Though she is definitely not an authority because of her passivity, she is, like Kid’s mom, arguably the most important person in Bella’s life. This importance validates her position as the subject of the sentence, but the fact that she is presented as Bella’s driver is troubling considering the rest of the plot. She is on the other side of the country for her daughter’s first day at a new school, when she falls in love for the first time, is hospitalized, and goes to her first prom. Her lack of involvement does not establish her as an active “driving” force in Bella’s life, yet somehow she is still in the most important position in the initial moments of the novel. Bella even risks her life to save her mother at the end of novel after she has not been present for the entirety of the plot. This intense bond, like the bond between Kid and Kid’s mother, is confusing due to Bella’s mom’s seemingly deficient mothering – somehow both she and Kid’s mother remain the favorite parent even though they are the exact opposite of the current motherly ideal.

The fact that I (and other members of Generation Y, I am assuming) am having such a hard time digesting this representation of mothers is due to the ideology of motherhood that has been ingrained in me from my own upbringing. James H. Kavanagh in his essay, “Ideology,” describes the term as a creating an “obvious ‘reality’ that social subjects can assume and accept, precisely as if it had not been socially produced and did not need to be ‘known’ at all.” In other words, my motherhood ideology has been created by my helicopter mother and her own assumed parental ideology, so I “know” what makes a good mother because of the social construct of modern parenting. However, when I step out of my own ideology and realize that nothing simply “is,” I am able to examine why the passive mothers who are so different than mine are presented as the good ones in young adult literature. They are the favorites because they allow the (usually troubled) adolescent protagonist to experience the world in his/her own unique way – allowing the process of individuation essential to the young adult novel. The loving yet laissez faire mother is the perfect bridge between the neediness of childhood and the harsh reality of adulthood, which is exactly what a teenager needs. So the moral of the story is, if your three-year-old wants to touch a fireplace, let him.

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