“’And not even a call on Mother’s Day!’ Mom delved deep into the role of Jewish mother, spreading on guilt as thick as schmaltz.”
So begins chapter fourteen of Ellen the Harpist.
Happy Mother’s Day! For the record, it’s also my mom’s birthday. Between my birth year and the year she died, my mother’s birthday fell on Mother’s Day five times. Which is ironic, because my mom wasn’t a fan of the holiday. Regardless of the reason we commemorate May 14th this year, it’s a good day to explore the role mothers play in chick lit.
Mothers Who Make Us Laugh (for the Wrong Reasons)
Nagging mothers, embarrassing mothers; where would chick lit be without such characters? If Pride and Prejudice is the mother of chick lit, then Mrs. Bennet is the mother of all chick lit mothers. A vain, silly, trying woman who values a suitable match above personal happiness, she doesn’t even earn respect from her own husband: “Her ignorance and folly had contributed to [Mr. Bennet’s] amusement.” So steadfast is her mission to marry off her daughters, she replies to Elizabeth’s question, “Is [marriage] all you think about?” with the statement, “When you have five daughters, Lizzie, tell me what else will occupy your thoughts.”
Chick lit blossomed with the release of Bridget Jones’s Diary by Helen Fielding in 1996 and Sex in the City by Candace Bushnell in 1997 (and the subsequent series based on the book that aired on HBO from 1998-2004). Bridget Jones is thirty-two at the start of the novel, and Carrie Bradshaw is in her thirties as the series begins. Both women would have been born in the early to mid-sixties, making them older members of Gen X. Their mothers were women who had settled into marriages and motherhood before the height of the second wave of the women’s movement in the sixties and seventies.
The early heroines of chick lit belong to the first generation of women who had the choice not to follow their mothers’ paths toward economic dependence on a man. Gen X women could pursue careers, not jobs. Love could wait. Sort of. A common theme in the genre is the new-found independence from needing a man to provide for her doesn’t free a woman from maintaining her emotional dependence on men. I’ll save this concept for another blog.*
I’m not Going to Grow up to Be Like My Mother
Whether fictional mothers are overbearing or flighty, they serve as foils to their daughters. Rare is the character who smiles with pride when she discovers or is told how similar she is to her mother. While these women love their moms, forging an identity as someone other than a wife and mother puts them into conflict with their maternal counterparts. What better way to delineate their quest for fulfillment than by differentiating themselves from their mothers or highlighting their mothers’ flaws?
I’m guilty of harvesting the clichés of the less-than-perfect chick lit mother in my novel. Ellen’s mom is more apt to criticize her than to shower her with praise and support. And Ellen is not a model of daughterly love. I needed Mrs. Blum not only to be an antithesis to Ellen but for their relationship to stand in contrast to Ellen’s relationship with her father. In other words, I doomed her to being not a modern, maternal best friend but a nagging throwback to a pre-feminist era.
Unlike Bridget Jones and Carrie Bradshaw, Ellen is a millennial. Mrs. Blum was born in the mid-fifties into a generation of women who embraced the wave of feminism in the early seventies. She opted out. When criticizing Ellen’s sense of style, she informs her,
“Men like women with baby-delivering hips. Do I have to teach you how to get dressed in order to attract a man?”
I stand to lose my feminist bona fides by perpetuating this outdated stereotype. And perhaps I’ve saddled Ellen, born in 1984, with issues her generation no longer faces.
Are fun, flirty novels, TV shows, and movies about a woman struggling to define herself as she pursues a career rather than a job (or husband) while in her twenties or thirties relevant today? Having watched Girls (HBO, 2012-2017), I’ve concluded life, goals, and the strains of becoming a successful woman are no different for Hannah Horvath and Ellen Blum than they were for Bridget Jones and Carrie Bradshaw.
Since the path toward modern womanhood remains as challenging for millennials as it was for Gen X, it stands to reason fictional accounts of millennial woman still require their mothers to represent lives and paths not chosen. And no feminist breakthrough will ever prevent mothers from installing — and pushing — their daughters’ buttons. More important to note, mothers still struggle to define themselves.
Mothers Are People, Too
In my work-in-progress, a [slightly] more mature Ellen has the insight, if not necessarily the will, to change her perspective of her mother.
“I regarded this version of my mother as if she were someone I had never met. She wasn’t behaving like the woman I thought her to be. She was happy, relaxed, and hadn’t criticized me since Wednesday afternoon.”
While Ellen and her mother are unlikely ever to run out of reasons to find fault with each other, the distance between them will close as Ellen continues to mature.
So, Mom. I didn’t buy a Hallmark card this Mother’s Day/Birthday. You always encouraged my sister and me to make all of our cards, anyhow. As much as I’m itching to break out the construction paper and glitter glue, I’ll stick with words. Even though you were present while I was twenty-something and then thirty-something, life as your adult daughter was different for me than it was for Ellen, Bridget, Carrie, and Hannah because of the hand dealt to you. I had to learn to be a grownup without your guidance. And now that I’m mumble, mumble-something, and you’re not here, it’s worth noting that while tidbits from my own life — and my life as your daughter — informed my writing of the relationship between Ellen and her mother, they don’t prevent me from seeing you as not only a wife and mother but as a woman with her own dreams and achievements. Here’s to you, Mom!
*If you want to read more about postfeminism and its influence on female characters in literature, I recommend The Aftermath of Feminism (2009) by Angela McRobbie and The Cultural Politics of Chick Lit: Popular Fiction, Postfeminism, and Representation (2016) by Heike Missler, two sources that informed me as I wrote this post.
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