I first had motherhood thrust upon me at the age of about four, when I was given a sinister-looking doll with eyes that clicked unnervingly open and shut, a hard bald skull with curls moulded onto its implacable surface, and a harsh voice like a carrion crow, wailing ‘Mama! Mama!’ whenever it was tipped forward. Unsurprising, then, that I was always a teddy-bear and Lego little girl and regarded dolls with a mistrust bordering on straightforward dislike. With a start like that, it came as a considerable surprise when KatePonders came into my life to discover that being a mother is great. We were aided in this discovery by KatePonders herself, a baby of consummate grace and charm who had the good manners to sleep right through the night from eight weeks’ old (a skill she stills possesses). Unprepared by what we laughingly call real life, I needed – and still need – mothers in books to show me the way.
Lady Macbeth, Cinderella’s stepmother, Snow White’s ditto (tell me, Dr Freud, were the Brothers Grimm trying to tell us something?), Joan Crawford: there is no shortage of role models for how not to do it. It would be pleasing to believe, now that stepmothers are quite thick on the ground, that the shelves would be heavy with books that show her in a more positive light, but if we avoid the overly worthy sort of children’s book (you know the sort of thing: Kylie has a lot of Daddies – not at present a real title but I offer it to anyone at a loose end), a lurking edginess remains, especially should the children be girls. Ungrateful little beasts, really: as my own mother once famously pointed out, when my then very young sister shouted (as four-year-olds are capable of doing at moments of disagreement), ‘You’re not my mummy!’, ‘You think I’m doing this for kicks?’. The step-mother I would most like to have been, had chance offered me that role in life, is Topaz Mortmain in Dodie Smith’s I Capture the Castle. Come to think of it, Dodie Smith is particularly good on the warm inclusiveness of not being overly hung up about biological parenting: look at the cheerful collectivism shown by dogs and people alike in One Hundred and One Dalmatians.
Mrs Walker and Mrs Blackett are warm, supportive and kind mothers in Arthur Ransome’s Swallows and Amazons sagas, reminding parents everywhere that one of our principal jobs in life is to stand back and let our children get on with it. Think how different those highly enjoyable adventures would have been had the children’s mothers been in the vanguard of today’s hysterically risk-adverse culture. ‘Can we, aged ten to seven, take a really quite heavy little sailing boat out on the deep and wind-swept waters of one of the northern Lakes, Mother?’ ‘Don’t be ridiculous, Roger. Of course you can’t. Now stay safely indoors and do some colouring.’ And that would have been that. The Railway Children’s mother is a thoroughly good egg, too, striking a perfect balance between protecting her children from life’s unbearable sorrows but letting them fly free. Those were the days. My own childhood – not all that long ago in the scale of things but beginning to feel as if it took place on another planet – was rich with solitary wanderings through the nearby woods, and my husband, whose mother was categorically not the most laid-back person I have ever met, spent many a happy hour when very small indeed playing out on the moors with his equally tiny friends: moors, I might add, not all that far from the favoured killing fields of Brady and Hindley. Were our parents crazily irresponsible, indifferent, or lacking in imagination? Or did they just have a firmer grasp of statistical probability than we are encouraged to have these days?
What of the art of mothering once your offspring are adults (using the term loosely) themselves? Best, I think, to avoid emulating Mrs Morel in DH Lawrence’s Sons and Lovers. Goodness me. Another prize specimen from Dr Freud’s own bookshelf, I suspect. Lawrence, always quite a difficult chap when it came to relationships with women, rarely misses an opportunity in his novels and short stories to Blame the Mother. To read him is to be reminded of Adam, pointing the finger at Eve and crying out, ‘It’s all her fault!’. Not the action of a gentleman, I would have said. But he hit upon a popular theme: how revealing it is to Google the term ‘mothers with adult children in literature’ (oh, come on: you knew that I’d be the sort of person who even googles in correct syntax) and find yourself bombarded with jolly little articles on ‘adult children of narcissistic mothers’, ‘adult children of bipolar mothers’ and so on.
It is a truth universally acknowledged that, just as contented marriages make poor fiction, so good mothers are hard to write about without coming across as terminally dull. How very much more fun to read and judge the parenting skills of Mrs Bennett or Lady Catherine de Bourgh. But there are some perfectly lovely mothers out there. Mrs March in Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women is a trouper whose saintliness is saved from schmaltziness by her calm, dry wit. Calmness in the face of threat is also the key to Kanga’s character: yes, that’s right, Kanga the only xx chromosome in Winnie the Pooh and The House at Pooh Corner. I know and admire mothers like her, serenely gliding through the mayhem to ensure that bedtimes, bathtimes and extract of malt all happen at the right moment. And Calvin’s mother in Bill Watterson’s insightful and utterly unmissable Calvin and Hobbes books is an almost unique poster-girl for real mothers everywhere: doing the best she can, learning on the job (that never stops), trying to focus on a few simple principles and, although she (mercifully) never bangs on about it, always holding on, no matter what the provocation, to her unconditional love for her child. Happy Mother’s Day, girls.