It is axiomatic that one should “write what you know,” but in truth I had a very good relationship with my own mother, and then many years later with my own child. But on the pages of a novel, estrangements, misunderstandings, and strife of all sorts are typically more interesting to read about than even-keeled, sunny relationships. The dynamic between parent and child is among the most primal—and therefore potentially laden with emotion and compulsion—of all human relationships, and at the risk of distilling those complexities into traditional gender roles and definitions, the connections between mother and daughter can be especially poignant, passionate, and productive.
Whether the mother/daughter relationship is key to your current story arc, a horrifying backstory that compels the action, or merely provides a story-adjacent angst, here are a few important tips to deepen your characters and their interactions.
1. A Whole Lotta Mother Love
Let’s start with the good stuff: Mothers and daughters often share fierce love, profound understanding, and a mutual perspective on the world. A mother is capable of doing just about anything when it comes to protecting her child, and daughters are typically the first to step up when mothers need help. Mother and daughter can be best friends, supportive, and nurturing of each other—but of course that closeness can also get out of hand, causing problems in other intimate relationships and pushing others away.
A mother often sees aspects of herself in her daughter, for better or worse. Does the mother see her daughter as the best part of oneself? Or could the daughter represent another chance to go out into the world as a woman, without one’s current baggage? Might the mother be jealous of her daughter for her youth, her looks, her many possibilities? Or does the mother fear that her daughter will be subject to the sexism and brutality that the mother has endured, or has always dreaded? Might those concerns make a mother tighten her grip on her daughter, leading the daughter to rebel—or could the daughter be compelled to cling to home too much, like Laura Wingfield in Williams’ The Glass Menagerie, living only through her fragile glass animals?
Before becoming a mother, I never realized how much of the role can be infused with uncomfortable emotions such as guilt, resentment, and fear. There is never enough time, and because of societal, religious, and traditional expectations mothers tend to feel guilty. A lot. Resentment also rears its head, as motherhood implies a certain loss of control over one’s schedule, one’s own needs, and often of one’s sense of self altogether. Finally, mothers who adore their children beyond all reason come to realize how much they have to lose, leading to the possibility of fear coloring one’s actions and decisions.
A mother’s love for her daughter can create a rock-solid foundation of unconditional love; it can also foster a codependent, maladaptive relationship featuring overwhelming elements of competition, manipulation, and frustration.
2. Or Maybe Not So Much Love…
Every year when Mother’s Day rolls around I am reminded that mothers and their children are “supposed to be” close, or at least get along, and that expectation goes double for mothers and daughters. Of course, there are intense emotions on both sides, from mother-to-daughter and daughter-to-mother, but those emotions can drive them apart as well as bring them together. And precisely because it is so expected that they like each other, the actors involved might blame themselves for not doing so—deciding that something is wrong with them, or with the other.
Rippling below much mother/daughter conflict is the denial of women’s needs. No one lives in a vacuum, and the women and girls in any family are subject to broader social mores which can set them up for conflict. Unrealized career goals, pressure within the home, the expectation that women should sacrifice their own needs to fulfill the caregiving role … It is common for a daughter to fail to see her mother as a three-dimensional person, and to recognize that motherhood might have been difficult. Familial strife might be stoked by the daughter’s rejection of her mother’s acceptance (or rejection) of societal norms, especially traditional gender roles.
Further complicating the situation is that women and girls often do not feel free to give voice to their needs and concerns. This silencing can result in feeling unseen, which in turn might lead to manipulation or neediness. On the other hand, even very young daughters are often skilled at reading their mothers’ unspoken and unacknowledged needs and desires, resulting in increased empathy and sensitivity.
Tip #3 Missing Love
When a mother is not around, her very absence can become, in a very real sense, a story’s main character. As evidenced by innumerable Disney movies, fables, and fairytales, a missing mother is a gripping dramatic gambit. In my novels The Paris Key, Letters from Paris, and The Lost Carousel of Provence the protagonist’s mother was absent, whether partially or altogether, and yet the yearning for Mother—and sorrow over her real or imagined loss—helped compel the narratives forward.
Conversely, a mother who is present and accounted for isn’t always a good thing. In Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, though Lizzie is not close to her mother, their relationship is fundamental to the story. It is by observing her own mother that Lizzie learns who, and what, she does NOT want to become. Negative maternal figures abound in literature: the alcoholic mother, the cold mother, the neglectful mother. All of which compel the daughter to decide whether she wants to follow in her mother’s footsteps or create her own reality.
And finally, a mother who walks away from or abuses her child is often labeled as “unnatural” within and without the family. That’s a hefty label, and a very hard character to portray with sympathy. On the other hand, if you can pull it off, you will have written a compelling story!
Our most intimate relationships are, by definition, multifaceted and complicated. They are a big part of what makes us human, and those complexities make stories compelling. The challenge for writers is how to realistically, and eloquently, and emotionally, portray those multidimensional interactions on the page.
The mother-daughter dynamic can be tricky, and yet it speaks volumes when the complex relationship—in all its nuanced yearnings and love, guilt and resentment—is captured on the page. In my most recent novel, The Paris Showroom, I explore the relationship of a mother and daughter who are estranged, forced to face the violence of a war, and eventually manage to find their way back to each other.
We might want to blame our mothers for everything, but whatever you do, stick some love in there. Whether unconditional or unrequited, tender or twisted, the mother/daughter dynamic is propelled by it—or by the lack of it.