Mothering: It’s so daily. And the qualities needed—selflessness, grit, tolerance of boredom, ingenuity, fortitude, continual focus on others—rarely get noticed, much less celebrated. After all, they’re the requirements for the job.
Bad mothers? Yes!—they spring quickly to mind . . . they’re so vivid. (Below, a few evil examples.)
“There are weirdly few credible portraits of mothers in English fiction,” Eleanor Birne notes in an essay in The Guardian. “Eighteenth- and 19th-century novels, where one would normally start to look for such things, are full of orphans: there are governesses and surrogate mothers such as Jane Eyre or Miss Havisham, but the mother herself is often the hole at the centre of the story. . . . In early 20th-century fiction, the mother often becomes a difficult, even monstrous presence, as with DH Lawrence’s near-incestuous mother in Sons and Lovers, or the anxious, overbearing mother of Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar. Fiction seems to depend on the mother’s absence for the child to flourish.”
We agree with this assessment. (Indeed, one of our writers, Nancy Weber, wonders, “Do good mothers make bad literature?”) But movies, we discovered as we pondered, are a fruitful source of admirable-mother portraits. Here, on the 100th anniversary of the proclamation of Mother’s Day, is our list of women celebrated in literature, music, and history for the high quality of their mothering.
MOTHERS WE ADMIRE
Ma Joad, “The Grapes of Wrath”
THE INDOMITABLE MOTHER
She is kind, phlegmatic, courageous, steadfast, bracing—and, against all odds, hopeful: “We keep a-comin.’ We’re the people that live. They can’t kill us. They can’t wipe us out. We’ll go on forever.” Without this rock to cling to, how could the family have made it to California?
This calm, gracious, tough, warmhearted mother holds her British family together during World War II; she both strives for normality by reading her child Alice in Wonderland and deals cunningly with the downed German aviator she discovers in her kitchen. “She keeps a stiff upper lip even as moviegoers’ lips are trembling from her shining example,” notes Richard Corliss in his new book, Mom in the Movies.
A woman of immense dignity, patience, and wisdom, Mama has the fortitude to buy a house in a white neighborhood that trumpets its desire to keep her African American family out. She endures, aspires, and inspires.
An African American farm woman who has to support and raise her family when her husband is sent to prison at a time of brutal racism in the South. She’s so brave and strong and upright—an incredible heroine.
THE SELF-SACRIFICIAL MOTHER
Raphael. “The Judgment of Solomon,” 1519
As Solomon stood over the infant with a sword, the child’s true mother screamed, “Don’t kill my baby. Give him to her!” She pointed to the woman who had stolen her son and claimed him as her own. (The kidnapper was ready to see the child cut in half: “It shall be neither mine nor yours—divide it!”) This act of love proved, to Solomon’s satisfaction and ours, which mother was the true mother.
Gauche, lower-class Stella gives the care of her beloved adult daughter, Laurel, to a refined widow (her ex-husband’s soon-to-be wife) who can help burnish the girl into social success. To get Laurel to agree, Stella marries a rather uncouth suitor; to spare her daughter embarrassment at her mother’s loud voice and social awkwardness, Stella nobly stays away from Laurel’s wedding, peering longingly at the ceremony through an open window. The virtue of self-sacrifice.
Motherly sacrifice again . . . sort of. A woman (“Mrs. Erlynne”) abandons her husband and baby daughter for a lover—who leaves her. The daughter makes a brilliant match by marrying Lord Windermere. When she reads about the wedding, Mrs. Erlynne blackmails Lord W.” If he doesn’t pay, she’ll reveal Lady Windermere’s humiliating background. But when she meets the lovely girl, motherly love comes into Mrs. Erlynne’s heart. Now bursting to be acknowledged as Lady Windermere’s mother, Mrs. Erlynne keeps her silence. Is this a good mother? Does her later noble restraint trump the blackmailing?
Abandoned by her “husband,” Butterfly is asked to do the unthinkable—allows that faithless man to take away their child. She agrees. But for Butterfly, such a sacrifice is a fate worse than death.
Single mother with two problematic children. She tries so hard, doing whatever’s right for them even if it’s a big stretch (like taking in her teenage daughter’s teenage husband).
THE MORAL TOUCHSTONE
Mary Ball Washington
“My mother was the most beautiful woman I ever saw. All I am I owe to my mother. I attribute my success in life to the moral, intellectual and physical education I received from her.”—George Washington
She is a sterling role model, a loving guide to honesty and doing the right thing. Indeed, Little Women begins with Marmee’s urging her daughters (who considered themselves very poor) to “make their little sacrifices”: give up their Christmas presents and their Christmas breakfast to a family that’s even poorer.
Yes, Hester Prynne, the adulteress, becomes a moral touchstone. She stays in Puritan Salem, the town where she is notorious, to expiate her sin She teaches her beloved daughter, Pearl, the path of righteousness; she lives a blameless life as a seamstress; she is always aware of, and repentant for, her sin. Her dignity in disgrace shows Pearl that it is possible to be stalwart and keep one’s self-respect, even in the face of community scorn.
THE EMPATHETIC, BRACING MOTHER
Rusty (Cher) in Mask (1985)
She is biker mother with a very special-needs kid—a boy with a skull deformity that provokes fear and pity in other people. Like Mrs. Gump (below) she won’t allow her son to dwell on his disabilities, only on his abilities. Particularly moving because she doesn’t fit the Mrs. Cleaver mold.
She will do anything for her son (including sleeping with his school principal). The best part of her mothering is helping Forrest understand that his IQ isn’t the only thing that defines him. That he can be and do anything. That he, most importantly, can be a good man.
She’s not only a fine mother to her own two children, but she embraces a homeless boy as her own and helps him achieve—and teaches him what a family is in doing so. She’s tough and she won’t back down when it comes to her kids. We love it when she tells a punk in the projects to watch out because she’s “always packing.”
At first, she’s kind of sarcastic and not very affectionate when she learns that her stepdaughter is pregnant. But she becomes this fierce participant in the pregnancy, telling off a nasty ultrasound nurse, coaching through the birth and even encouraging the adoptive mother. She’s a character that you might dismiss at first who is obviously a rock when the time comes
Okay, so he’s technically their father, not their mother. But . . . his tenderness makes him motherly indeed.
When she and her daughter switch places, they each gain much needed appreciation for the other. Tess is trying to move on with her life after being widowed, with an eye always on how the changes will affect her two kids.
The author of Silent Spring “owed her love of nature to her mother, who taught her daughter as a tiny child joy in the out-of-doors and the lore of birds, insects, and residents of streams and ponds,” according to the Women’s Natural History Museum. Maria fiercely nurtured her daughter’s ambitions; Carson’s biographer William Souder notes that Maria made regular weekend visits to Rachel’s college dorm, spending hours reading and typing papers; “her classmates considered her a doting mother.” Mother and daughter lived together during much of Rachel’s life.
THE EVERYDAY HEROINE
Stephen Colbert’s pause for reflection on the death of his mother is touching.
Determined to overcome her impoverished family’s many obstacles, this down-to-earth Californian uses intelligence or daring to resolve difficult problems. She forces her sisters to approve a family member’s marriage to a husband they think unworthy; uses a disguise to sneak into a hospital to sing to her sick child; sunnily persuades her brood to overcome their dislike of a deadbeat tenant; trades her heirloom brooch to buy a dresser set for her daughter; cleverly finds a way to turn that daughter into a successful writer. This is one good mother.
There’s a scene when birth mother Jackie (Susan Sarandon) and stepmother Isabel (Julia Roberts) have drinks to talk about the future. They know Jackie’s dying by this point. Isabel says that she’s scared that when (step)daughter Anna gets married, she’ll say she wishes it were her mother there instead of her stepmother. Jackie says that she’s scared that Anna won’t say that. Very touching (okay, very schmaltzy) study on what it means to be a mother.
Also admirable: the matriarchs in this motherlode of not-always-wise movie moms: A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, Imitation of Life, Mildred Pierce, Norma Rae, Places in the Heart, Since You Went Away.
MOTHERS WHO APPALL
Frederick Sandys, “Medea.”
This vengeful wife of Jason—cast aside by her husband so he can marry a royal princess—not only poisons the princess and her father the king but also knifes her children to death in order to behold the grief of their father Jason
Partway through the opera she piercingly commands her daughter Pamina to knife her father to death—or else.
This harpy unwittingly poisons her own son—twice.
She doesn’t actually murder her two children—but she comes close.
Joan Crawford at her most fearsome—as the mother of an adopted daughter, Christina, who accuses her of child abuse. Another charge by Christina: that Joan adopted her as a publicity stunt. Memorable ragefest: the movie scene in which Joan (Faye Dunaway) tears into a closet, howling, “No wire hangers!” She’s frightening.
She is a domineering mother who stifles her children with her self-regard, her fantasies about her charmed youth, her cluelessness as to her children’s emotional needs. Her son Tom escapes the household, but bears lifelong guilt for leaving his fragile sister in their mother’s clutches.
A dictatorial Boston mother’s scorn turns her daughter, Charlotte, into an emotionally crippled spinster. When Charlotte has a breakdown and comes under the encouraging influence of a kind doctor, she turns into a fragile butterfly. Her relentless mother tries to pull Charlotte back into her soul-destroying orbit—and only one of them will survive their inevitable confrontation. The survivor is Charlotte.
We could go on and on. Consider the mother, Mary, in Precious; Regina in The Little Foxes; Clytemnestra; Mrs. Iselin in The Manchurian Candidate; American moms in general in the book Generation of Vipers, the mother, Margaret, in Carrie . . .