The Dead Mother: Trope or Cliche?

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As a storytelling device, the dead mother is omnipresent in children’s literature, television and film. And I understand why. The point of the narrative is to play on the legitimate fear children have of losing a parent to death. Mom especially.

But lord, it’s tiresome.

Dee loves to check out dvd’s from the bookmobile and as she has yet another 3 day weekend looming, she needed to stock up last night. By chance, I noticed a dvd we’d seen recently at Walmart and she decided that it would serve. She’d recognized one of the teenage actresses from a television show she likes to watch on the odd occasions that she has access to commercial television.

I came home from teaching my yoga class at the community hall to find her disgruntled in front of the flat screen with said movie playing.

“What’s the matter?” I asked.

“I cannot believe this, “she said, her arms folded in disgust. “There is another dead mom.”

“Excuse me?”

She pointed to the actress on the screen.

“Her mom is dead,” she said. “Why are all the moms always dead?”

A good question.

Later I began to read to her from a novel that she was most anxious to acquire because she’d recently met the author at the Young Author’s Conference and on page six … dead mother.

“Seriously?” Dee asked.

I shrugged sheepishly and Dee just shook her head.

Trope or cliché? I think Dee would opt for the latter.

6 responses to “The Dead Mother: Trope or Cliche?

  1. Dead mothers, evil stepmothers, gallant princes (or teachers or new best friend) coming to take them away from it all.

    I think you’re right, I think it’s a throwback to the folk and fairy tales.

    But it sucks to have to explain it to a child. And it sucks that a kid can’t get an original story line.

    • It would be nice to get an original storyline in the book/movie aimed at adults too. Seems to me that they just “grow” these same tropes, rewarm and serve them up to us over and over throughout our lives.

  2. As a literary device, I think authors kill off parents to make their child/teen characters more independent, and thus more likely to do things or stumble into situations that drive a plot along. Nine times out of 10, when there’s a dead mother in the story, the dad has checked out while he tries to deal with his own issues, leaving the kid to run wild and get into trouble (and setting it up for the inevitable resolution where the kid realizes that Dad really does care about him/her, sometimes with the addition of a potential love interest for Dad/replacement mom for kid). It makes for a much less exciting story if the protagonist’s parents are there to be supportive and help him/her out of scrapes.

    • I think it goes back to storytelling roots in folk tales, which was back in the day when a man was far more likely to lose a wife than the other way around. And yes, it is about independence – we are far more attached maternally than paternally generally speaking, so the fear of losing one’s mother is more primal. Story-telling for children is not about real life but about realizing possible lives without actually having to live them. Not all children are that lucky though.

      Dee is pretty weary of the dead mother stories. Not in a weepy way. She rolls her eyes. She is not a child who defines herself by loss and is pretty matter of fact in most respects. You’ll not catch her making it an excuse for anything or wallowing in it.

      • Yeah, I know what you mean. My daughter just sort of considers it as one of the facts of her life: she’s 13, she has brown hair, she’s a good artist, her dad died when she was little. Which is really as it should be – if she were fixated on it after six years, I’d be taking her for some therapy.

        • Children follow our lead. My LH lost his dad when he was six. His mother made that the cornerstone of their new life and he was still angsty about it when I met him. It took him back a bit when I dismissed the idea of his dad’s death being some life long cross for he and his mom to bear. It never occurred to him that it wasn’t so.

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