Over 40 countries have a day to celebrate ‘mother’ and ‘mother figures’ with some variation of Mother’s Day. While millions of people will send flowers and gifts and take their moms, grandmothers, aunts, etc. out for a fancy day, other folks might struggle…a lot. People can feel a wide variety of emotions when it comes to a holiday devoted to celebrating a missing or deeply painful relationship.
While we often hear the term ‘daddy issues,’ what about ‘mommy issues’?
Granted, there was Freud. He had a lot to say about moms, and sex and apparently everything wrong with us stems from wanting to hook up with mom.
Freud needed better hobbies.
Not saying he was totally off-base. Mothers frequently are at the core of many psychological issues. But, to be fair to moms in general, we aren’t solely to blame for all things jacked up.
Just a Heads Up: Today’s post addresses child abuse (physical, emotional, and sexual), violence, abandonment, and similar traumas so please read with care.
When it comes to the nurture part of ‘nature and nurture,’ it seems only reasonable to explore half the parental equation. Sometimes 100% of the parental equation. Single-mothers head 80% of single-parent households. When one considers nearly a third live in poverty, this makes fertile ground for dysfunction.
Since millions of children have a ‘mother’ as sole, or at least the primary, caregiver, it stands to reason that moms have a significant impact on how we develop through childhood and into adulthood.
Mothers can be amazing and wonderful, but they can also be the source of unrivaled brutality. The mother wound is deep and traumatic and can have a major impact on psychological well-being.
The Mother Wound
In this post, we will explore the psychological impact mothers have across the spectrum. For the record, I am not a licensed psychiatrist, I just play one on the internet 😛 . This is why I’ll make sure to link to as many REAL experts as I can.
In previous posts, we’ve discussed how wounds don’t always need to be big to be BIG. Though today we’ll cover some more extreme versions of mother abuse, that—thankfully—is comparably rare.
All mothers are human.
The emotional injuries they inflict could be completely unintentional. As I mentioned earlier, a lot of single-moms are living in poverty. Financial stress and having to work multiple jobs means kids often spend a lot of time in daycare or with other relatives.
Kids can feel abandoned or unloved. Trusted caregivers might abuse them. Thus, adults might harbor resentment toward a mother who was simply trying to provide, who had no way of knowing those she’d entrusted with her child/children would betray a sacred trust.
Maybe your character is dealing with sibling issues. Mothers can unwittingly fuel sibling rivalry.
Frequently, mothers have their own struggles—mental health issues, depression, anxiety, substance addiction, abandonment issues, etc. If left untreated, she can unintentionally pass her traumas down to the next generation.
Since May is Mental Health Awareness Month, I’d like for us to maintain an open mind and compassion as we go along. Mental illness is real and impacts everyone around the person suffering.
Suffice to say, many mothers aren’t evil or sitting up all night thinking of ways to damage their kids. They’re simply working with limited tools.
***To learn more about the mother wound specifically, I’ll refer those interested to Bethany Webster. Her books and blogs are rich with information that can help readers personally and/or with psychologically rich character backgrounds for fiction.
Genre and Mommy Issues
Whenever we craft characters, ideally we need to flesh them out to the point they are as close to living/breathing people as possible. This is what will help readers connect to our characters.
Obviously, genre is going to dictate how extreme the mother damage is, as well as how and to what degree the damage manifests. If one is writing a cozy romance, a women’s fiction, contemporary fiction along the lines of Debbie Macomber, a cozy mystery, etc. then the more ‘run-of-the-mill’ mother damage is more appropriate.
Most moms are not all good or all horrible, but they are all human. In fact, most will fall in between.
When profiling your character, was the fictional mother/mother-figure:
- a perfectionist
- constantly competing with her daughter
- guilty of obvious favoritism
- unable to show love
- one to withhold praise and affection
- someone who played the role of the child instead of the caretaker
- emotionally distant
- overly self-involved
You get the gist. All of these areas are common places mothers mess up to one degree or another, thus RIPE for creating inner demons and insecurities an MC must work through to solve a story problem.
But, for those who want to write suspense, thriller, psychological thrillers, dark fiction, true crime, horror, or any of those kissing cousins then, we have to take a trip to the dark side of mothers dear and deadly.
The Mother Shield
The mother shield is powerful. Most people cannot imagine that those tasked with caring for the frailest among us could be anything but loving and self-sacrificing. It is too terrible. This is how the mother mythos can serve as an amazing shield…or at least brilliant camouflage.
I believe there are (and have been) far more female serial killers than we could ever imagine (and emerging data/studies support I might be right). Women, mothers in particular, have a number of advantages which make them the perfect killers. For the sake of time, I will cover female serial killers more specifically in another post.
Suffice to say, society has the ‘madonna’ image of mothers. Mothers are sacrosanct. To even suggest anything else borders on blasphemy. This can create all kinds of challenges in life and in fiction.
Mothers and Munchausen by Proxy
M. Night Shyamalan’s movie The Sixth Sense thrust Munchausen by proxy disorder out into the world of popular culture for the first time (properly referred to as Fictitious Disorder).
The movie tells the story of a boy, Cole Sear, who claims he can see dead people. One ghost in particular, a little girl in a nightgown, hounds Cole. She terrifies him, namely because she’s always vomiting.
Come to find out, her mother poisoned her and now that the little girl is dead, her mother has moved onto poisoning the younger sister. The ghost recruits Cole as an ally to save her sister by exposing her killer…her mother (who suffers from Munchausen by proxy).
For a book that does an INCREDIBLE job probing this insidious disorder, I highly recommend Gillian Flynn’s Sharp Objects.
One section stood out to me, where she’s describing her mother and the toxic dance between the abuser and the abused.
I won’t give any spoiler alerts, because nothing in this book is what it seems. But, if you want insight into mothers, mental illness, abuse, Munchausen by proxy, and how this all plays out in fiction, then this is a must-read.
‘Mother’ & Factitious Disorder
Munchausen Syndrome—Factitious Disorder—is when a person deliberately makes themselves ill, primarily for attention. Munchausen Syndrome by proxy is when a person (frequently a mother or other caregiver) makes another person—usually a child, but also elderly people, the disabled and pets—seriously ill for attention.
I am definitely NOT an expert on this, so again I defer to forensic psychologists and experts Dr. Scott and Dr. Shiloh at L.A. Not-So-Confidential. If you want to learn more, listen to Munchausen Syndrome (Factitious Disorder) Part One and Munchausen Syndrome (Factitious Disorder) Part 2.
This is an extraordinarily complex mental disorder, which is why I’m not going very deep into the discussion. The important takeaway is that females—mothers—are the primary sufferers of Munchausen by proxy, thus are most often the abusers. Experts also often refer to this disorder as ‘medical abuse.’
There are plenty of real-life cases (too many). But, for a recent case, look no further than Gypsy Rose Blancharde and her mother DeeDee Blancharde. The 2017 Netflix documentary Mommy Dead and Dearest did an excellent job covering what happened.
Fictitious Disorder offers plenty of fuel for fiction. Gillian Flynn, as I mentioned, liberally applies ‘mommy issues’ in many of her books. There’s also a 2020 HBO movie, Run that probes into the shadow side of the mother figure.
A Tale of Mothers and Monsters
Toxic mother figures can inflict wounds their children carry for a lifetime. If we study the backgrounds of some of the most infamous killers in history, we see a disturbing pattern emerge when it comes to the role of mothers, especially in the early developmental years.
Again, depending on genre, case studies of real-life criminals (from killers to con artists) can be very helpful for crafting a villain with resonance.
Granted, (below) I’ve listed some of the most heinous offenders in modern history (that have documented ‘mommy issues’). Many of these criminals suffer with serious psychological damage. Thus, we are wise to take their ‘stories’ with a grain of salt, since they may or may not be the most reliable of narrators.
Also, some assertions are coming from third-party observers, such as the case with con artist Elizabeth Holmes.
‘Mother’ Issues Create ALL Kinds
Elizabeth Holmes’ mother has been criticized for relentlessly pushing her daughter to excel, thus possibly laying the groundwork for the Theranos debacle.
Aileen Wuornos‘ mother abandoned her in an abusive household where her grandfather allegedly molested her, and she claimed to have had a sexual relationship with her own brother.
Mary Bell’s mother rejected her at birth, left her with relatives and strangers and may have suffered from Munchausen Syndrome by Proxy since she frequently gave Mary drugs that made her severely ill.
Ed Kemper‘s mother was controlling and severely verbally, emotionally and physically abusive.
Charles Manson‘s mother, sixteen-year-old Kathleen Maddox, who a serious alcoholic, reputedly once sold him for a pitcher of beer.
Ed Gein‘s mother taught him men were evil and raised him as a girl.
David Berkowitz had a toxically close relationship with his mother.
Charles Albright’s mom was an intense germaphobe.
To reiterate, great writers have historically pilfered from real backstories. There is no need to reinvent the wheel. The wheel works.
Alfred Hitchcock’s famous movie Psycho drew liberal inspiration from serial killer, Ed Gein. Thomas Harris, author of the iconic novel Silence of the Lambs, also used real case studies and cobbled several killers together to create such infamous characters as Hannibal the Cannibal and Buffalo Bill.
Mother, May I?
In the end, all of us can thank our mothers for who we are today (for good or bad). The mother relationship is so crucial it has been the beating heart of myth, religion, poems and plays.
Thankfully, not every person with a toxic mother/mother figure grows up to be some deranged criminal. Some grow up to be incredible people who do great things despite their early traumas (Oprah Winfrey).
Conversely, some of society’s most notorious monsters had seemingly normal, loving mothers. Dennis Rader (BTK) is a prime example. From all indications, Rader had normal, loving, albeit imperfect, parents. Unfortunately, no amount of being a good mother can counter severe narcissism, which could have a genetic component.
All this said…
Last time, in my post The Deepest Wounds: Lies, Deception & Betrayal, I mentioned one way to create nerve-shredding story problems—rip away the thing people TRUST THE MOST. Maybe this is with our MC’s background. The mother relationship has damaged or destroyed their ability to trust.
We can also rip away what the audience trusts. No one sees the mother coming.
*coughs* Um…Psycho anyone?
In the End…
The world offers so much for writers to weave into story to add depth and texture. Since Father’s Day isn’t coming up, I’m not picking on dads. Moms, dads, siblings, kids, society, culture, religion, background, relatives, workplaces, bullies are all fabulous wells to draw from. Pay attention to LIFE, because that’s what adds the magic to the mundane.
Just remember, well-adjusted people make for boring fiction.
Thoughts? I LOVE hearing from you!
Thoughts about how much we can blame mothers for all that ails us? Any questions or comments to add?
I get this is a touchy subject, but not everyone had a mother they’re exactly excited to celebrate. That is simply life…which is what writers work with.
For those who have FABULOUS moms, it might be even more disconcerting to envision growing up with a mother like those listed above.
Any books, movies, experiences, stories?
Other than that, Happy Mother’s Day. I rented Mommie Dearest since, oddly, I had NEVER seen it before…despite knowing the references. Aaaand I wanted to hide in a blanket fort after watching. YIKES!
I love hearing from you, and to show my appreciation…
What do you WIN? For the month of MAY, for everyone who leaves a comment, I will put your name in a hat. If you comment and link back to my blog on your blog, you get your name in the hat twice.
The unvarnished truth from yours truly. I will pick a winner once a month and it will be a critique of the first 20 pages of your novel, or your query letter, or your synopsis (5 pages or less).
***Will announce April’s winner next post.
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I just realized the MCs of my first two novels and current WIP are all raised by women who aren’t their mothers – an aunt, a grandmother, an unrelated woman who had pity on an abandoned baby…
They likely countered what could have been a profound mother wound. They served as ‘mothers by proxy’ for good or bad.
The MC of my WIP has mother issues, so this is well timed for me. As always, excellent information!
I was raised by two very strong – albeit quite different – women. My mother and my grandmother shared a home for most of my life until I joined the Army after high school and to say they hated one another would be an understatement. My father, an engineer, was frequently absent on jobs, sometimes for years at a time when he was working overseas. As a result it was my mother and grandmother who raised me and my six brothers. My mother was a pusher – never satisfied with my grades, my performance on various athletic teams, or my choice of girlfriends. She favored one of my brothers intensely, probably because he resembled her own brother, a World War II Marine Corps veteran that she all but worshipped.. That brother could do no wrong, I could do no right, and my other brothers were more or less ignored. My grandmother, on the other hand, disapproved of my mother but did not offer much in the way of encouragement to any of us. Instead, she taught me some very practical things – how to darn my own socks, for example, which turned out to be very helpful. Both my mother and my grandmother had strong personalities and it was because of them that the female characters in my novels also have similar personalities. I suppose it’s inevitable that men play secondary roles in my books as a result. In short, thanks for this blog. At the age of 74 it’s caused me to think long and hard about a subject I’ve tended to avoid for most of my life.
I find my relationships with females in my life come out in my writing as well (ergo why I thought it warranted a blog). My characters are always overachievers who feel they never can do or be enough. I was reared largely by my grandmother and she was a woman I don’t believe it was possible to impress. My grades were never high enough (all As but what about this B!). If I won an award it must have been a fluke or there must have been only a few people competing. I was too fat, too thin, too muscular, not pretty enough, too pretty, not living up to my potential, or a showoff, on and on. It felt like I was always weighed, measured, and found wanting.
I know that has filtered even into how I am today. I don’t believe it is fully possible for our writing to not BE some piece of us.
Thanks so much for taking time for such a thoughtful and lovely comment. I can DEEPLY relate to a lot of your story. I’m happy you’re using it in your writing.
I find it so appalling that you would insult your readers by adding a trigger warning–for this or any other post–that I’m unsubscribing. Is there no end to this woke madness? And I’m a lifelong liberal.
I am sorry I offended you. Seems we are damned if we do and damned if we don’t these days.
IN MY DEFENSE, I only put it in there just because it is a SERIOUS deviation from my normal content. And, we tend to get extra sensitive whenever talking about abuse of a child or animals. Was just a heads-up.
I HATE scrolling FB or LinkedIn and BAM! There is an image of an abused animal or child. There is so much going on in the world, I felt it was just being kind to let people know I was talking about all kinds of abuse. I love true crime, but a few years ago we watched “Paradise Lost,” a documentary about The Memphis Five. The documentary had no warnings and they showed ACTUAL footage of then they found the boys’ bodies (and they didn’t blur anything out). I consider myself pretty tough but that still makes me queasy when I think about it.
Had I been writing about fight scenes or anything that wouldn’t possibly be deeply upsetting, then people are adults and I am totally with you.
And for the record, I don’t know everything. I do my best to be considerate. You guys can always just say you don’t like or need something and I am happy to adjust accordingly if it is reasonable.
I appreciate your response and will re-subscribe.
A most interesting post and another way to delve deeper into our characters!