The Fictional Mother

This was first published in an essay collection, also called The Fictional Mother, which I released as a bonus reward for my patrons in May 2017. You can access this collection and a whole bundle of other e-books, along with other rewards, by pledging $1 or more to my Patreon every month.

Spoilers for Season 5 of Buffy, Seasons 3 & 4 of Once Upon a Time.

Potentially triggering discussion of cancer diagnosis & treatment as well as maternal deaths in fiction & real life. Take care of yourselves.



(Don’t panic)

In 2016, I was diagnosed with a low-grade skin lymphoma, after a biopsy on my forehead. It was surgically removed.

(Seriously, don’t panic)

One year and a second positive biopsy later, my cancer was officially graded as ‘recurring’ though this was also matched with more comforting words such as ‘indolent.’ After a second round of invasive tests and scans during which I learned that my body finds contrast dye physically repellent (literally) I am now facing down a month of radiotherapy. This, I have been assured, is very boring and has a high success rate for curing specific cancers. Over the last year, I have lurched between times of extreme anxiety about my health and my future, moments of cautious relief, and even twinges of guilt that this is such a small health crisis compared to those of others.

(Everything’s gonna be OK)

Yep, I actually feel guilty that my cancer is so discrete and treatable. How’s that for imposter syndrome? This time around, though, it feels a lot more real than it did last year. And every time I explain to people how extremely small and treatable and really no big deal my cancer is, it feels like I am thumbing my nose at fate. So. There are a lot of feelings.

(On a related note, hey, if you have the chance to get regular check ups at your local skin clinic, why not go do that? Tell your friends!)

Back when we were waiting for the original diagnosis, I thought a lot about my daughters, and my mind kept being drawn to Disney movies. The possibility of dying (it’s horribly easy to leap from ‘cancer’ to ‘dying’ in a single panicked second, especially if you’ve been Googling all the words your doctor uses without context) becomes a whole different kind of scary when you are a parent.

(Spoiler: I’m not currently dying except in the sense that I am, apparently, mortal.)

The thought of leaving my daughters behind, of being their tragic backstory, of being one of those Disney mothers who dies in the first five minutes of the movie (or indeed, before the movie even starts) was incomprehensible to me, and it sent me into an anxiety spiral.

Before I had our first child, my partner and I used to watch ‘Friday Night Crime’ on the ABC, all those forensic, pathologic, murderous dramas that were so prevalent in the mid-2000s. Once we had a baby in the house, we had to stop watching those shows, because of the fictional use of dead babies and children, over and over again, for emotional effect. It wasn’t something we could deal with, in our foggy bliss as exhausted but protective new parents. So we turned off the TV.

After my first cancer diagnosis, it suddenly felt like every story I read or watched was about dead mothers.

The stories weren’t about the mothers at all, most of the time. But many of them happened to be about daughters or sons who had been wounded or damaged or emotionally scarred by the loss of a mother, while they were young. Every time I came across another story about a dead mother, it felt like I was being stabbed in my tiny surgical wound all over again.

The reason these stories are so prevalent in fiction, of course, is because they do happen in real life.

My own family’s history reflects that: both my parents lost their mothers at cruelly young ages, and it has affected them strongly (though differently) throughout their lives. Many dead mother stories, both real and fictional, are authentic and sensitive and touching. I would never demand that those stories be left unwritten.

But I didn’t want to read or watch them this last year; I couldn’t deal with them. I also couldn’t avoid them.

I’ve recently been rewatching Buffy with my daughter R, who at 12 is seeing it for the first time. She coped far better than I did with the significant deaths of the show, and especially with the iconic, famously gut-wrenching episode, “The Body”.

Last time I watched Buffy, losing my mother was the one of the worst things I could imagine, and that is still true. But this time around, I identified with Joyce Summers, not Buffy. I had forgotten how much of that season deals with Joyce’s medical issues before her almost-casual moment of death. Trying to comfort and protect your children when you’re the one going through the physical wringer? Fear at leaving them behind? Oh yes. Right there with you, Joyce.

The thought of not being there for my kids through their entire childhoods made it hard for me to breathe, while I was waiting for my scary test results. It certainly made it impossible for me to enjoy a story based on that trope. Those stories are not for me. The mothers don’t have to die to make me feel that way; a traumatic separation is enough to trigger my own fears. This was true even before last year’s diagnosis. Now, it’s extra-true. Super true.

(As previously mentioned, I am not currently dying)

It’s rare for me to find living figures of motherhood and parenting in fiction that I can fully identify with, especially in science fiction and fantasy: parenting is often erased from or concealed from the main narrative. Mothers and babies are killed off in the background, or the babies are magically aged/separated from the hero-mothers so as not to drag the story down with domestic routine. I get so frustrated with the stories (especially in TV, the worst culprit for this trope) that engage a pregnancy storyline for maximum feels, only to magically age or time-jump the kid so we skip past ALL THE RELEVANT TO MY LIFE PARTS.

Why yes, I am a writer myself. Why yes, I do know that the best way to find true representation in fiction is to write it yourself. Why no, I have not written much about motherhood at all in my fiction. Why not, you ask? That is a very good question. More on this later.

Occasionally I find fictional mothers who feel at least a little bit like me in science fiction or fantasy: characters who juggle ongoing parenting commitments with the work of saving the world. They hide in the margins of stories for the most part, though a few stride across the screen in comfortable boots (thank you, Gwen Cooper of Torchwood). In Once Upon a Time, the character of Mary-Margaret/Snow White is a key victim of the “lost my baby’s childhood” trope as part of the show’s original premise, but I was pleased to see her allowed a destiny-life balance with her new baby in Season 4. I haven’t yet watched the later seasons and don’t know what the follow-through has been like. Cautious optimism, people.

Saga, the space opera comic, is a rare example of fiction where the messy aspects of parenting a baby are combined with drama, action, war and adventure. It’s a special snowflake in a universe of media that assumes parenting has to be boring.

I also love what Yonderland, an excellently silly British TV fantasy with puppets, does with their “Chosen Mum,” a hero who discovers her special destiny during that surreal, isolating period just after her children start full-time school. Her fantasy adventures are a metaphor for returning to the workforce after being a full time parent, still trying to hold those two separate universes in your head. It’s especially marvellous how Yonderland turned that time period when the kids are in school – the mythical “me time” for a mother – into a liminal fantasy portal.

Let’s get back to how I’ve been a mother for more than twelve years, and I haven’t written about it. Sure, I blogged around the births and early childhoods of both kids: sleep deprived and anxious, I poured out my frustrations and fears and squishy emotions into Blogger, Livejournal, WordPress. I talk everyone’s ears off about my maternal experience, both in person and via podcasts. The lens through which I view pop culture criticism has sharply altered as my kids grow up, because I’m not only looking for entertainment to represent me, I’m looking for what the world of fiction is throwing at my daughters in the way of heroes, gender roles, toxic tropes and problematic politics.

When I say I haven’t written about motherhood over the last twelve years, I’m talking about fiction. When I started my “big” fantasy trilogy The Creature Court, I was determined to write a ‘chosen one’ story about a woman who was already established in her life, with friends and a job. Not a Buffy-type teenager just getting started. The disruption is far more real if your magical awakening is not also a coming of age story.

I was young enough that ‘established in her life’ meant Velody was in her late twenties, working in a trade she loved. Not a partner or a mother. By the time I’d finished the trilogy, I was a mother of two, but I hadn’t let those life changes infuse my work.

I have written short stories about motherhood. I did this deliberately during the babyhood of each of my daughters, trying to capture that feeling of having a baby in my arms, knowing it was an experience I would not remember as intensely or viscerally later on. My mother always claims she has next to no memories of the first three years of my life, so I had a head’s up that my brain might not be the most reliable archive.

In “The Scent of Milk,” which I wrote when my first daughter R was small, I tried to capture my emotional state at being so completely in thrall to a tiny person, never wanting to miss a moment with her. I had been shaken badly by a stolen baby story in the news while I was pregnant. The fact that the mother was separated from her baby for days wrecked me.

I fed this anxiety into a story about changelings. When I look at that story now, it does indeed feel like it was written by an exhausted, paranoid stranger.

I was less overwhelmed by my second baby J’s birth — it wasn’t quite as dramatic a reboot of life and identity. I was in the middle of writing that fantasy trilogy that had nothing to do with babies, and the story I wrote about J’s babyhood is “Relentless Adaptations,” in which motherhood is a background experience of a larger story. Still, I captured details that feel authentic to the person I was then, so long ago now.

None of the main protagonists of my novels have given birth, or been mothers in anything but a vague ‘someday future’ – Kassa Daggersharp, Tabitha Darling, Velody, Dana D’Artagnan. (I have paid more attention to my heroes becoming fathers, which is – kind of an interesting thought for me to mull over.) Love and Romanpunk, my short story collection about monsters, is probably the closest I’ve come to the point of view of mothers, though I don’t connect the mothers in those stories to my own experience — this is probably a good thing, considering Agrippina’s disturbing relationship with her son Nero.

More recently, my writing has skewed “young” again. My protagonists circling the late teens, early twenties age group. I just finished writing “Girl Reporter,” a mother-daughter novella, but it’s told from the daughter’s perspective. I have a ‘dead/refrigerated mother’ story to be addressed in my Castle Charming stories, but I’m not there yet.

Being a mother is integral to my sense of self, both public and private. We’re long past the point that my eldest daughter is comfortable with me mentioning her online at all, which is something I have to come to terms with: how does my need to discuss motherhood intrude upon her right to privacy?

But if my identity as a mother is so important to me in other aspects of my life, including the consuming and critiquing of fiction, why don’t I put myself in the fiction that I write?

What am I waiting for?

When the whole ‘cancer’ word first reared its head, and I had finally got over myself about the whole Disney mother business (really, Tansy? Overdramatic much?), one of the other things I thought about a lot was my legacy.

I turn 40 next year, and will celebrate the first 20 years of my career as a published writer. Also, I’ve spent the last 18 months listening to the Hamilton soundtrack “non-stop”, so it’s not surprising that legacy is on my mind.

It has felt empowering, allowing myself to think of my career and my writing in those terms. To consider the legacy I would leave behind, rather than the smaller, more reasonable goals I worried about before:

Can this earn me a living?

Will anyone read it?

Can I break into the US markets?

Do awards even matter?

It was a much-needed kick in the pants, not necessarily to write more but to choose my projects more wisely. To stop holding back. If there’s something I need to write, why delay?

(Who lives, who dies, who tells your story?)

(Please let me reiterate that I am not dying)

I have some big writing projects swirling in my head, waiting for me to admit that I’ve levelled up, and I’m ready to tackle them. Both projects involve female protagonists whose motherhood is a key part of their identity, their past and their future. I should go ahead and write those books. They’re mine, my stories, and I want them on paper.

One of them is my Inevitable Great Livia Novel, which I have wanted to write for a decade or more. It involves weaving and magic and Ancient Roman politics and pregnancy sex. One of her sons constantly disappoints her; the other dies tragically young.

The other is about a mother who believes she is dying: she has a curse which makes lines of poetry appear on her skin, and when the entire poem is complete, her time is up. She visits temples in secret to have the lines of poetry cut out; if she gets to them fast enough, she buys herself a little more time. Long enough, perhaps to secure her daughter’s future? I came up with the idea at roughly the moment I was going through my first biopsy, having a piece of myself literally cut away so that it wouldn’t try to kill me later down the line.

I don’t know if I quite have the emotional fortitude to tackle either of those books yet. But I’m not going to wait too long.

You only get to write so many stories, in this life. Better make them count.


UPDATE: It’s now September, I’m on the other side of treatment which was totally 95 parts boring to 5 parts scary. Thank goodness for socialised healthcare in Australia! 20 courses of radiotherapy didn’t cost me a cent though I did spend a lot on bubble tea that month. We’re pretty sure I’m currently cancer-free, though I’ll be having regular checks over the next several years. I also have a new addiction to hair scarves because of my new irradiated bald spot on my forehead! All was well.

2 replies on “The Fictional Mother”

  1. Faith says:

    This is such a wonderful piece. Pregnancy and motherhood are treated so strangely in speculative fiction, it’s as if there is still an unconscious adherence to the old rule of children being seen (briefly) and not heard, at least until they are grown up. Probably the incidence of the trope that offends me most is Amy, Rory and River Song’s experience in ‘Doctor Who’ – a little girl unknowingly bringing up the daughter who was snatched from her as an adult is just so sexist, inappropriate and unnecessarily traumatic – but it’s not like there’s a shortage of truncated parenthood stories out there. The books you’re planning to write sound amazing, I look forward to reading them someday!

    I’ve had the reverse experience of the one you’ve written here, being the daughter hearing about a cancer diagnosis. However small and treatable it is, and thankfully in my mother’s case it was – she’s been cancer-free for years now – there’s no way those two words are ever not frightening. I’m sorry this is something you’ve had to deal with and am very glad you’re recovering.

  2. […] In the wake of her cancer treatment, Tansy Rayner Roberts discusses portrayals of fictional mothers. […]

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