The Writing Mamas Daily Blog

Each day on the Writing Mamas Daily Blog, a different member will write about mothering.

If you're a mom then you've said these words, you've made these observations and you've lived these situations - 24/7.

And for that, you are a goddess.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009


Why Do Mothers Die So Often in Fairy Tales?

I watched yet another children’s movie this weekend in which the main character’s mother dies, The Tale of Despereaux. 

Princess Pea’s mom is so frightened by a rat splashing in her soup that she dies face down in her broth, all in the first fifteen minutes of the film. 

It wasn’t as hard to watch as the early scene of Finding Nemo, when Nemo’s mom and all the eggs that would become his brothers' and sisters' eggs are eaten by a barracuda. In some stories, like The Little Mermaid, and Snow White, mom is gone before the story even starts.

I think the award for most brutal mommy death is Bambi, when poor Bambi’s mom is shot by a hunter.  My eyes get teary every time I see little, spotted Bambi trying to play with his dead mother in the bloodied snow.

I’d argue that the evil stepmother tale is really a subset of the dead mother genre.  Cinderella’s real mother would have encouraged her to go to the ball. Hansel and Gretel were two more victims of a grieving father’s poor choice in second wives. 

For a long time, the dead mother as a plot device irritated me. Are we mothers that much of an encumbrance on our children’s sense of adventure? Why can’t anything exciting happen when Mom is around?

After watching The Tale of Despereaux, I finally made peace with the loss of the mom archetype, perhaps because the story developed the theme so well: Dad and Princess Pea bury Mom, and Dad, the king, is inconsolable.  

He bans soup and rats from his kingdom, and a rainless fog descends for the next couple of years.  The king sits alone, staring into space, and plays sad, slow songs on his mandolin.  Unlike Rapunzel, the princess is not imprisoned by a tower, but by grief.  Luckily, she meets a fearless mouse (Despereaux) and the salty, but warmhearted rat Roscuro who had mistakenly terrified Pea’s mother to death.  Through facing new challenges and adventures, Princess Pea learns that life goes on and that it is best to forgive and let go. The chef starts making soup again, and the rain, rats and sun return to the kingdom. 

For most children, losing their mother is the worst possible thing they can imagine.  Fairy tales provide a safe way to work through an unthinkable scenario.  The best ones don’t lie.  Life for Cinderella, Snow White, and Hansel and Gretel is all pretty awful after Mom dies.  All are forced to face further challenges (evil stepmothers, poison apples, and cannibalistic witches) before they meet or rediscover good people (fairy godmothers, seven dwarves, handsome princes, or Dad) and life gets better.

Mothers used to die all the time, in childbirth, of infectious diseases, of exhaustion. I’m sure fairy tales developed as the one sort of vaccination that mothers could give their children for grief. They wanted their children to know, as I want my children to realize, that they will find love after I’m gone. 

By Beth Touchette-Laughlin

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