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Where Have All the Mothers Gone?

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"What happened to Pocahontas's mother?" my 7-year-old whispered as we sat in the darkened movie theater.

Millions of children around the world probably were wondering the same thing. I couldn't help reflecting on the disappearance of the mothers in so many of the stories which Disney and others have put before our children. This disappearance seems to take two forms--the mother who is absent from the beginning of the story and the mother who is killed early on.

Ariel, Belle, Jasmine, and Pocahontas must fend for themselves, (with the help of their often bumbling, occasionally dignified dads, of course). Kat, the teenage girl in the movie "Caspar," is in the same bind. They emerge into womanhood bereft of a maternal role model. Is that why they show themselves to be boldly independent, often ignoring the well-intentioned advice of their fathers? Are we to conclude that a mom's presence makes daughters conform?

While generations of television children from "Bonanza" to "My Three Sons" to "Full House" all muddled along without maternal guidance, Bambi, Babar, and Little Foot all actually see their mothers killed. I still remember the debate that raged in my house when I was 5 or 6 years old about whether I'd be taken to see "Bambi." Children and adults were moved to tears by the sight of Bambi's mother murdered before his eyes. ("The Lion King" demonstrates that once in a while the father also is dispatched.) Odd that female characters have absent mothers who have died in the remote past, but males witness the traumatic deaths firsthand. Does this mean that boys are tougher, or that they need to be traumatized more in order to prepare them to be real men?

What purpose is served by this motherless landscape? The absence of a mother, or her loss early in life, seems to represent a call to grow up--a kind of harsh slap in the face which forces the characters to develop their independence. The loss of mother puts children face to face with their greatest fear: separation from the nurturing life-giver who brought them into the world. My daughter's question wasn't a casual one--she sensed that my answer might bring her close to that dark abyss, might cause her to confront that fear.

Yet, that fear is part of what each child fantasizes. "What would happen to me without my mother? Would I survive? Who would care for me?" My own mother died more than 12 years ago, and I'm still trying to make sense of a world which no longer includes her living presence.

Finally, I told my daughter, "I think she must have died when Pocahontas was little." I saw her gulp and fight back tears; yet she remained glued to the action on the screen. Now she had to root that much harder for Pocahontas, she had to will her to succeed, to have courage.

As an educator and a parent, I'm not sure about the cumulative effect of these stories on our children. I know that confronting one's deepest fears is often a necessary part of growing up, but I'd like to see some more mothers inhabiting these stories. The powerful and terrifying image of the motherless child may be an effective way to build a plot, but, enough already. Let's see movie mothers help shape the growth of their children, not just through their absence, but through their courage, wisdom, and determination.

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