Clare Burgess reviews this collection of short stories for children. Collected by Bel Mooney, the stories all focus on the concept of the mother-daughter relationship. But can this really be seen as a generic experience?
There are almost as many types of mother-daughter relationships as there are mothers. I was hoping to find a nice variety in these short stories – not just falling into stereotypes about what makes a perfect mother, a perfect daughter and a perfect woman. Not every story lives up to my hopes, but these are the highlights.
First of all, Bel Mooney’s introduction leaves a rather sour taste in my mouth. Understandably, she claims that the mother/daughter relationship is the most important although she does recognise the importance of the father/son relationship. My mind is shooting up objections: what about fathers and daughters, mother and sons? Does their difference in sex rule out a decent relationship? Does blood ensure some form of superior connection? I tell myself to shut up. I’ll never get anything done if I get this angry in the first paragraph.
This book is supposed to help us with life through its “universal” quality, because we can all relate to the good and bad in family relationships. And then right away it becomes alienating; she gives examples of mums and daughters not understanding, going to the market to buy food to make a meal, gossiping about men. The first two are relatively harmless stereotypes, but the last one implies heterosexuality. Maybe it was a throwaway line, not meant to be read into. I picked up on it though, and by the end of the introduction I’m feeling incredibly alienated.
‘Tantie’ is the first story of the collection. Written by Adèle Geras it describes an “odd” family; mother, daughter and auntie (Tantie herself) live together. But the daughter, Lorna, doesn’t feel close to her mother, Becky, who is a serious duty bound person. Tantie, on the other hand, is interesting and fun. Lorna feels unnatural because she is supposed to love her Mum best. But it’s okay, snooping leads Lorna to find out that Tantie is her birth mother. On one hand you can see that Tantie isn’t a perfect Mum. Both Tantie and Becky are needed to parent Lorna. They cancel out each other’s weaknesses. But still, the implication that a biological parent will always have a greater connection than the person who raises them worries me. Lorna finishes the story thinking “I was right all along. I did love my mum best.”
‘The Dolphin Bracelet’, by Caroline Pitcher, is about the last holiday a family takes when they find out their mother will die of cancer. The bracelet was bought on the mother and daughter shopping trip. It’s nice and sweet but sexist. Very sexist. In a way the sexism is superficial. When the boys go snorkelling as the girls go shopping one of the boys comments on the “gender stereotype” we get told “he’s talked funny ever since he’s been at college.” Silly feminist leanings! On a deeper level there is the implication floating around that the boys will miss their mothers less. Or, at least, that having a mother around just isn’t that necessary for them. Yes they’ll all miss her but only the daughter gets special memories.
‘Not Just a Pretty Face’ ends with the daughter respecting her mother, who was badly scared in an accident, as more than just the “family beauty”. That is a great message. Seeing somebody for who they are rather than what they look like isn’t just, as the cliché goes, for the benefit of ugly people. But alongside it is the very mentality it’s arguing against. The daughter is encouraged to dress up and be more feminine. Her relatives say she’ll never be able to compete with her Mum in the looks department. Her father says he is “ashamed” of her for not dressing like a girl. It’s not just the daughter who needs to learn a lesson; the entire family needs one too. This is a morality tale, not a snapshot of life.
‘Missing Out’ is about a girl living with Dad and stepfamily. She regrets the time lost with them when she stays at her mothers. So when Mum decides to switch jobs and asks her to move in she refuses. Mum tries to bribe her to move in with a dog, but when this fails ends up getting a scruffy one of her own because she felt like she was missing something. Missing something because women needs to nurture? Or because she is so pressured to be perfect in other areas? There’s not enough in it to condemn the story, especially since it’s such a breath of fresh air. Mothers and Daughters can live apart and be happy; can be different and love each other. It’s nice to see that being affirmed.
Bel Mooney’s contribution is ‘Hot Cool Summer’. After moving to America to follow Dad’s job Mother and daughter take a road trip on a Harley. Straight away there’s resentment and arguments. The new location and the road trip makes Mum feel free but, counters the daughter, “you’re not free! You’ve got me and Dad.” So we see how women are made to feel both guilty and unnatural for seeking fulfilment outside the family. Mum admits the trip was “a bit mean.” At the end they work out a nice sort of life-family balance – if you’ll allow me to call it that – which makes the story uplifting.
There is a temptation in children’s fiction to only show the perfect picture, leaving the rest of us, who lack a traditional family structure, feeling alienated, defective and unwanted. It can, of course, work the other way, by glorifying other family structures. Some of the stories fall into this and into the cliché of blaming everything on teenage rebellion. But there are stories that show diversity realistically. I don’t know if I’d want, imagining I was younger, to sit down and read them with my mother. I don’t think it would lead to any sort of magical togetherness between us, but it could lead to interesting discussion.