Broken Mother-Child Relationships in YA Fiction
The second Sunday in May. It’s that time of year when greeting card companies manipulate our guilt reflex in order to sell merchandise. Less cynically, it’s a day to honor our mothers. But not everyone had a good childhood, and for those folks, it can be difficult to find exactly the right card. It’s not as if they make ones that fit the situations of people like the characters in my books. Ones that say, “thanks, Mom, for making me stronger by being a needy, neglectful alcoholic and forcing me to become the parent at the age of eight,” or “Mom, your narcissistic Jekyll and Hyde parenting style made it impossible for me to form healthy relationships, but I found someone who cared about me, so it’s all good now.”
The mother-child bond is one of the strongest known to man. Psychologists say that if the proper attachments don’t form between a mom and her baby within the first six months of life, that child will never be able to successfully bond with other people. In picture books and Disney movies, one very common and powerful theme is the separation of a child from his mother. The worst nightmare of the young is to lose that intimate connection. Death, divorce, and abandonment are all ways authors make use of this fear to create conflict in a story.
But there are more complicated ways to lose a mother. One that’s common in young adult fiction is for the mother to somehow tarnish the relationship by alienating her child. This is particularly damaging, because instead of pure grief or loss, the teen experiences conflicting emotions. She feels love and hatred at the same time, and that’s complicated by guilt, because after all, we’re taught we should love our mothers unconditionally.
In young adult fiction, characters tend to experience a lot of angst, and one easy way for an author to compound that angst is to create a difficult relationship with the mother. When you’re crafting your YA novel, be aware of the potential power in the loss of the mother-child relationship, but don’t take the easy route. These things are seldom cut and dried. Even when a mother is extremely abusive, if a child is separated from her and placed in a better situation, he’ll want to go back. Even in the worst of circumstances, children try to cover up for their parents, make excuses, and take up for their slack. Be sure to capture all the nuances of this very complicated relationship, and you’ll add layers to your story that will resonate with the reader long after she finishes your last words.
The last thing on 16-year-old Jess DeLand’s wish list is a boyfriend. She’d have to be crazy to think any guy would look twice at her. Besides, there are more important things to hope for, like a job working on cars and an end to her mom’s drinking. Foster care is a constant threat, and Jess is willing to sacrifice anything to stay out of the system. When luck hands her the chance to work on a race car, she finds herself rushing full throttle into a world of opportunities—including a boy who doesn’t mind the grease under her fingernails. The question is, can a girl who keeps herself locked up tighter than Richard Petty’s racing secrets open up enough to risk friendship and her first romance?
“The first romance is captured beautifully—just the right combination of natural and awkward, of eager and scared.”
~ Bob Martin, writing professor, Pacific Northwest College of Art
In addition to being a YA author, Lisa Nowak is a retired amateur stock car racer, an accomplished cat whisperer, and a professional smartass. She writes coming-of-age books about kids in hard luck situations who learn to appreciate their own value after finding mentors who love them for who they are. She enjoys dark chocolate and stout beer and constantly works toward employing wei wu wei in her life, all the while realizing that the struggle itself is an oxymoron.
Lisa has no spare time, but if she did she’d use it to tend to her expansive perennial garden, watch medical dramas, take long walks after dark, and teach her cats to play poker. For those of you who might be wondering, she is not, and has never been, a diaper-wearing astronaut. She lives in Milwaukie, Oregon, with her husband, four feline companions, and two giant sequoias.