How one Jacqueline WIlson book taught me my Mum was more than ‘mental’ and why we should treat the ‘maddened mother’ trope with more nuance.
“What is a Bitch?” I asked.
I sat cross-legged on my floor, nestled between my Sylvanian families, balancing Mr Hedgehog on my kneecap. He didn’t answer.
Maybe it was something six year olds were not supposed to know.
I thought about it harder, tracing my Mum’s handprint that ran scarlet down my pale thigh. My brow stayed furrowed with confusion.
Maybe it was someone who was loud, because I had been loud that day. Maybe it was someone who didn’t clean their room, because it was very hard to find a spot to sit cross-legged. Was it someone who hid behind Dad, or could it be someone who got scared when Mum was having a “blow out”? What if Mum was one too?
I spent years asking this same question, with no answer in sight. According to the Doctors, my family and her NHS medical records, Mum had struck the ‘statistical lottery’.
Of all of the mothers in the UK, she was one of the 12% to suffer a miscarriage. Of those, she was one of the 15% to experience postnatal depression. Her chronic nature, coupled with several neurological disorders, left her to seemingly become the rarest patient type of all: A mother with Postnatal Psychosis.
I considered her ‘rare’ in my real life too. She was rarely very well and on the rare occasion she wasn’t poorly, that rarely lasted long. This meant my time spent alone was not rare at all.
Reading, at first, was only to cure my boredom. Yet the more I fell in love with fiction, the more it became a source of questions about my relationship with Mum. I loved Roald Dahl’s Matilda but sometimes my Mum felt more like Miss Trunchbull than Miss Honey. When she would read Harry Potter, I felt like the sorting hat: Was she a Gryffindor or a Slytherin?
I didn’t have an answer until I graduated to the Tween section of Waterstones, where I found Jaqueline Wilson and her menagerie of broken mothers.
I was quickly drawn to The Illustrated Mum and adored every chapter. It was this book that brought me to the conclusion I had been yearning for: My Mum didn’t mean to swear.
Dolphin’s character was my favourite. She is the daughter of eclectic-yet-enigmatic Marigold, a mother who struggled with similar mental health issues as my Mum did. When explaining to my teachers in reading class why I loved Dolphin, I was swiftly shut down:
“Goodness, Marigold is not normal! It would be awful being her daughter.”
In hindsight, my teacher was not wrong: Marigold was not just ‘eclectic’, she was impulsive and emotionally manipulative. However, it was undoubtable that the character’s mental health had been overlooked. Marigold was only ‘bad’ when her poor mental health overlapped with motherhood.
Regardless, my teacher had created a harmful rhetoric: Marigold was crazy. Therefore she was bad.
Yet, I knew better. Much like Dolphin, I knew it was impossible to view her character so one-dimensionally. I appreciated Wilson, rather controversially, because she wrote with this nuance in mind. For the first time I was really understanding my Mum as I was reading about the experiences of a mother who had been written as a multifaceted person.
Focusing on fixing damaging tropes in literature is becoming a priority for bookstores, as we come to terms with how fiction is changing to fit modern narratives. Representing variations of mental health is a staple for Sheffield Bookstore: ‘Rhyme and Reason’.
“We aim to shed light on topics in literature that are not challenged with critical thinking,” explained employee Jude Barnett, 20.
“Dissecting the ‘crazy’ mother narrative’ is difficult due to stereotypes. When we look at women who become heroines because they overcome generational trauma from their mother, the antagonist in the story has to be the parent because without them there is nothing to overcome.
“Fiction is then flooded with haunted female narratives and leaves the reader forever in the favour of the child, not the mother: There is no sympathy left to give.”
The problem is that this response transcends literature into real life. For speaker Carol Mehigan, representations of mothers in such a crude way were almost the reason she never sought help for her own Postnatal Depression (PND).
“I didn’t really know what PND was like before, because it wasn’t talked about. When it was in books, for example, it was really taboo. At the time I did not recognise anything was wrong, I just put it down to hormones. A year after having my first, I was diagnosed.
“It was a Friday morning and I was lying down. All of a sudden I came out of this daydream state of mind. I had been putting together in my head, like a shopping list, a way of killing myself and my son. I was in the midst of suicide.
“I frightened myself so much that I phoned my doctors immediately. Someone answered the phone and I literally blurted out: ‘I was just about to kill myself and my son.'”
Thankfully, Mehigan received the help that she needed in time. After a long recovery, she was able to find herself again:
“I am so many more things. I am resilient. I am independent. I am the legacy of my mum and I see my children as my legacy too. They are my greatest achievements.”
Not only is PND rarely discussed with nuance, often any recovery is never mentioned in the books. Maybe it’s because family therapy doesn’t make for very good reading. Yet by burying these mothers as ‘crazy’ women, we are further cementing this toxic narrative – that there is no hope.
This is simply not true. Much like Mehigan, Wilson’s Illustrated Mum also begins to receive treatment, allowing her to salvage the relationship she has with her daughters. The story ends with Marigold in a recovery centre. Whilst not completely forgiven, the true catharsis of the book is still achieved: Marigold finally receives help.
When we chorale all mothers who appear ‘mental’ together to create a plot point or antagonist, the lack of nuance outwardly causes damage in the real world. Most are far more multifaceted than a reduction to the people they have broken.
I wish there had been more books that had taught me that my Mum wasn’t a villain. Fiction that represented mothers as loving and humorous in the midst of being so lost, instead of dismissing them as ‘crazy’.
When I think of my “Illustrated mum”, our relationship has seldom been a fairytale. Yet, for every insult and argument, there was every laugh, smile and hug. Whilst she still recovers, I am grateful for the few chapters that taught my younger self that mum is more than “crazy”. I am grateful for characters like Dolphin who taught me we can continue rebuilding our relationship into adulthood.
Mostly I am grateful for Marigold, who taught me that I was not a ‘bitch’ and my Mum was not one either.