My literary mothering role model: Marmee

When I first had the idea for this post, I imagined choosing a list of ladies from classic literature who remind me of the kind of mother I’d like to be. When I began writing, it soon became clear that I couldn’t do the women justice with just a few spare lines. Therefore, this will be one in a series of posts, each dedicated to one mother figure whose example I look up to.

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Marmee from Little Women

As a true Southerner, I can’t help but wrinkle my nose at some of the political commentary in Little Women. Still, despite being a Yank who read one too many propaganda leaflets, Louisa May Alcott gets more than a few things right when it comes to family values. Marmee embodies so many wonderful qualities, it’s hard to list them all without gushing. Let’s gush, shall we? She openly admits that she struggles with the same fiery temper that plagues Jo. It is through her husband’s fine and steady character (and lots of prayer) that she overcomes this character flaw. She protects her children, but she also allows them the freedom to make their own mistakes. She educates her children herself. She is a no-nonsense woman, but she also knows how to have fun. She is unselfish and gentle. And there is a stateliness about her that endures even after the bloom of her youth has faded.

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Bitch, please.

There are two scenes that stand out in my mind about this mother figure (neither of which are in the movie). The first event occurs when the girls declare that, in addition to taking a break from their studies, they have decided to have a completely lazy day. Marmee could have given them a moralizing lecture or ordered them to do their regular chores, but instead, she jumps right in. She tells them that it’s a wonderful idea, and in fact, she’ll do the same herself. Not only does Marmee drop all of her daily duties, but she also instructs their maid to take the day off. Marmee retreats to her room to read, leaving the girls to find out what happens in a household where everyone doesn’t pull their own weight. The girls learn to appreciate how hard their maid and their mother work, and by the end of the day, they announce that being lazy is boring. I’m not sure the lesson would have been internalized so seamlessly in real life, but I admire the way in which Marmee handled it.

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Much later in the book, Marmee sets a truly heroic example of how mothers (and mothers-in-law) should conduct themselves once their children are grown and running their own households. Her eldest daughter, Meg, is the new mother to a set of twins. Marmee offers to babysit whenever they might need her, and she also tells her that should Meg ever want for any advice, she will always be ready to share what little wisdom she has gained over the years. Then she steps back and lets Meg handle it in the way she sees fit. Even when Meg is struggling with babies who became “two little tyrants,” Marmee doesn’t breathe a critical word. She never says, “When you were a child, I…” or “If only you would…” or “Don’t you think they should…?” Meg is the children’s mother, not Marmee, and Marmee’s job is to support Meg in whatever way she can. It is only when Meg turns to Marmee and asks for advice on a situation she feels she isn’t handling well that Marmees ventures any opinion at all. She gently imparts her advice without sounding condescending or attempting to seize control. Meg is a little skeptical, but decides to try Marmee’s advice, and it works beautifully. If only every family’s dynamic was as open and supportive.

Marmee is more of a secondary character in the book, and yet, her steady guidance in the girls’ lives is so strong that she leaves an enduring impression on readers. What I remember most about her is that she inspired her children to be better people simply because they recognized that she held herself to that same standard, and they didn’t want to let her down. It goes back to the simple truth that our children are influenced the most by the way we live, not by the words we say.

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