Any student of fairytales will tell you
Almost nothing is as essential as
A missing mother.

The journeys and adventures belong
To the orphaned and abandoned;
Not to those tucked safely in bed,
Left with a warm kiss on their brow.

For the longest time I thought
This must be a plot imperative.
Of course there must be an absence
To trigger the journey. And critically,
No parents to stand in adventure’s way.

As I grew older, I began to suspect that
This was instead a form of misogyny
The women are deleted, made invisible
Killed by the hands of an unseen author,
That of our own collective unconscious,
Erasing the women who create and raise us

(Can you imagine the self-proclaimed stars of
The Hero’s Journey putting up with the same?)

But now that I am a mother, reading stories
To my own daughter, I have encountered this as
A more complex puzzle. If women are the ones
Originating and perpetuating these fairytales
Why do we leave ourselves out of them…?
I know now that it is because we are desperate –

(Not thinking that we don’t matter,
But knowing how much we do – )

– Desperate to believe
That our children will survive without us
And to give them the tools and imagination to do it.
Even though we may not appear in the narrative
It is our voices that carry the stories forward
Through generation after generation, bedtime
After bedtime, with a love so profound it can only
Be made clear by enacting its own absence.

Note: This started as something I was puzzling over during the nightly bedtime routine. Wondering about the mothers – and the meaning, at least for me, hit like a ton of bricks with the line ‘we tell fairytales with missing mothers / to believe they will survive without us.’

I jotted this down as soon as I left the room, and returned to it today.

The absent mothers in fairytales are not a result of who don’t see themselves or don’t realise their value and importance – it is women who feel it almost too deeply, wondering what to do with that alongside the fragility of life.

These stories have existed since a time when motherhood was a risky endeavour, childbearing always carried a risk of death, and we knew that while our love sustained our children both physically and emotionally, it could be stolen away by circumstance at any moment.

Sometimes we tell fairytales simply because it is traditional. But for me, it feels like something deeper is at play. I think we tell stories with missing mothers not necessarily for our children, but for ourselves – believing that children on their own can successfully navigate their way through life to the happy ending.

For me, there is a poignant fear underlying this, but also a powerful belief that it can be done – and it is our belief in our children’s own resourcefulness and goodness that will ultimately help light the way.

Note 2: I ended up revising this poem after recording it. I found that it was too easy to lose the sense of the sentence unless ‘desperate’ was repeated. And when I added this in again, the line started to feel too long to fit the style, so it added another line break. I think there’s something to be said for it in both ways, but I think for now I’m choosing consistency between the performed and written version as the best choice.

Photo by David Gonzales from Pexels