Literary Mama writing about the many faces of motherhood
Stalker Moms


Because I am perverse like that, when the editors of Literary Mama suggested Mother's Day columns for May, I immediately thought of my least favorite mothers in children's literature. It took just a few moments to hunt them down in the playroom bookshelf.

I know The Runaway Bunny is a classic, and clearly someone in my family loves it, given the torn cover and curling pages of the copy in my hand, but I consider it one of the most horrifying books in children's literature. Really. The Runaway Bunny begins, "Once there was a little bunny who wanted to run away." When the little bunny tells his mother he is running away, she replies, "If you run away... I will run after you. For you are my little bunny." And then she does.
The little bunny is no fool. "If you run after me," he says, "I will become a fish in a little trout stream and I will swim away from you." His mother is no fool either: if he becomes a fish, she says, she will become a fisherman. And so it goes: the little bunny says he will become a rock on a mountain, a flower in a garden, and a little sailboat, and the mother says she will become a mountain climber, a gardener, and the wind who will "blow you where I want you to go." Finally, the little bunny gives up (did he really have a choice, in the face of such maternal persistence?). "I might just as well stay where I am and be your little bunny," he says, and for his reward, he gets a carrot (it's not clear that there would have been a stick in his future if he hadn't succumbed, but it seems a distinct possibility: his mother carries one as she stalks him in her mountain climber guise).

I get the supposed point, really I do: in luscious full-color, double-page, developmentally-appropriate spreads (here's the bird bunny and his mother, the tree), The Runaway Bunny reassures children that their mothers love them, no matter what, and will always be there for them, no matter how rebellious their urges. At least, that's the nice way of putting it. As I read it, The Runaway Bunny tells children they can never escape their stalker moms, their mothers control their lives, and there's no point in even trying to escape.

But the bunny mother in The Runaway Bunny is a minor offender compared to the human mother in Love You Forever, the one who loves her son so much she commits a felony to express it. Love You Forever attracts its childish audience with repetition. It begins with a mother rocking her newborn baby in her arms and singing a song about how she'll love him forever.

Then the baby grows up. He becomes a rambunctious toddler, a resistant boy, and an outlandish teenager, but no matter how big or crazy he gets, his mother is determined to replicate that primal scene. Whether "at night time, when that two-year-old was quiet," or "at night time, when that teenager was asleep," it's the same thing: "she opened the door to his room, crawled across the floor, looked up over the side of his bed; and if he was really asleep she picked him up and rocked him back and forth, back and forth, back and forth. While she rocked him she sang:

I'll love you forever,

I'll like you for always,

As long as I'm living

my baby you'll be."

When he's a grown man, she drives across town with a ladder on top of her car, climbs into his window -- here's where we get felonious, what with the breaking and entering -- takes him in her arms and sings him her song. At the end of the book, he comes to her house, takes her in his arms, sings her the song, and then goes home and sings it to his baby daughter.

Again, I get the point, really, I do. Your mother will always love you and be there for you, no matter what you do or where you go, and in this one the mother even gets a reward: eternal love proclaimed. . . on her deathbed.

But am I the only one who finds this whole thing totally creepy? I love my kids, really I do, always and no matter what. The last thing I say to them at bedtime is "I love you forever and for always" (god forbid, I'm guessing I got it from this damn book). I still go into their rooms and gaze at them while they sleep. But there is something so profoundly abject about the mother crawling across the floor, something so profoundly intrusive about her getting into her child's bed to hold him while he sleeps, and something so profoundly pathetic about the fact that he only explicitly returns her love when she is "too old and sick" to sing her song herself, that the whole book just makes me queasy.

I've always thought that what bothered me about The Runaway Bunny and Love You Forever was the way the mothers impinge on their children's independence and privacy (I'm not even getting into the implications of both children being boys). Rereading the books for this column, though, I found myself taking a different perspective.

Perhaps it is a mark of my own age and developmental status that I now feel sad for these mothers, rather than angry at them. Don't they want their children to have lives of their own? Don't they have better things to do than stalk their children's desires or drive to their houses in the middle of the night to hug them? Don't they value their own maternal independence?

This is where my students -- or, probably, my own children -- would say I was pushing it, reading way too much into a couple of children's books, and perhaps I am. Certainly you could say these picture books are aimed at the psychological needs of families with younger children. As the mother of a tween who walks home from school by herself and a teen who roams all over the greater Boston area by public transportation, mutual independence is a fact of my life, not a fear, and goodness knows I'm benefiting from it (yes, mothers of young children, someday you will be able to go for a run whenever you want!).

Yet these books horrified me even when I read them to my own young children, for they present a blueprint for motherhood that never seemed feasible, let alone desirable, for either mother or child. I'll love my children for ever and for always, but I'm all in favor of them running away on their own adventures. While they do, I'll take off on mine, and then we can all come home, tell our stories, and rejoice in the life we share, without needing to chase each other down or sneak through each other's windows.

Rebecca Steinitz has written for The New Republic, The Utne Reader, Salon, The Boston Globe, The Rumpus, Hip Mama, Inside Higher Ed, Publisher’s Weekly, BookPage, and The Women’s Review of Books, among other places. She is a contributor to the anthologies It’s a Girl and Mama PhD and her book Time, Space, and Gender in the Nineteenth-Century British Diary will be published by Palgrave Macmillan later this year. In her previous life as an English professor, she taught nineteenth-century British literature, feminist theory, and writing. She now works as a writing coach in the Boston Public Schools. She lives in Massachusetts with her husband and two daughters.

More from

Oh my gosh, I thought it was just me. Thank you, thank you, thank you for reassuring me that I am not cynical or heartless. My thought has always been sadness for the the boy and the little bunny whose mothers wouldn't allow them to grow up. I take comfort in that the books are meant for our littlest children who have little interest in growing up and leaving our grasp. You're right that it's only the grown up perspective that sees the creep in it. Kudos to the grown up editors who saw past the creepiness to the appeal the message had for our little ones. ; ) Happy Mother's Day!
I've always found both those mothers completely creepy, but I have to say that it disappoints and/or horrifies about half my students when I say so. I have heard conflicting stories about the Munsch book--he is, after all, the author of the delightfully subversive Paper Bag Princess, and some people say this one's a joke, too. But I've also heard that about The Giving Tree, which is the other one I put in this category. (So no, the tree's not a stalker, but she sacrifices her life for her "boy," too.) I'm interested that you found these books in your house, though! We don't even own them...I am so grateful that no one foisted them on us, as I would have had to hide them.
Yes, Libby, the horrible horrible "Giving Tree" definitely needs to form the third in this terrifying triumvirate.
Gee whiz, ladies. Lighten up. Oh, and happy Mother's Day.
It's a relief to hear other mothers feel the same way I do about these two books (especially Love You Forever, which I tossed for all the reasons outlined in your essay. The funny thing was I knew which books you meant even before reading it! Thanks so much.
I have always been creeped out by Love You Forever. Even when I didn't have kids of my own yet and still bought into the "perfect, all loving, self-sacrificing mother" myths, I found it icky and didn't like it. Now, that I am a mother, it seems like absolute sacrilege to say that I don't like the book--people look at you as if you've said you hate puppies (and, well, I don't really like puppies either...) and/or have said you don't like being a mother! I have at least two copies of the book--it is a classic new baby gift, it seems. Thanks for pointing out the dark underbelly of these "loving" little tales!
Oh me too. Horrified and creeped out by both those books. But for some reason, my daughter (when she was little) enjoyed *Love You Forever* a lot. The one that freaked her out was *Are You My Mother?* Great column.
Oh yes, a childhood gave me the book Love You Forever when my first son was born. It was her favorite childrens book but it gave me the willies. However, I have to beg to differ about the Runaway Bunny. The first deals with a mother stalking a son throughout his life, the second is a reassurance to a small child that Mommy will keep an eye on baby to make sure he won't get lost. My son who dealt with serious medical problems liked this book. He outgrew it quickly, but there was a time when it was reassuring to him. I always saw it as a kind of hide and seek, which my boys loved. They are growing up relatively unscathed by our literary choices, so hopefully no harm done. Just shows to go, it takes all tastes, all kinds of minds to make the world go round.
Funny thing. I know I'm somewhat of a momma's boy. And I was a runaway at 16. Nevertheless, Runaway Bunny is and has always been one of my favorite books. In fact, I have a copy of it open at all times in the corner of my room where I keep the objects that remind me of the sacred. As my mood changes, I flip the pages from the ocean scene to the mountain scene to the circus scene, etc. I think the age this book is targeted to is key to understanding the story. While at 16 children may really want to get away from their parents (though perhaps, even then, they secretly want to be pursued), toddlers and very young children need to be reassured that their parents will always come for them, even if they become lost, even if they run away. This reassurance is actually what gives very young children the confidence to gradually extend their explorations of the world farther out from mom's domain. And yes, I do realize that my continuing love for this book implies that I have yet to fully grow up. Happy Mothers Day to mothers, grandmothers and alter-mothers everywhere!
I'll Love You Forever does have some questionable elements. However, when it was given to me as a gift right after my first child, my little boy, I couldn't read it without crying. Because that's how I felt at the time, crazy, irrational, overwhelming, i-will-always-be-there-for-you-no-matter-what kind of love. But I know, it's kind of a weird delivery. And truthfully, I think Runaway Bunny has been more effective as reassurance for me. Kids will want to run away and say mean things to their parents but I shouldn't sweat it. That's the message I get.
Thank you for this column! It is one of my all-time favorites. We recently had our daughters both go to college. We lit some paper lanterns and released them together, signifying the idea that we are all still a family but are going to be off on adventures more separately and then will come back together. Thank you for helping me think through that.
Thanks for your column. I'll have to vote with the stalker perspective. My mom took Runaway Bunny as a guide to parenting and now (30+) years later seems to have trouble understanding why we have issues. She was kind enough to bring my childhood copy when she came to visit for my daughter's birth. (Did I mention we live on a different continents?) I read it to my daughter for the first (and last) time this afternoon. Hours later & I still have the heebie-jeebies...
Comments are now closed for this piece.