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.