Literary Mama writing about the many faces of motherhood
The Harry Potter Factor



17 years. That's how long I've been a mother. It's also how long J.K. Rowling has been living with Harry Potter. She started the series while pregnant with her first daughter, Jessica, in 1990; my daughter, Mariah, must be a little older than Jessica, then, as she's rapidly approaching her 18th birthday at the end of this year.

10 years. That's how long I've been the mother of two: Nick's tenth birthday was earlier this month. It's also how long Harry Potter novels have been out in the world available to read. My mothering life, then, has tracked the Harry Potter series in more ways than one.

Mariah and I began reading the books some time in 1998 or 1999, I think, before the biggest hype but after the first book was available in my public library. At first I didn't know I'd be buying them all (in multiple copies, no less!). I just thought I was sharing another fun book with my daughter.

We read the first few books together, sprawled on a couch, each wedged into a corner with our feet meeting in the middle. As we continued reading, she grew taller -- and her reading got faster -- so we read them sequentially, talking about them over meals that were, in those early days, always interrupted by her toddler brother's antics.

That toddler brother started reading the books himself when he was seven. I read him chapter one of book one when he was six, and he decided it was "too scary" and asked me to put it aside. A year later I started it again (at his request), but this time he took the book out of my hands and continued reading under the covers with a flashlight. Unlike his sister, who had to wait a year or more between books, he could (and did) read the first five in one big gulp, then waited only about a month for the sixth. He then re-read them less than six months later, telling me, "when you read, the words are printed in your mind." These were words he wanted to remember, unlike almost any other series he's enjoyed. He had to wait a day for me to hand off book seven to him, and it was his constant companion for the week it took him to make his way through it.

Though I'm not physically carrying the book around, it's still in my mind, too. This series that has been such a significant part of my mothering life ends with such an emphasis on motherhood itself that I have to keep thinking about it.

We learned in book one that mother-love was special. "Love as powerful as your mother's for you, " Dumbledore tells Harry, "leaves its own mark. . . . to have been loved so deeply, even though the person who loved us is gone, will give us some protection forever." Lily Potter's love for her son protects him throughout the series, in ways neither he nor we could really anticipate or predict. But the series' most visible living mother, Molly Weasley, was always a source of minor disappointment to me: she's as good a wizard as her husband, but seems to live a somewhat tedious life of (magically) preparing food and cleaning house, stopping once in a while to send a Howler to one of her misbehaving sons. Though she's a member of the Order of the Phoenix, the group of adult wizards who fight the evil Lord Voldemort (their counterpart among the younger wizard set is the DA, or Dumbledore's Army), we rarely see her perform the kind of complex magic that her male counterparts do. And, while I'm the last person to say women who don't work outside the home don't have value, it strikes me as odd that Molly never even seems to want to, despite the fact that by book two all her children are in boarding school or out on their own, and her family is perennially short of cash.

Then again, children's books aren't about the moms, as I have to keep reminding myself. Mother-love in the Harry Potter series is all about the kids, the next generation. Harry's mother is therefore the key to everything -- she's the reason Snape does what he does, the reason Voldemort can't kill Harry, the reason Harry lives.

It's a heavy burden Lily Potter bears, and I'm sorry I don't know her better. All we really learn from the novels is that she was nice to Severus Snape, tried to reform James Potter -- and then married him -- and died protecting her child from Voldemort's killing curse. We know she loved her sister and her sister envied and then hated and feared her.

But it's not just Lily Potter whose mother-love changes things in this novel. Molly Weasley gets a moment in the limelight when she, too, protects a child from death -- shouting "BITCH!" as she kills Bellatrix LeStrange, saving her daughter Ginny. And, perhaps most poignantly of all, Narcissa Malfoy betrays Voldemort in order to save her own son, Draco, who has been Harry's nemesis throughout the series. His muggle-doppleganger, Dudley Dursley, similarly provides the occasion for a moment of protective mother-love when he recognizes Harry's importance, and his mother Petunia agrees to go into exile for him.

It's also mother-love, or the lack thereof, that creates Voldemort in the first place. His muggle father, Tom Riddle Senior, and his witch mother, Merope Gaunt, come together only when Merope bewitches Tom, and when she later stops using her love potion he abandons her despite her pregnancy. Born in a workhouse like Oliver Twist, the future Lord Voldemort is more like Twist's half-brother Monks than the pure-born child Oliver: a symbol of love's failure. Voldemort and Harry are mirror-images, then: the unloved orphan who seeks power over death meets his match when the well-loved orphan willingly courts death to save his friends. And mother-love makes all the difference.

This motherhood is, sometimes, self-sacrificial (as in Lily's case, and potentially Narcissa's) but it is hardly the stuff of Hallmark cards. It's fierce and determined, and it is -- in the words of the Song of Songs, perhaps not an obvious precursor to a children's book -- "as strong as death." Stronger, even. It's been said that Rowling's own experience of motherhood has influenced her writing, and it shows.

Mariah is now seventeen. In the wizarding world J.K. Rowling has invented, she'd be of age -- the same age as Harry, Ron, and Hermione, not to mention Neville and Luna, when the series ends. She's not battling otherworldly evil (though she might differ on that -- have you visited high school lately?), but she's separating from her parents, learning in small ways how to make it on her own: driving, making her own plans, managing a schedule and a job. She, too, travels with the mark of her mother's love on her, though it hasn't left a visible scar, and I hope she never faces the tests Harry does. "It's a part of my childhood," she told me when the book arrived, "and it's ending." One way or another, childhood does end; Mariah's, though, has been enriched by the stories we've shared.

Libby Gruner teaches English and Women’s Studies at the University of Richmond in Richmond, VA, where she lives with her family. Her academic writing has appeared in SIGNS: Journal of Women in Culture and Society, Children’s Literature, and other journals. Her personal writing has been featured in Brain,Child: The Magazine for Thinking Mothers the Seal Press anthology Toddler: Real-Life Stories of those Fickle, Urgent, Irrational, Tiny People We Love, and Mama, PhD: Women Write About Motherhood and Academic Life.

More from

I had to comment about your thoughts on Molly Weasley. She has always been one of my favorite characters, in fact the one I most aspired to be like. (naturally I read all of these books as an adult). What I loved about her character is the same as what you seem to despise about her. For her, being a loving mother and wife (to a very large family) was enough. Magic or no, she felt sure of her self in her place in the world, and I loved her for it. I loved her for having room in her heart for Harry. I loved her for the homemade Christmas presents and the scrimping she must have endured for her whole married life. I even loved her for being a talented housekeeper. I don't find those skills unimportant or unworthy of a gifted witch. I really felt JK Rowling honored mothers who don't work outside the home with her portrayal of Molly Weasley. As an educated woman who stays home with children, I saw some of myself in that woman who sacrificed much for her family. She gave her life to her children, not in the way Lily Potter did, but rather spent her life in service, to her family, Harry, others such as the Order of Phoenix. Sometimes I would rather prove my love with a grand sacrifice, rather than millions of tiny, often boring tasks that fill my days. But what would our children choose if given the choice? They would choose boring mom over dramatic in almost every case. (I think as adults we would quite enjoy M. Weasley's company, but of course we only really see her as Harry does, and he certainly approves, though not imagining her to have an inner life, as would be expected by the age of the narrator.) If I would complain about the depiction of Molly, it would be that she is too high a standard of loving parenting to follow (similar to her husband in that sense), Molly Weasley, mother extrodinaire, I salute you. Thanks to Ms. Gruner, author of this essay for giving me so much to think about. So much of this piece I completely agreed with, feeling that loving another mortal offered partial redemption to all characters, and that the love of a mother is a powerful protective force.
thanks for your comment! Just a quick correction: I certainly don't despise Molly Weasley, as I hope the column makes clear!
I enjoyed reading this. Mother love was the major theme I was following in the series too. My oldest son is turning 20 this fall. I always felt an affinity for Rowling; both of us being single mothers. You have made some very good observations and connections here.
Comments are now closed for this piece.