A Hymn to Refrigerator Mothers

A Wrinkle in Time is very near and dear to my heart, but the unceasing perfection of Mrs. Murray always stung me, especially set beside haggard, toothless, screeching Mrs. O’Keefe.

So sorry not all moms can be charming double PhDs who conduct Nobel-worthy research in the barns of their charming Connecticut farmhouses, taking a break only to smooth radiant auburn hair from their violet eyes and perhaps make home-made tomato sauce in a rustic cast-iron skillet, L’Engle. Maybe Mrs. O’Keefe would have been more nurturing if your stupid angel-witches had tessered up some some milk money or a new pair of shoes once in a while.

Let us take a moment to honor the bad, cold, distant or terrifying moms of page and screen. I wish I could say there were some considered statement behind this, some blow against punishing standards of maternal femininity; but really, it’s just perversity driving this bus.


1. Lucille Bluth, of Arrested Development

Lucille is pampered, demanding, sarcastic, manipulative, supremely unconcerned with the lives and feelings of her children, and up to her eyeballs in chicanery. 

She drinks. From enormous martini glasses. All the time.



She winks.

She side-eyes.

She wears perfectly cut silk blouses with long strings of pearls, and has the remnants of the world’s last Mid-Atlantic accent.


2. The mother of Eloise

So spectral a figure is she that we never learn any other name. We do learn that she has a charge account at Bergdorf’s, owns stock in AT&T, cavorts with lawyers, knows Coco Chanel, the Plaza’s owner (also an ad-man, whatever that is) and wears dainty size 3 1/2 French heels. All this information comes from Eloise, who both adores her mother and seems blissfully unaware that most parents see their children at least twice a year.

Eloise does not seem to mind.

With ‘Eloise,’ Thompson turns the pathetic ”poor little rich girl” legend on its ear. Far from a neglected child, Eloise is a gleefully liberated one

I can’t tell whose life I envy more.


3. Malory Archer of Archer

Mallory Archer is played by the same actress as Lucille Bluth, and, at first glance, it may appear that she is merely a repeat of the latter. Neither appears without a drink in her hand if she can help it, and both are fond of tailored skirt-suits. Both sport a coiffed bob and a brutal tongue. Both are the torments of their sons’ lives (also generally evil).

But Malory would certainly win in a fight.  She has a better trench coat, and better furs. Her blunt digs often have a vicious truth to them to them that Lucille’s random passive-aggression lacks, and she’s ruthlessly capable. She gave birth on a bar in Tangier after killing a man, for crying out loud.


She takes innumerable lovers, and shoots them when they call her a whore (and are possibly fascists who killed the man she loved).


She is not afraid of life

Malory: I know you didn’t plan on this baby, but, Sterling, sometimes the unexpected things can turn out to be the most important things in the whole world.


Sterling: Wow, you sound shit-faced.

and wins all possible contests.


4. Katherine Comstock, of A Girl of the Limberlost

Have you read A Girl of the Limberlost? You should. 220px-Girl_of_the_Limberlost_Title_page

The best of part of the novel is Katherine Comstock, a hard, lonely woman eking out a living from an Indiana Swamp. Angrily mourning a husband lost to quagmire, she feeds her sorrow by neglecting and could-shouldering her daughter, until an emotional cataclysm re-orients their relationship . I won’t tell what prompts it, in hopes that you will experience for yourselves the weird keening grief Katherine gives to the swamp that took her husband, her rigidity and force of character, and her avenging angel fury.

“The swamp had sent back the soul of her loved dead and put it into the body of the daughter she resented, and it was almost more than she could endure and live.”


5. Emily Gilmore, of Gilmore Girls

By now you will have realized that this list runs to terrible WASP ladies in who specialize in expensive conservative outfits–high waisted trousers, matching sets, silk blouses, pearls–and emotional unavailability. “Daughter of the American Revolution” is not an aesthetic I would or could pursue myself, but any appeal that class holds is concentrated in its grand dames.

It’s like if Lady Catherine de Bourgh were on Lizzy’s side.

Yes, Emily is everything you can say about her and more: controlling, harsh, haughty, manipulative, rigid, disdainful, status-obsessed, lacerating.

But she’s also a mother and grandmother desperate to be allowed to take care of her family.

She hands them a drink the moment they walk in the door. Every single time. That is some genuine solid care right there. I don’t care how many seething resentments and unhealed wounds haunt your family, houses where someone hands you a pre-dinner cocktail in a crystal glass upon arrival do not come a dime a dozen.

Ditto people who insist, simply insist! on buying you diamond watches.

[Author realizes that Emily Gilmore is her ideal husband, blinks, returns to post.]

And the things that infuriate Lorelai the most about Emily are the things that Emily gave to Lorelai. They’re mirror images of each other: both stubborn, both managers (this is in fact Lorelai’s job) both unstoppable steamrollers when they want to be. They both navigate interpersonal relationships with uniformly hilarious and sometimes extremely cutting bon mots. Both tend to freeze out the hard stuff instead of working through it. And both would move heaven and earth to get the best for Rory.


6. Mayzie, of Horton Hatches an Egg

Who among us, charged with the care of a child, has not at some point wanted to fly off to Palm Beach and never look back?


7. Moro of Princess Mononoke

Moro is actually a wonderful mother–caring, powerful, committed to fighting the ravening industrialists to the death. But she is also a giant wolf, voiced in English by Gillian Anderson, and it is hard to imagine a more authoritative and terrifying maternal figure.




8. Ma of Little House on the Prairie, etc.

It’s easy, especially if you over-identify with Laura, to read the Little House series as a child through a lens of seething dislike for Ma. Would it kill her to let Laura run around without without a sunbonnet once in a while?

But Ma’s not the one who uprooted her family again and again for some nonsense about manifest destiny and an itch for fatter hunting grounds. Ma’s not the one who woke up one day and said “Wouldn’t a little settler colonialism be grand?”  Ma’s the one who had to pick up the pieces. She’s the one who had to give birth alone, live without any kind of female friendship, raise her children and manage her home with little help in an unforgiving environment she never asked to be dragged into.

All Ma ever wanted was safety for her kids and a clean place to put her china shepherdess.

So when Pa comes waltzing around, doing his good-cop, oh-look-at-me-I’m-the-fun-parent, how-fun-it-is-to-make-all-the-decisions-and-leave-the-consequences-to-women act, don’t fall for it. Hate Pa, not Ma.


9. Clytemnestra of the Oresteia 

Team furies all the way.


One thought on “A Hymn to Refrigerator Mothers

  1. Clytemnestra is hard to surpass on the terrifying side and her children were ah not exactly intimidated by her antics. In fairness to her & her children, Agamemnon was from a very dysfuntional family. They make Game of Thrones look like a sitcom.

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