Writing Parents in Fiction: What you need to know to resonate with your readers

“There’s no bitch on earth like a mother frightened for her kids.” – Stephen King

I recently read a really great novel that had one jarring details I could not get over. A mother of a brand new baby was choosing to move out of a safe environment with her newborn to an extremely dangerous place where life would be a struggle to survive every day. The reason behind this? Because she felt stifled in her current home.

As a mother of two little ones this sent up red flags all over the place so I did a little research on the science behind parenthood and dug up a few truths that might not occur to writers just trying to set up the pieces for the next big scene.

Now, before I continue on, let me stick a big disclaimer in here. Before I was a parent, I had alot of idea about what being a parent entailed. I had very little idea about the emotional changes parenting forces upon a person. I also liked to role my eyes at the sanctimonious “You just don’t know what it’s like” BS parents would spew at me. I am not trying to go there. I am just breaking down the specifics to help keep your work authentic. However, of course there are exceptions to every rule. There are saint parents and there are very bad parents. Mostly there is a lot of in between

Things you should know about new parents:

  1. New moms are a mess. Their bodies are extremely sore if they are lucky, completely ravaged if they’re not. Their emotions are even worse. I am not saying they cannot be rational and calm, and walk around and do stuff, BUT it is not a given. Their absolutely 100% first priority is taking care of the tiny helpless bundle that they just gave birth to. A new mother physically is not up to any kind of hard adventure for a week to several months after she gives birth. That bundle’s immediate safety and comfort is their fixation and they will not willingly put that child in any kind of danger, at all, unless they are having some sort of mental health issues. Which brings us to number 2.
  2. Postpartum depression and other mental health problems after having a baby are real and prevalent. It was likely prevalent in medieval England and it will probably be prevalent in 2194 on a space station. The wild influx of new hormones after having a baby play a large role in this. They do even out. The mental adjustment of suddenly being responsible for the life of another human being, one who you care about more than yourself, is huge and difficult. If a new mother doesn’t have proper support the isolation and demand of a being a new mom can be overpowering. The pressures of today’s society on mothers also can put a woman in a constant state of feeling like a failure. This is when new mothers start to make irrational or poor decisions that do not seem to have their infant’s best interest at heart.
  3. New dad go through changes too. They have dips in testosterone, their bonding hormones spike. This means that, if they are involved in the pregnancy and the birth, they too will become more nurturing and family oriented. They will seek out time with their babies, and they will be fiercely protective of their family. However, fathers have a social push to “toughen up” their children that many mom’s do not feel the pressure of.

Some things about parents of young children:

  1. Even though parents at this time have some separation between their needs and the needs of their children, they are still biologically intertwined. No matter how ridiculous it is, a natural inclination is to avoid tantrums if possible because as irritating as they might be for spectators, they are emotionally wrenching for parents.
  2. Young children have as much range in personalities as adults do. Very few adhere to an ideal of a model child no matter how they are raised. Parents need to be versatile especially from child to child. One sibling may be agreeable and sweet and the other might be wild and challenging. A parent will likely know the strengths and weakness of each child and not consider one to be “the bad child” but they will recognize that one is more taxing than the other at that period in time. Just like you would not deal with every one of your friends the same way, a parent learns what works with their individual children.
  3. They feel blessed to be parents but they look forward to being individuals as well. The martyr ideal of the mother who basks in the bliss of caring for her family all day and night and has no interests besides their happiness is rare if not non-existent.
  4. Children are hard on relationships. A couple has to work extra hard to keep their bond as partners strong even when their bond as co-parents is granite.

Some things about parents of children any age:

  1. They never stop worrying. Even the blissful empty-nesters who have moved to their dream home miles away from their adult children and are living it up drinking corona’s on the beach are still worried about their kids. They might not be sending them money every week or visiting their grandchildren as much as they should, but they’re still worrying.
  2. Allowing your children to fail is awful. Just awful. Some parents never get the hang of it. Some put up a hard front and let it happen very early. Many struggle somewhere in between, but it is always a struggle and it always happens eventually.
  3. Teenagers can be just awful to their parents and parents can be just awful to their teenagers. In the time of adolescents a child is compelled to detach from the parental unit to become an adult and an individual. From that teenager’s perspective their parents are trying to control them, keep them from growing up and don’t trust them. From a parents perspective that little person who needed you to wipe their butt and still plays with Barbies when her friends aren’t around suddenly thinks they can make decisions concerning real life things they know nothing about. No matter how mature that child is, there is still an innocence the parents want them to hold onto as long as possible while the teenager desperately wants to be worldly. The clash that ensues can bring the worst out of a parent as well as the child. It is an epic timeless theme that many writers don’t seem to have a firm grasp on.

I’d love to hear your thoughts and what you’ve seen writers get wrong frequently or your questions.


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