TV and movies are bastions for characters with Mom and Dad issues. That’s cool. After all, to believe that our parents don’t have a substantial influence on our development would be to live in denial. And it gives a character some depth to know that they too have struggled with a parental relationship.
It’s especially compelling when a character grew up with only one parent. Despite the common nature of divorce in US society, most children of divorce still have some kind of relationship with both parents. So when one parent is completely out of the picture, you know it’s due to a serious reason that likely impacted the character in a major way.
One cliche you see too often is The Parent Who Disappeared. At some point in the story, the character shares (often with a trusted significant other) that he or she has no idea where Mom or Dad is and hasn’t seen or heard from the parent since an early age. Then, the character goes on to say, “He/she went out for cigarettes and never came back.”
Here are a few examples, all from shows or movies I adore:
- Pretty in Pink: Andy’s mom pulled a disappearing act and never returned, leaving her father to raise his daughter while clinically depressed and financially strained.
- Sex and the City: Carrie Bradshaw confesses to her older male mentor at Vogue that her father went out one day when she was very young, and never returned. She never spoke of him again on the show.
- Homeland: Carrie Mathison divulges to Brody that her mother went to the store and never returned, fed up with her father’s untreated bipolar disorder.
- I know there are many, many others. I can’t recall them, so feel free to mention in the comment section.
This is a cliche, and not a good one. It’s overused, and it’s not believable. Here’s why:
- Parents do leave, but they rarely disappear completely or for good. More often, their role simply decreases in the kid’s life or the relationship becomes strained when the parent moves on with another partner/family or simply isn’t interested in being a parent.
- It’s rare for a parent to completely abandon a child for good, and especially for a mother to do so. If they do, there’s usually some serious pathology there, not just a “couldn’t take it anymore.”
- Even if someone does the full abandon, they’re not going to leave without at least some things to take with them. Chances are, they didn’t bring their clothes or winter coat to the store with them. And what about the car? Did they take that too?
- If married, leaving is extremely complicated. What about the home you own, joint checking accounts, and the legal bond you have with your spouse? These aren’t things you can just walk away from. Is the parent going to keeping drawing from the joint accounts or does he/she have some special secret account out there?
- The abandoned spouse would probably call the cops out of worry.
- You can hire people to find people, even if just for the peace of mind. Most partners wouldn’t just say “they left” and accept it. They would seek closure.
In Homeland, the thing with Carrie’s mom is especially absurd because her father was bipolar and untreated and “hard to live with,” spurring the mom to leave. But it makes no sense at all why the healthier spouse would abandon all and leave her children to the care of a man who’s so mentally ill that she needed to leave him. Never happen. If anything, she would leave with the kids.
Another cliche that’s worse and used even more often is the “Where were you? I needed you!”, where an adolescent is angry at a parent (usually Dad) for “not being there,” usually because Dad was “messed up” or just too devoted to the work that’s he’s obsessed with and really good at. A theme in these movies is the dad repairing the shredded relationship with the angry teen. This does happen, of course, but the angry teen thing gets old and so do the ready-made speeches about being abandoned. There are a variety of reactions to such a loss, and angry sanctimony is just one of them.
If you want to do Mom and Dad drama, there’s a world of fodder out there. Talk to people about their frustrations and struggles with their parents, about troubled parents or difficult divorces or custody arrangements. Read books about parenting and about healing relationships with parents.