It probably says something about the mature attitude I bring to the business of parenting that my favourite fictional mother is in a children’s book, but there you go. The best guide to the business of being a mum that I’ve ever read is Tove Jansson’s Moomin series, and in my regular moments of floundering under my responsibilities to the small people I’ve generated, I’ve often resorted to pretending that I’m Moominmamma.
All things considered, there are probably a few points of imperfect identification between Jansson’s round-snouted matriarch and me. For one thing, Moominmamma is a troll, and however much I prick my ears and jut my nose, I’m definitely not. For another, there’s no way of getting around the fact that Moominmamma only really exists in relation to her dependents: Moominpappa gets a whole book devoted to his pre-paternal Exploits; Mamma washes up at the end of that, and shortly after embarks on a career of tending to her own Moomin child and sundry visitors to the Moominhouse. If I wanted to get all Second Sex about this, it would almost be too easy.
But I’m willing to step away from the De Beauvoir because, when it comes to those relationships, Moominmamma is the perfect trollification of parenthood. There are many requirements to raising a child – from basic physical needs for food and shelter, to the intangible benefits of love and attention – but every secure and happy child is in receipt of one message through the many actions and attentions of its devoted carers: all the dinners and hugs and playfights and chidings come together to mean, “I will care for you no matter what.” And Moominmamma is the essence of caring no matter what, in the odd and often apocalyptic world of the Moomins.
A comet is the harbinger of terrible strangeness. The chilly, monstrous Groke must be appeased. Volcano and flood drive the Moomins from their house and force them to take refuge in a floating theatre. There is death, of a stark and unsentimental kind. But whatever happens, the dreadfulness is always alleviated by Moominmamma’s secure centre. Even in deep midwinter hibernation, she can sleepily guide Moomintroll through the rituals that make an accommodation with the awful:
He went to his mother’s bed and whispered a question in her ear. She sighed and turned around. Moomintroll repeated his whisper.
Then Moominmamma answered, from the depths of her womanly understanding of all that preserves tradition: “Black bands… they’re in my cupboard… top shelf… to the right.” And she sank back into her winter sleep again.
Moominland Midwinter, p. 52
I might complain about that reference to “womanly understanding”, but I won’t. (It’s close to to George Eliot’s description of girls in Daniel Deronda as “these delicate vessels [in which] is borne onward through the ages the treasure of human affection”.) Instead, what I really like here is that she’s not automatically, instantly accessible: she turns away, she has to be asked twice, and she doesn’t get up to help Moomintroll, just gives him the guidance he needs to sort it out himself. She stays calm, unpanicked and certain of her child’s independence, even in the greatest disaster. Reading the books to my own children, they seem delighted and shocked by the latitude Moominmamma gives the children in her care – which includes wandering off for days, eating nothing but pancakes, and (this one got the biggest gasp) tolerating the smoking of pipes.
She’s perfectly sanguine when destruction strikes, whether it’s the entire valley burning (“‘Fiddlesticks,’ said Moominmamma genially, and whisked another speck of soot from her snout.”) or her particular property being vandalised (“‘May I cut up your knitting ball?’ shouted Little My from the sewing-basket. ‘By all means,’ replied Moominmamma.”). [Moominsummer Madness, pp. 12-3] There’s a fantastic quality to this tolerance of ruin, but it’s delightfully reassuring both to children (who know the grueling anticipation of a telling-off following a breakage), and to me. Let everything smolder while the smallest Mymble snips through my workbasket; it really doesn’t matter as long as everyone is in their right place.
Moominmamma isn’t the only maternal figure in the Moomin books. There’s also the broad-lapped, grinning and hyperfertile Mymble, who spawns the Mymble’s Daughter and Little My as well as innumerable other Mymble kiddies. “I’m never angry with anybody, at least not for long,” she tells Moomin. “I simply haven’t the time! 18, 19 kiddies to wash, put to bed, button down and button up, feed, wipe the nose of and the Groke knows what. No, my young Moomin, I’m enjoying myself all the time!” It’s the Mymble tribe that delivers the only direct parenting advice in the Moomin books – though it’s not advice that’s quite intended to be taken seriously. When Snufkin finds himself uncomfortably responsible for a flock of small children, he asks Little My for direction:
“You must do as my sister does. Tell them that if they don’t shut up you’re going to whack them silly. Then you ask them to forgive you and give them candy.”
“And does that help?” Snufkin asked.
“No,” said Little My […]
“It’s raining,” said a small woody.
“I’m hungry,” said another.
Snufkin looked helplessly at Little My.
“Scare them with the Groke!” she suggested. “That’s what my sister used to do.”
“Does it make you a good girl?” asked Snufkin.
“Of course not!” said Little My, and laughed so that she toppled over.
Moominsummer Madness, pp. 102-3
I’m often more Mymble’s daughter-ish than Moominmamma-ish. Often fraught, often impatient, often issuing improbable threats (and met with My-ish defiance). I worry about my children wandering too far, and I sometimes fret about the things I’d like to be doing instead of buttoning-down-buttoning-up-feeding-and-wiping-the-nose-of. But I hope there’s enough of the I-will-love-you-no-matter-what for my children to recognise a bit – even if it is just a bit – of Moominmamma in me.
Text © Sarah Ditum, 2012; illustrations by Tove Jansson, reproduced for purposes of commentary