What Little Women Taught Me About Being A Great Mom

Marmee shows us it's ok — even good — to get mad.

Written by Carrie Mullins
Ariela Basson/Scary Mommy; Shutterstock

I’ve always known that Marmee March is a good mother. Actually, a great mother. The matriarch of Little Women, Louisa May Alcott’s beloved tale of four sisters growing up in Civil War-era Massachusetts, is an icon of “perfect parenting,” as if such a thing ever has or ever will exist. She’s basically American literature’s patron saint of good moms.

What makes Marmee such a great parent? When I was young, I was taught it was her ability to remain unflappably serene and cheerful, even while mending socks. Marmee sunnily shepherds spunky Jo, pragmatic Meg, gentle Beth, and artistic Amy through life while running her house like clockwork. (And she’s on a budget.)

Now that I have children, I understand the perfect mother doesn’t exist. I’ve also recalibrated my understanding of good parenting, and serenity ranks pretty far down the priority list — I don’t pretend to be emotional Teflon. When I decided recently to reread the book I once loved, I was so worried that I’d find Marmee less a model of good parenting than an outdated and potentially harmful cliché.

What I found instead is that Marmee is still an amazing mom, just not for the reasons I’d been told. Here are the qualities we should be celebrating:

She gets real with her kids

Readers aren’t the only ones who idolize Marmee. The four March sisters adore their mother in ways I could only dream of. (On Christmas morning, the girls call out, “three cheers for Marmee!” and play her music as she comes down the stairs. When’s the last time you got a reception like that, especially from your teenage daughters?) But as they get older, Marmee doesn’t let her children mythologize her; she knows that the most powerful parenting tool she has is empathy. When Jo comes running to her mother following an epic fight with her younger sister Amy (I’m sure you remember it: after Jo excludes Amy from a hang with Laurie, Amy burns Jo’s manuscript, causing Jo to ban Amy from everything forever and Amy to chase Jo over a frozen pond, where she falls in and nearly drowns), Marmee doesn’t yell or tell Jo that she was out of line. Instead, she admits to her daughter that she also struggles with her anger. Not just once in a while, but every day.

For Jo, who is beating herself up for having big, ugly emotions, Marmee’s admission is a revelation. It makes her feel seen and eases her guilt and self-criticism. This is clearly Marmee’s goal; she knows that it’s her imperfections, not the impossible state of composure we usually attribute to her, that will help her children learn to navigate themselves and the world.

She lets her kids figure it out

Jo and Amy’s fight isn’t the only time when Marmee offers her daughters advice, so it’s easy to think of her as an early helicopter mom, aggressively monitoring her children’s behavior. But in most cases, Marmee actually stands back and lets the girls learn lessons on their own.

My favorite example is when Jo and her sisters decide they want to spend their school break doing absolutely nothing, including household chores. Marmee doesn’t fight it. Instead, she lets them learn the downside of laziness by having herself (and more crucially Hannah, their housekeeper) join the experiment. The girls watch in horror as the house gets filthy and there is no one to cook them their meals. Without having to say a word, Marmee teaches her children that work is what keeps their world functioning. It makes them more thoughtful about contributing to the household— and appreciate what a pain it is to go grocery shopping.

She sees the humor in parenting

It’s no surprise to Marmee that the girls’ experiment in laziness ends in disaster. So when Jo, who’s tried to take over the kitchen, serves Marmee a scorched omelet and bitter tea for lunch, Marmee doesn’t panic that her kids will never figure out how to take care of themselves. After Jo delivered the tray, she simply “laughed heartily” over it while quietly putting the burned food in the trash.

Yes, Marmee laughs at her kids. It’s not mean-spirited (she knows “they’ll have a hard time…but they won’t suffer” while learning their lesson) and it lightens the mood for everyone. I wish I had thought about the role of mindset in parenting before I had children. Humor not only smooths over the bumps of the everyday (like when my son recently “fixed” my watch by wrapping it in three rolls of Scotch tape) but it, too, roots us in empathy, asking us to remember how absolutely bonkers it is to be a child trying to figure out the world.

She refuses to accept the status quo

In recent years, we’ve finally started to recognize Marmee’s anger. (Big thanks to Greta Gerwig’s awesome 2019 film adaptation, which was the first big-screen version of Little Women to show her admission to Jo.) I wish this was part of the discussion when I was younger for many reasons: To normalize my emotions, to take anger out of the equation of “good” or “bad” parenting, and to rethink our understanding of femininity. But Marmee doesn’t just have a temper — part of the reason she’s angry is because she knows her daughters are going into a world that will treat them as lesser because they are women. Jo and her sisters will face pressure to marry early and well. Pursuing their passions, or even having a career, will be difficult and with limited options.

Motherhood changes your relationship towards the world. It’s hard not to feel more concerned with injustice when there is more at stake. I also wish that good parenting was more often portrayed as the refusal to accept the status quo. Marmee does that, too: When Meg worries over finding a good husband, Marmee councils her that it’s “better to be happy old maids than unhappy wives,” a radical lesson in a society that portrayed marriage as women’s best, and often only, role. Marmee similarly encourages Jo to move to New York and pursue her writing instead of accepting Laurie’s proposal, which would make Jo rich and ensure her a comfortable (but unhappy) life.

This is the kind of mother I want to be: One who encourages my kids to be themselves, even if it means sometimes swimming upstream. I want to be a mother who empathizes with her children and laughs with them, who shares my world views and my struggles. What rereading Little Women as a mother has taught me is that Marmee is a model parent — we just need to reconsider why.

Carrie Mullins is the mom of two boys and a writer for publications including Parents, Food & Wine, Epicurious, and Electric Literature. She is a firm believer that books can help us create a more nuanced, inclusive vision of motherhood. She even wrote her own about it: The Book of Mothers: How Literature Can Help Us Reinvent Modern Motherhood.