Motherhood means life, so in some ways it is not surprising that a show where the dead rise and walk the earth, contains problematic treatment of motherhood. Despite all of the running, hiding and struggle to survive, motherhood has actually featured quite largely on The Walking Dead, the problem is that each instance in which motherhood has been an issue, it reveals not only the strong gender roles that The Walking Dead has enforced since the very first season, but an idealized form of motherhood.
The first mother we were introduced to was Lori. She escaped the city with Carl and Shane (thank Gods he’s dead). Lori’s main motivation was keeping Carl safe, when she wasn’t engaged in subsistence labour. It is Lori who sat down with Carl and forced him to continue his studies. It is Lori who tried hard to establish discipline and order in his life. Lori’s only real identity for the bulk of her appearance on the show was to nurture. The one time in which she chose to reject this limitation because of the impact that it would have on her life, she was shamed. If a woman can’t choose to have an abortion during a zombie apocalypse when food, and shelter are scarce, then when can she? Her life essentially meant nothing if she was not fulfilling her role as a mother. When she went to Hershel with her fears, she was given the “there there” treatment and sent on her way. Even in the best of situations, labour can mean death but for a woman who had serious issues with her first pregnancy and now faced labour without any modern medical intervention, it was an absolute surety. In the end, Lori paid for her motherhood with her life.
Lori’s death did not however convince Rick to take on the nurturing role for his family. This duty was instead passed to Beth. Before taking on a role as primary caregiver to the newborn, Beth’s greatest claim to fame was lying down in her bed and giving up. Yes, in this day and age, The Walking Dead actually had a young woman take to her bed. With a child to care for, Beth is suddenly reinvigorated and taking an active interest in life again, she has even gone as far as to talk about how she always wanted to be a wife and mother. These are certainly admirable goals but the fact that she didn’t have other aspirations as well, speaks loudly about the role that women are expected to take on The Walking Dead. As young as Beth is, she is already being constructed as a mother type figure with no other discernible traits. Even Carl, who is several years younger than her is walking around with a gun and entrusted with protecting the prison. Though Judith is his sister, Carl’s involvement in her daily life is minimal at best. The only other caregiver we have seen look after Judith is Carol, despite the fact that Beth chose to claim Darryl as the reason for Judith’s survival and Rick chose to thank him for his contribution. The efforts of both Beth and Carol have gone unrecognized.