Carol, children and motherhood on The Walking Dead: is Carol really a “mum”?

Since she lost her only child in season 2 of The Walking Dead, Carol has been affected by a strange curse. Children seem to be drawn to her, in spite of her efforts to send them away – and most of the time, it ends badly. Because she was first introduced as a mother, Carol is often defined as “motherly” or “nurturing”… But how fair is this description of her character? We have a look at Carol’s complicated relationship to children and motherhood.
Of all the characters on The Walking Dead, Carol is probably the one who has had the most surprising evolution. A fun procrastinating activity can be to look at old fan forum discussions from a few years ago and see Carol being described as “short-haired mum” or similar expressions by viewers who couldn’t even remember her name. Indeed, she was initially introduced mostly as a battered wife and a mother. Surprisingly, though, she survived both her husband and her daughter. She became much more than the meek, mousy housewife we’d first met in season 1 of The Walking Dead.

Still, even after losing her status as a wife and mother, Carol’s character has constantly been linked to the theme of motherhood and nurture. Sometimes the trope was played straight: at the beginning of the series, or when she took care of Judith. Sometimes, it was clearly subverted or even completely turned on its head: having to kill Lizzie made Carol go from nurturer to killer, and her “act” in Alexandria was a creepy parody of her former self as a housewife and mother.

So, how fair is it to say that Carol is a “nurturing”, “motherly” character?

Carol and kids: a very complicated – and often tragic – relationship
If you look at her interactions with kids throughout the series, it is debatable whether Carol really is naturally a “nurturing” and “motherly” character, and whether she is really happy being in such a position. She seemed to love her daughter very much, but her relationship with Carl, for example, wasn’t so good. After getting over the loss of Sophia, Carol actually seems to be rather happy at the prison, and seems comfortable with her new persona. Her happiness is soon ruined by the epidemic, which, incidentally happens immediately after she has been assigned the role of a “mother” again: she has in effect become Lizzie and Mika’s guardian after their father’s death.

Her relationship to the two girls is very complex: she wants to protect them, but she also seems afraid to get too close to them emotionally. She’s very cold to them, even though they seem to like her. When Mika points out that Carol has “adopted” them the same way Widow Douglas adopted Huck Finn, Carol jokes, “Yeah, I’m just like the widow Douglas!” – and it’s hard not to notice the sarcasm in her voice.

Even though Mika is the sweet girl who “doesn’t have a mean bone in her body”, that reminds her of Sophia, it is actually Lizzie that grows closer to Carol and even calls her “mum” – a name Carol immediately rejects. On the road, Carol opens up to Lizzie when she finally talks about Sophia – a very rare occurrence – and they share a sweet moment when Lizzie falls asleep in her arms.

Carol’s attempts to reason with them do not work at all, however; Mika resists Carol’s lectures on getting tougher and killing “bad people”. She even indirectly reminds her that she is not her mum, when she uses a quote by her mother to contradict Carol’s arguments: “My mum used to say, things always work out the way they’re supposed to”. As for Lizzie, Carol does not realize how she only appears to understand her points, only to twist them in her head and feed her fantasies about walkers being “friends” who have simply “changed”.

A very significant detail, just before the tragedy happens, is the focus on cooking: Carol acts the part of the mum by helping the girls roast pecans in the oven. Immediately after this, though, the entire dream collapses and Carol goes from a nurturer to a killer, being forced to put down Lizzie herself. Cooking, from then on, is a recurring theme and is almost always associated to Carol’s double identity: the “happy homemaker” (or, as I like to call her, the “Cookie mom”) and the hardened, cynical fighter.

In Alexandria, Carol again finds herself bonding with another child, Sam, because of her delicious cookies. However, she does not even try to play the part of the “cookie mom” with him: she remains very cold and distant and refuses to bond with him. Sam’s story ends up in tragedy anyway, after he panics in the middle of a zombie herd – arguably because Carol had tried to scare him with spooky stories of being devoured by monsters.

Does Carol seem to reject her identity as a mother because of her fear of living through the trauma of losing a child again? Certainly. But could it also be, in part, because the “nurturing” persona – of which she becomes a parody in Alexandria – does not really fit her true personality?

Carol resists the characterization of herself as a “mum”
Judging by her interactions with others, and contrary to what she told Deanna, Carol does not seem to be much of a “people person”. Indeed, if you get past the nurturing social habits of a “mom” that she acquired in her past life as a housewife, her natural tendencies seem to be rather that of a loner. She has feelings but is not terribly keen on expressing them. She very rarely opens up to people, remaining mostly very guarded and preferring to observe them from a safe (emotional) distance. When interacting with others and making decisions, Carol is actually rather hard and cold, sometimes even callous. She tends to be aligned with Shane at the beginning of the story, and is often quite harsh on Rick, whom she originally sees as a weak leader with no clear principles.

The only person who is really given to see the sweet and nurturing side of Carol is, in fact, Daryl. This would, ironically, tend to undermine the claim that Carol and Daryl have a mother/son relationship: though Daryl may often be characterized as a man-child, and though Carol may appear “nurturing” when dealing with Daryl, her attitude to him is in fact radically different from her attitude to children when she finds herself acting as a mother figure to them.

Carol has rarely evoked Sophia since her death, but seems to resist being reduced to her status as a bereaved mother. The subject is brought up in episode 404 in a conversation with Rick, just before he banishes her. She then confides in him about her past life with Ed as an abused wife, and clearly states that she has put this behind her, by describing Sophia as “Dead. Somebody else’s slideshow”. In episode 609, Morgan tries to bond with her after their big fight over the wolf prisoner, by evoking her child and husband. But Carol refuses to take the bait. In Alexandria, even though she plays the part of the “homemaker” as a camouflage, she seems bothered by Tobin’s emphatic assertion: “You are a Mom”. She seems to reject this identity, when she replies: “I was”, and asks Tobin if she is a mom to him, to which he replies: “No – You’re something else to me”.

Yet, Melissa McBride recently said on Talking Dead that kids followed Carol around because they were “perceptive” and “empathetic”, and could see through her mask that what she really needed was “a kid”. Could it be, then, that after rejecting her identity as a traditional mother and housewife, to discover how strong she could be, Carol now needs to open up again to the possibility of reconciling her two identities?

Carol as a protector – the “mama bear” syndrome
Can Carol find a way to be both a strong, independent person, while not rejecting her wish to have a family again or simply let people get close to her again?

In the same exchange with Rick from episode 404 mentioned previously, Carol told Rick: “You can be a farmer, Rick. You can’t just be a farmer.” Was she thinking of her own trajectory, and her discovery that, although she used to think of herself as only a wife and mother, she could be those things, but not only those things? This could be an interesting take on Ezekiel’s advice to “embrace the contradiction”.

Though it may seem cruel to put it this way, losing her identity as a wife and mother seems to have allowed Carol to discover who she really was. In a 2016 interview for TV Insider, Melissa McBride had this to say:

Looking back at Carol’s evolution over the last six seasons, what are you most proud of?
I’m most proud of her coming to the forefront as herself, to do what she’s capable of doing and no longer shushing her own self. She’s utilizing her capabilities, stepping forward and stepping up. Her evolution has been a surprise every step of the way, but at the same time, it’s been a very natural progression for a character like her. It doesn’t seem extraordinary or out of the realm of possibilities that this particular woman would be doing the things she’s doing. She’s adapting well.

Indeed, Carol did mourn the loss of Sophia, as she obviously loved her daughter, but showed surprising resilience after her death: she did not even want to attend the funeral, arguing that her little girl had been long gone and that her walker body was no longer Sophia anyway. When faced with looks of pity or embarrassment from the others, Carol insisted: “I lost my daughter. I didn’t lose my mind!” This is a very significant line, as it clearly states that Carol does not see herself only as a mother, who, had the story followed the usual cliché, should have been utterly destroyed by the loss of her child. She asserts her own separate existence, as a person who is also something else than a mother and can move past this traumatizing event.

In a way, Carol’s attitude to all the children she encounters throughout the various seasons of The Walking Dead only reproduces her wider attitude towards her extended “family”: she may remain quite cold and distant to them, but all she really wants is to keep them safe. Tobin is probably the one who articulates it best when he insists that she still is a “mom”, not because of her cookies and (mostly fake) smiles, but because of her instinct to protect people and take the hard decisions – and interesting description which would actually fit Carol’s real self.

Tobin’s definition is reminiscent of one trope in particular – the so-called “mama bear” trope (in which a mother is actually capable of anything to protect her “family”, real or metaphorical – note that Carol is actuallly listed on TV Tropes as a “mama bear”). This may be the key to understanding Carol’s relationship to children, and to her extended family in general: she is not so much a “nurturing” character, as a protector. Back at the prison, for instance, she used the façade of her “motherly” persona to create a fake book club for the children at the prison, when she actually taught them how to use weapons. This role is much closer to that of an instructor, a teacher or even a coach, than to that of a mother.

In that role, Carol can be extremely harsh and can seem to lack empathy. It is hard not to feel bad for Lizzie when Carol berates her and calls her “weak” for not being able to put down her own father! This is also visible in her drastic choice to put down Karen and David, and later, in her ability to enter ‘berserk’ mode to save the group from the cannibals in Terminus and from the Wolves in Alexandria. It is this element of her personality that makes Carol suddenly feel like a monster, and pushes her to run away from the very people she might want to protect.

However, no matter how hard she tries to make sure harm does not come to people in general, and children in particular, the story always ends badly. After Sophia, Mika, Lizzie and Sam, Benjamin in season 7 was another example of this, as he tried to bond with Carol and faced a rebuttal, only to die anyway in the same episode. We do not know yet what will happen to Benjamin’s younger brother, Henry, whom Carol encountered in episode 806. After ordering him to stop following her, she eventually relented and gave him a gun to defend himself. Since there would be little point in repeating the same story again, maybe we can assume that this kid may finally break through Carol’s emotional armor? We can only hope so, and one fun fact could support this hypothesis: as was pointed out on Talking Dead for episode 806, the boy playing Henry (Macsen Lintz) is actually Madison Lintz (Sophia)’s younger brother…