‘Little Fires Everywhere’: Who Is The Better Mother — Elena or Mia?

Little Fires Everywhereset in the all too apropos midwestern suburb of Shaker Heights, Cleveland — explores motherhood from two sides of the coin. The Richardsons are a picture-perfect family, born and raised under the protective umbrella of white privilege. The Warrens — Mia and her daughter — have been forced to upend their lives consistently, struggling to find homeowners willing to rent monthly to a single black woman and her daughter. 

Little Fires Everywhere
Little Fires Everywhere | Amy Sussman/Getty Images

Mia Warren (Kerry Washington) is an enigmatic artist who fights and provides to the greatest extent of her ability — wearing her heart (as well as her expectations and societal perspective) upon her sleeve. She often puts her daughter in her place, for she understands that motherhood requires an authoritative stance without an authoritarian presence; she balances understanding and mercy with firmness. 

Elena Richardson (Reese Witherspoon) is reserved yet relentless; she has a vision for her family and is unwavering in her dedication as a provider and a source of guidance (whether or not her viewpoint is always appreciated). 

Elena and Mia in ‘Little Fires Everywhere’ are perfect foils 

Elena and Mia are equally matched — perfect foils for one another. One obeys the prescriptive rules set out for suburban motherhood, while striving to take a stance in the “independent woman” department via her small-town journalism career. 

On the other hand, Mia Warren may have been forced into the independent woman role — seemingly a victim of circumstance who refuses to be labeled as such, carrying a dignified air of confidence and a grounded presence — marked by self-realization. Elena sacrificed her budding career to be a mother; Mia fought to have both. Who is the better mom — the one who sacrifices or the one who refuses to relinquish her own identity when acquiring the mother role?

Mia seems like a more enviable representation of womanhood, while Elena may be the more ideal representation of motherhood. Mia is accepting of individuality, and she sees uniqueness not as a flaw, but as an asset. 

As an artist, Mia peers into people; her artistic inclinations rest at the base of her identity — augmenting both her interpersonal and intrapersonal skills. Mia sees people, not to judge but to analyze. On the contrary, Elena is quicker to judge, and quicker to do good deeds for the sake of being a do-gooder — to set the “right” example (whatever the world tells her that is). Elena’s intentions seem to rest on societal expectations and a false sense of altruism, as opposed to a sincere sense of sympathy — but could it be both?

Mia is arguably a better role model. Despite Mia’s questionable methods, she is unwavering in her commitment to authenticity, and that, is too rare in a contemporary culture that thrives on false manifested identities. But, who is the better mother?

Elena is a provider and a caretaker; Mia is a teacher and a realist in ‘Little Fires Everywhere’

Elena will ensure her children go to the best schools, eat the proper foods for lunch, have access to all the best opportunities, but at a cost. She (whether knowingly or not) dismisses her youngest daughter’s inspiring degree of individuality to the fringes, in favor of assimilating her to a midwestern standard of female youth. Elena will provide — because life has given her the opportunity to do so, but will she groom originality or stifle it in favor of safe commonality? 

Will Elena teach? The example she sets is not one of resilience, patience, determination, or courage, but of acceptance and privilege — accept the status you are awarded and reap the privileges that follow suit. She is a great provider, but parenthood comes with more responsibilities (outside the financial and health-related realms) — one of which is seeing your children for who they are and responding to each child based on their individual needs.

Mia Warren drags her daughter from apartment to apartment from town to town; Pearl has to eat leftovers, and she sometimes must take a backseat to her mother’s art — her other baby — which provides inconsistent but substantial financial assistance. Mia Warren may not always be able to put her daughter first, but under an oppressive and racially fueled society, she has taught Pearl to fight for herself. And, she shows her desire to provide a happy childhood in every way she can — she makes her a bike, and she gives her daughter all four walls in cerulean blue.

Mia has taught Pearl the value of independence, the need to work harder than the person standing beside you. They may yell and scream at one another; they may fight about their worldviews, but in each shout, in each scream, in each fueled remark, Pearl’s deep respect subsists beneath the surface. She sees her mother, flaws and all, and despite Mia’s transparent mistakes, Pearl knows she would be nothing without her. Do Elena’s children feel the same?