The Crushing Responsibility of Motherhood
Watching The Lost Daughter, I was electrified. When does an American film confront the complexities of motherhood? It’s a statement of how far we’ve come that we empathize with Olivia Coleman’s character; a woman who abandoned her children to fuck somebody else and get a doctorate! Unthinkable, let alone produceable.
As a film writing professor at the University of Southern California and a writer, I can usually find flaws in any film, including most of the ones I’ve seen in the last year. The bravery and audacity of Maggie Gyllenhaal's film surpasses any criticisms (most reviews have been superlative) a handful of critics made.
This film explores ideas beyond the simplistic fare Hollywood has dished out for years. Maybe decades. This is a film that demands thought, consideration and above all an ability to step into the shoes of an extremely intelligent and complicated woman. This isn’t Spiderman. This film demands that you confront your own biases and sexism about motherhood. It’s a film for grownups; for people who like to think and to have their ideas challenged or changed.
There are many things in the film that are, at first blush, ambiguous or unresolved. It doesn’t tie the story up in a neat bow. It’s not a neat story. In adapting Elena Ferranti’s prose into a film, Gyllenhaal leaves us to fill in the blanks. She assumes we’re grown up enough to figure out the necessary pieces. (I haven’t read the short novel.)
Adaption is difficult under normal circumstances. The narrative often must shift. Take The English Patient (which, incidentally, set off my lifelong obsession with Ralph Fiennes). The film’s plot is a subplot in the novel. And a novel isn’t a film.
At a personal level, The Lost Daughter made me consider my own mother, who was also unavailable, torn between parenthood and her career. When I was growing up in the 60s and 70s NOBODY, and I mean nobody, had a mother with a career, let alone one who created her own business. While all the other mothers were home playing Maj Jong, she was building what we’d call today a “brand.”
Our family revolved around my mother’s interior design business. It was named after my brother and I: Benita Lawrence Interiors. The business operated out of our home and dominated the conversation and the “interior life” of our household. If the phone wasn’t ringing with clients or one of her worker bees, she be talking/arguing with my father, who essentially her assistant, about how he mishandled a shipment.
My mother, in orange, on a trip to NYC when her star was starting to rise. The man in the middle is Richard Nixon!! Her friend, the other woman, lived on the Upper East Side and during a visit, they bumped into Nixon after losing the election to Kennedy. My parents, huge liberals, loathed him. BUT my father always had a camera, and delighted in taking the picture. It became one of his favorite stories.
When my brother and I were born, my mother aspired to what every woman of her generation aspired to: upward mobility. My father, despite a degree in law, wanted to be a successful businessman. However, all of his attempts, and there were many, failed, while she succeeded. But the public narrative was something quite different. My mother pretended her business was only a “hobby,” and that it was my father who brought in the real money. She did this to spare my father public humiliation for his business failures. She had a love/hate relationship with her success and could never fully own her achievement.
What must it have been like for her to be the "breadwinner," raising two kids, running a business, home to cook dinner every night? She loved cooking. Forget cooking. What about grocery shopping and what a pain in the ass that is! Or the endless errands and appointments - doctor and dental, carpools, etc. Or the constant nagging to be driven to a friend's or chauffeured to and from the latest movie? Our demands, like most kids, were unending.
I often try and remember any conversations of substance I ever had with mother. I can’t think of one time when I had my mother’s undivided attention except on three occasions. 1) I was six and she went to school to eviscerate a teacher who hit my knee with a ruler; 2) when I sliced my lower leg open closing the car door and she, normally excitable, calmly rushed me to the nearby hospital for stitches; and 3) when the FBI dropped by our house to tell my parents I was a Russian spy. That’s a story for another time.
Unfortunately, that didn’t mean I was ignored! To the contrary! Had my mother focused one minute more on me, I’d be in a straitjacket today. But it wasn’t the kind of attention I wanted or needed. Since she had no real life outside of work, she wanted me to live the life she didn’t get to live.
Until I was married at twenty-five, I believed I’d have four children. I love children. I’m good with children. I’m actually my happiest in the presence of children. My friends were all having babies and I was ready. In fact, I was obsessed. I had begun therapy and my therapist suggested I might want to put the baby on hold until I figure out what I wanted. What I wanted? I wanted children! I sobbed. But I was paying a lot of money for therapy, and, I still had time before the clock started to run out my ability to get pregnant.
Then something unexpected happened. While trying to figure out who I was, I stumbled into writing. A total accident. Never even had so much as a fantasy of being a writer. But my decision to pursue it as a career changed every aspect of life. Nothing more profound than my desire for children. Writing quickly superseded that desire. I still wanted children but my growing ambition for a successful writing career began to overshadow that desire.
How would children fit in with my career goals? Even one, let alone four! I feared I’d be the kind of mother my mother was. Not because we shared DNA. Rather, I witnessed what it was like to be torn between motherhood and career. For the first time in my adult life, I was experiencing an overwhelming desire for self-accomplishment. And if I had children, I knew I couldn’t be certain I wouldn’t be like my own mother. And I wasn’t willing to take that risk. I don’t regret my choice.
Women are continually evaluated and judged on their maternal attributes even if we don’t have children! It’s” selfish” as the Pope recently reminded us, not to bring children into the world. It's our job! Apparently, he hasn’t noticed women no longer come in “one size fits all.”
But it took a pandemic to shine a light on the vast inequity between fathers and mother in the home and family department. Men weren’t quitting their jobs to take care of the kids! I read somewhere when a husband asks a wife what he should be doing, “it says it all.” Doubtful he’d ask his boss the same question.
The “crushing responsibility” of children remains primarily on women. Having grown up with my mother I witnessed how truly difficult it is to have “it all.” The more I understood about my own upbringing, the clearer it became that I didn’t want to be torn between my children and my career. I didn’t think it would be fair to a child. And I know I made the right decision. Even now, long after the age when people said I’d regret not having children, I often think I dodged a bullet. I wouldn’t have been the mother my children would've deserved.
The portrayal of a woman’s conflict between children and self-realization has rarely been as intelligently explored in film as it is in The Lost Daughter. Gyllenhaal’s writing displays a wisdom and maturity that exceeds her experience behind the camera. It represents the kind of writing largely absent from American films today. The Lost Daughter is a revelation on every level.