This article contains spoilers for The Lost Daughter
“Ms Caruso, welcome.”
Hands up, I knew nothing of The Lost Daughter before watching the film. I hadn’t read the short novel by Elena Ferrante that the film is based on, nor any of the reviews for The Lost Daughter in advance. The trailer, below, doesn’t give much away about the central idea to the film either. It was really a much more basic ‘Ah, Olivia Coleman AND Jessie Buckley, yes please’ and okay, honestly, I then saw that Paul ‘Normal People Connell’ Mescal was in it and the thought of a couple of hours in the company of him meant I didn’t even care if Matt wanted to watch it, I’d pressed the button to play. Maggie Gyllenhall’s writer-director debut is much more than the sum of those parts though, thank god.
I’m no film reviewer but if you haven’t seen this film, oh, do. Do. Olivia Coleman is (typically) magnificent as Leda, a forty-eight old woman who holidays in Greece in a place that forces her to confront memories of raising her two young daughters. It’s a raw take on motherhood, the polarising push and pull of love/joy and need/strain. It twists and turns and gently takes us on an exploration of womanhood, of choice, of guilt and shame and denial, of adultery and love. At the core of the film it nags the viewer to contemplate the audacity of a mother who puts her own needs over those of her children in full, gritty, rawness.
I am fascinated by how motherhood is represented in the media and popular culture. It’s rarely a role that is offered with complexity, and even rarer is it shown in uncompromising detail. We don’t often entertain the idea of a mother as being multi-dimensional, a dichotomy of sacrifice versus selfishness- let alone bursting with sexual need over her maternal demand. We don’t give rise to the mother who seeks for herself over her children. It’s completely outside of the normal stereotypes that we are used to seeing. Why is that?
We are taught as young girls that motherhood is a natural consequence and eventuality for us all, aren’t we? Whether it’s the dolls we are given as our ‘babies’, or the way the nurturing side of us is praised as being ‘good’, or this thing, this bloody thing that just happens as we grow up with conversations and expectation all around us all of the time. But what if you arrive at motherhood and it feels, I don’t know, incongruous with who you have been before? What if it feels – as it Leda refers to her own motherhood experience – ‘unnatural’?
We are too often mis-sold a Disney-esque version of motherhood of gratitude, of peace, of true happiness. Of pink pinnies, of cupcakes, of an intense need to nurture with a sunny disposition and love radiating 24/7. Yet, when we look around at our peers who are mothers, aren’t many of us closer to Leda with her flaws than the Stepford Wife ideal that Hollywood, in particular, shows us?
The storyline follows Leda’s frustration with motherhood versus her own personal development and nourishment of her intellect. As opportunities for her career grow, so does her detachment from her family, her children. Its shows uncomfortable moments of her deliberately refusing to kiss her daughter’s sore finger, or her frustration and irritation of needing to attend to their needs, and cries for ‘Mama!’ over, and over again. A moment of play with her youngest, who brushes her hair too roughly and Leda snaps, shouting at her that she’s hurt and dramatically leaving the young child bewildered and sad. And ultimately, as they chat tenderly about orange peel ‘snakes’ together, she quietly gathers her coat and her handbag, opens the door to their apartment, and leaves them for her lover – and her career – for four years. She makes the choice to leave.
I’m not suggesting that any of us are about to run off from our kids, but the agonising moments in The Lost Daughter are compounded by the truth that there are times when motherhood is tough, really hard, get-through-the-day-until-bedtime. The monotony of routine, the small talk, the lack of mental stimulation, the loneliness and the lack of freedom. The never-ending round of meals and chores. The mental load that falls to women – the lists, the dates, the clubs, the classes. There are times when we lie awake at night, knowing that we snapped with irritation, or we denied some element of easy love, and scream into the pillow with sheer frustration and guilt. There are moments of desperately wanting to swap lives with our old selves, or find a snapshot of Who We Are within motherhood, when it feels too sacrificial. And if we are honest, there are times when we have fantasised about walking out of the front door to relish the idea of selfish freedom, without the hundred things that need to be thought of, juggled, balanced, found. There are times when we resent being needed all the time, until we aren’t needed all of the time and then we punish ourselves for the moments we resented. All of it steeped in guilt, shame and self loathing.
We are socially trained to ignore our own needs when motherhood calls, however it calls. We see posts on social media about self care and the tips are things as baseline as ‘take a warm bath’, because we’ve been indoctrinated to believe that even our basic needs, like washing our bodies, are selfish moments. We sacrifice because we know that’s the price you pay for these incredible beings to be yours, and compromise in order to raise fully functioning adults who will contribute positively to society. We neglect our own needs to pour energy into theirs.
The Mother who leaves their children, whether for a new partner or life or career, is weaponised by society. A danger, a madness, a betrayal. We are so of the belief that motherhood is above everything that we view the partners who are ‘left’ as victims – ‘the poor thing, he’s been left by his wife AND he’s raising those kids half the week on his own!’. We don’t delve deeper to understand the nuance and circumstances of why she’s left – we just assume selfishness and judge her. Is that because the idea of placing our own needs above The Family upsets the societal applecart and destabilises everything we know, everything we expect, everything that is Good and Proper? “She left them,” the whispers say. “She chose to leave them.”
Motherhood is so deeply complex. It is raw, it is flawed. It comes without a manual and not everyone feels the ‘instinct’. I felt underprepared for ‘maternal life’ despite feeling so ready and desperately wanting to have a baby. I felt an overwhelming life change as I entered motherhood, a mix of love and desperate protection over my babies and overwhelming anxiety and guilt. I look back ten years ago when I had Bess and barely recognise the woman I was then – now I know that I grew into motherhood, like every other role I’ve had in my life. But that’s not spoken about – it’s this weird, unspoken truth laden with guilt that many of us feel and daren’t express for fear of being judged. We live in fear of being shamed as ‘an unnatural mother’, or ‘un-maternal’. Or even worse, ungrateful. Being real and authentic about the wide range of emotions and responses to motherhood shouldn’t be cast as unappreciative, but rather a simple acknowledgement that mothers aren’t the virtuous creatures that we are so often represented as. Rather, we are complex, raw, unique individuals with desires and needs and wants and everything in between.
Selfishness in motherhood is one of society’s greatest taboos. But I can’t help but wonder if the taboo would perpetuate if we had a greater depth and range of the experience of mothers in popular culture? Where Leda has dared to tread, I hope more will follow to remove the stigma facing women who put their own life jacket on before others. Even if Leda’s experience of being an ‘unnatural mother’ feels towards the extreme end, we need more representation of the whole spectrum of how motherhood impacts on us to normalise the disparity in experiences, reduce shame and guilt, and ease the judgment of mothers everywhere.