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Motherhood, sacrifice and making space

| Tuesday, January 18, 2022

Since I was in middle school, one of the only things that has gotten me through the long, cold winter months was the awards season for film and television. I follow analysts online, listen to podcasts every week and try to watch as many “Oscar movies” as possible to be fully prepared for the discourse. For me, it’s always been a fun way to have something to look forward to when your wet hair freezes when you step outside and every day feels the same.

So, naturally, I spent winter break catching up on a lot of those Oscar movies. Night after night I knocked them off my list: “Spencer,” “The Green Knight,” “Licorice Pizza,” “The Card Counter,” “Tick, Tick… Boom!” I liked all of them, loved some of them, but only one has been on my mind ever since I watched it: Maggie Gyllenhaal’s directorial debut starring Olivia Colman, “The Lost Daughter.”

I knew absolutely nothing about “The Lost Daughter” going into it, and I think it’s better that way, so I’ll sum it up as best I can based only on the trailer. Technically, it’s a film about a woman (Olivia Colman) on vacation at a beach resort, who spends her time observing and interacting with a mother of a young child (Dakota Johnson). It’s a psychological drama of sorts, and a complex look at motherhood. The anchoring line in the trailer, delivered by Colman’s character to Johnson’s character is “Children are a crushing responsibility.”

Ultimately, “The Lost Daughter” is about women who struggle with that crushing responsibility, and how motherhood shapes who they become. It is purely about those women — the children in this film get very little screen time, as the focus is primarily their personal journeys through motherhood. At times, both women are undeniably bad mothers, doing things that have the potential to really emotionally scar their children. The film’s choice to center the mothers does not mean it endorses their behavior, however. Instead, it attempts to capture the complexities of motherhood, and the ways in which these women struggle to maintain their identities both as individuals and as mothers.

I’m not exactly sure why the film stuck with me, but it did. I have a great relationship with my mother, and never felt like I was inhibiting her self-actualization. I’ve always planned on becoming a mother one day, partially because of the real joy I have seen it bring my own mom, but I am not a mother myself. For some reason, though, it still felt personal.

Perhaps it stuck with me for the same reasons that Clairo’s 2021 album Sling stuck with me. A standout from the album is “Reaper,” which includes the line “I’m born to be somebody then somebody comes from me.” Much of the album deals with the 23-year-old singer contemplating parenthood and growing up and realizing you are quickly approaching an age in which you are expected to become a mother. It is an intimate, honest portrayal of the fears of motherhood that are often unexplored and off-limits, like losing yourself or passing your mental illness and pain onto your child. 

I think what really struck me about these two pieces of art, along with a host of other films, books and albums that have come out in the last few years, is that they allow space for a mother to be a whole person. It’s indisputable the fact that fathers have always been given more space to maintain their identity in parenthood than mothers have. Think, for instance, of the archetypal white housewife in the 1950s, whose husband worked outside the home while she took care of the children and cooked and cleaned. Fathers were not only allowed but expected to form an identity outside fatherhood — the way to be a good father was by working hard and financially supporting his family. Mothers, on the other hand, were expected to forego any independent dreams and endeavors to be a mother, leaving many women to wonder, in the words of Betty Friedan, “is this all?

Even as women in the United States gained more financial and political independence, they were still expected to maintain the home and take on the primary responsibility of raising their children. To this day, on average women in the U.S. still do 15 more hours of domestic labor per week than men. Parenthood undoubtedly changes all parents, but society expects more out of mothers, and as a result mothers tend to struggle more with the risk of losing their identity to motherhood. 

Despite that, however, it is true that motherhood is often a choice, and that those who choose to have children understand and shoulder the responsibility of motherhood, for the sake of their children. It is not good when mothers abandon their children so they can find themselves, or when they hurt them, neglect them or resent them for being a burden that they find unbearable. They are often adults, responsible for the welfare of a child, and maintaining that child’s well-being must always be the top priority, regardless of the mother’s internal conflict.

Yet, what most of our media about motherhood tends to forget is that mothers are also people, who were once children themselves, who have ideas, dreams and plans beyond their own children. Even those who love motherhood and excel in it likely have moments where they miss having no children to care for. Art that gives space for women to be complicated and difficult and angry, especially in motherhood, is unequivocally important, and I hope to see more like “The Lost Daughter” in the coming years. Ultimately, I hope this kind of art opens the door for a societal shift away from the isolating idea that motherhood is a choice to leave behind your former self.

Ellie Konfrst is a senior studying political science with a minor in the Hesburgh Program for Public Service. Originally from Des Moines, Iowa, she’s excited people will once again be forced to listen to her extremely good takes. You can find her off campus trying to decide whether or not she’ll go to law school or bragging that Taylor Swift follows her on Tumblr. She can be reached at [email protected] or @elliekonfrst13 on Twitter.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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