There are so many ways to hurt motherhood, or so a mother is told. She can be authoritarian or distant. She can suffocate or neglect. She can mother in such a particularly bad way that she is assigned a bad mother archetype: stage mother, refrigerator mother, “cool mom”. She can hover like a helicopter mom or bully like a bulldozer mom. But the thing she can’t do — the thing that’s so taboo it actually rivals murdering her offspring — is leave.
The mother who abandons her children haunts our family stories. She is transformed into a sinister tabloid figure, an exotic exception to the common good-for-nothing father. Or she’s sketched in the background of a plot, her absence lending a protagonist a propelling origin story. This number elicits our ridicule (think Meryl Streep’s goofy American president in “Don’t Look Up,” who forgets to save her son as she flees the apocalypse) or our pity (see “Parallel Mothers,” where an actress ditched her daughter for lousy TV plays). But lately, the missing mother has provoked a new response: respect.
In Maggie Gyllenhaal’s “The Lost Daughter,” she is Leda (played, for two decades, by Jessie Buckley and Olivia Colman), an up-and-coming translator who abandons her young daughters for several years to pursue her career (and a banter with a learned Auden). In HBO’s “Scenes From a Marriage,” a gendered remake of Ingmar Bergman’s 1973 miniseries, she is Mira (Jessica Chastain), a technical manager from Boston who flies to Tel Aviv for an affair disguised as a work project. And in Claire Vaye Watkins’ self-fiction novel “I love you but I chose the dark,” she’s also Claire Vaye Watkins, a novelist who lets her baby smoke a ton of weed, sleeps with a guy who lives in a van and confronts his own troubled upbringing.
In each case, her children are not simply abandoned; they are left in the care of fathers and other relatives. When a man leaves this way, he is not exceptional. When a woman does, she becomes a monster, or perhaps an anti-heroine riding a dark maternal fantasy. Feminism has provided options for women, but choice also represents foreclosure, and women, because they are people, don’t always know what they want. As these protagonists grapple with their own decisions, they also come up against the limits of that freedom, revealing how women’s choices are rarely socially supported but always carefully judged.
A mother who loses her children is a nightmare. The title of “The Lost Daughter” partly refers to such an incident, when a child disappears at the beach. But a mother exit her children — it is a waking dream, an imagined but repressed alternative life. In the ‘Sex and the City’ reboot ‘And Just Like That…’, Miranda – now a mother of a teenager – counsels a teacher who is considering having children. “There are so many nights I wish I was a judge and walked into an empty house,” she says. And on Instagram, the airbrushed mirage of motherhood is challenged by displays of raw desperation. The group Not Safe for Mom, which reveals the confessions of anonymous mothers, vibrates with empty threats of refusal of role, like: “I want to be alone!!! I don’t want to cook your lunch! »
To be alone: it is the reasonable and functionally impossible dream of the mother. Especially recently, when the escape routes have been closed: schools closed, nurseries suspended, offices closed, jobs lost or abandoned in the event of a crisis. Now the house is never empty, and also you can never leave. During a pandemic, a brave middle-class girl can still “have it all,” as long as she can manage her job and her kids simultaneously, from the floor of a lawless living room.
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Cards on the table: I struggle to write this essay on my phone as my pantless toddler – banned from daycare for 10 days because someone caught Covid – leads a tireless campaign to commandeer my device, hold it to his ear and say hewwo. I feel charmed, bored, and involved as I wonder if her need is due to some parental flaw, perhaps related to my constant phone use.
Do I want to abandon my child? No, but I’m newly attuned to the psychological mindspace of a woman who does. The Auden specialist from ‘The Lost Daughter’ (played, in an inspired cast, by Gyllenhaal’s husband, Peter Sarsgaard) wins over Leda by quoting Simone Weil: “Attention is the rarest and most pure.” Attention is a loaded word: it can mean caring for another person, but also powerful mental focus, and a parent can rarely execute both definitions at once.
Leda wants to take care of her translation work, but she also wants someone to pay attention to her. To be frank, she wants to work and have sex. Often in these stories, the two are tied together in a hyper-individualistic fusion of romantic careerism. In “Scenes From a Marriage”, Mira plans to tell her daughter, “I have to go to work, which is true” – only because she arranged a work obligation to facilitate her affair with a brother in the start-up Israeli. His drug gateway to abandonment is, as is often the case, a business trip. Mira wanders off for the first time at a company boat party; Leda tastes freedom at a translation conference; Claire embarks on a reading tour from which she never returns.
The work trip is the Rumspringa of motherhood. Like the mother bird in “Are You My Mother?”, a female is allowed to leave the nest to retrieve a worm, though someone, somewhere may notice her absence with school disapproval. In Caitlin Flanagan’s 2012 Joan Didion indictment, recirculated after Didion’s death, Flanagan says Didion took a film job across the country, leaving her 3-year-old daughter over Christmas. .
Yet there is something absurd in making work the ultimate escape. It’s only vaguely plausible if our desperate mother is in a high-level creative position (translator, novelist, opinion leader). When other fictional mothers leave, their fantasies quickly turn out to be delusions. In Nicole Dennis-Benn’s novel “Patsy,” a Jamaican secretary abandons her daughter to pursue an American dream in New York, to become a nanny to care for someone else’s children. And in Jessamine Chan’s dystopian novel ‘School for Good Mothers’, Frida lacks sleep and drowns at work when she leaves her toddler home alone for two hours. Although Frida feels “a sudden pleasure” when she closes the door behind her, her imaginary life is short and dark: she escapes to her office, where she sends e-mails. For this, she is enrolled in a re-education camp for bad mothers.
Each of our absent mothers has her reasons. Leda’s college husband prioritized his career over hers, which makes his decisions readable, even likable. But in “I love you but I chose darkness”, Watkins does not lend his doppelganger any exculpatory circumstances. Claire has a doula, daycare, an Obamacare breast pump, a tenure-track job, multiple therapists, and the most understanding husband in the world. When she starts sleeping in a hammock on campus, her husband says, “I think it’s cool that you follow your…heart, or…whatever…is going on…out there. There’s nothing obvious stopping her from being capable mothering, but like Bartleby, the child-bearer, she’d just rather not.
In granting privileges to Claire, Watkins suggests that there are motherhood burdens that cannot be resolved with money, lifted by a co-parent, or healed by a mental health professional. The problem is motherhood itself and its ideal of total selfless devotion. Motherhood had turned Claire into a “white”, a figure who “didn’t seem to think much” and “had trouble finishing sentences”. As these women find out, their menu of life choices isn’t that extensive after all. They yearn to be offered a different job: dad. Claire wants to “behave like a man, a bit bad”. As Mira abruptly exits, she assures her husband, “Men do it all the time.”
These women can leave, but they don’t quite make it. Mira ends up losing her job and her boyfriend and begs to get her old life back. Leda’s abandonment becomes a dark secret in a thriller that comes to a violent end. Only Claire is curiously oblivious to the consequences. She follows her selfish impulses to the desert, where she spends her days crying and masturbating alone in a tent. Then she calls her husband, who flies towards her, happy early in tow; Eventually, Claire claims a life where she can “read and write and nap and teach and dip and smoke” and see her daughter on a break. By imposing no cosmic punishment on Claire, Watkins refuses to facilitate the reader’s judgment. But it also makes care more difficult.
When I was pregnant, I also had a fantasy. I was there single, childless, still very young somehow and living an alternative life in a van in Wyoming. Reading “I love you but I chose darkness” broke the spell. As Claire ripped bangs and circled new sex partners, she struck me not as a monster or a hero, but something possibly worse – boring. Even as these stories strive to uncover the complex emotional truths of motherhood, they indulge in their own little fiction: that a mother only becomes interesting when she stops being one.