(Be warned- major spoilers here)
There was a point in watching the film version of Elena Ferrante's Book - The Lost Daughter, where I felt my chest tighten and my breathing constrict for a moment. It isn't just that the film pacing and direction creates a sense of unease, a quiet holiday interrupted by an overbearing, vaguely threatening family, but it's the sense of claustrophobia in the up-close camera work where we see the protaganist, Leda's, flashbacks to many years earlier as a mother to two young girls.
I had the feeling of having lived those moments myself, to some degree, when my two boys were very young.
"Children are a crushing responsibility" , Leda, whose children are now in their twenties, tells a heavily pregnant mother to be, who responds with a quizzical, stare. This not the conversation baby showers are made of. But they're not at a baby shower. Leda is on holidays, alone with her books and becomes intrigued with a young mother and her little girl, part of a larger family who appear to take over the beach (perhaps the whole island) and who are in the lovely Paul Mescal's words "not good people".
"Children are a crushing responsibility"
It's a shocking revelation, but who can deny there is truth in it?
Perhaps not for all, and not all of the time, but certainly sometimes. In flashback we see the young Leda trying to complete some work for her academic career. She's sitting at a desk trying to drown out the noise of the children playing with headphones, while her husband (who is supposed to be on duty so that she can work), caught up on a phonecall tells her to go to the children. One of the daughters has cut her finger. While Leda does the necessary, drying the blood, placing the bandage, she refuses a kiss for her daughter's hand. We hear the daughters high pitched pleas to "kiss it better" mama over and over and over while Leda steadies herself by placing her hands palm down on the counter and takes some deep breaths.
I feel it all. The claustrophia, the challenge of catching your breath, your thoughts, amid the constant, close up attention of little children. The loss of a sense of self. How they care not a jot for your desires and priorities (yes, yes I know it's not their job to care... but it still feels unfair at times).
When in a fury, again another flashback scene where Leda is trying to complete some work, and her little girl is disturbing her, she roughly brings her to a bedroom and forces her onto the bed (I almost didn't want to write 'force' here, but what other word is there when we as parents use our superior strength to place our children where they do not wish to be?). " I do not want to see you right now" she says before slamming the glass door to the bedroom shut.
We all know this refrain, I just need 15 minutes, a moment, a chance to hear myself think. She is trying to work in pursuit of her academic career (if they have childcare this is not apparent in the flashback scenes). but sometimes we're just trying to go to the bathroom alone, to have a thought without interruption.
What does it say about me that when she slams the door and the glass shatters, my first thought is "shit- this is just another thing to eat into her 15 minutes!"?
Elsewhere in the film, Leda refers to herself as an "unnatural mother". While begs the obvious question- what is a 'natural' mother? And what harm do we do mothers by assuming first that such a thing exists and then trying to shape ourselves into it or judging others when they don't appear to fit that mould. This is where damaging ideals of 'perfect motherhoood' arise from, but surely maternal ambivalence is more the truth of motherhood than the exception?
I had a dream recently in which I was living in a strange new city, full of exciting people and places to go. people who wanted to know me for me - who saw me as a whole human separate from my life as a parent.
I was living alone in the dream, dimly aware of having left my children with my husband, and can I say it felt wonderful- to feel that free. In reality I've never felt particularly free on arrival in a strange new place, but perhaps freedom can only be understood in relation to captivity?
In the story, we discover that Leda left her children and did not see them for three years. This is her big shame. But also, she says when asked how it was " it felt amazing".
Surely this admission will divide people who watch the film. This might be the thing that makes you disgusted by Leda. How could she be so selfish? How could she not miss them (she does eventually though, and she returns, but only after a period most of us would not even imagine.).
But holy shit, maybe she just needed someone else to mind her children for some of the week so she could be the person she needed to be- and not just a mother? Maybe she needed to be with a partner who respected her work as much as his own? Maybe if she had had those things she wouldn't have had the explosion of leaving her children. A far less interesting film then, but a happier real life?
If you've seen it, what do you think? Do you recognize anything of your experience in moment in the film?
If you watch the film and and some of it resonates, you're not alone.
If you feel suffocated by motherhood sometimes you're not alone.
If you feel like you've lost a part of you because of the demands of motherhood- other people have felt this too.
It doesn't mean you're a bad person or a bad mother.
It doesn't mean it will always feel like this.
Talk to someone, a friend, a partner, a professional - don't bottle it up and wait for the explosion.
The character Leda, in the book on which the film is based says:
“The hardest things to talk about are the ones we ourselves can't understand"
We can try to ignore it because it's confusing, or shameful, or difficult, or we can bring it out into the open and see what happens when we shine a light on it. That's what this film did for me. I would love to hear your thoughts on it if you've seen it too.
If you're interested in exploring the ups and downs of your experience of motherhood, the Calm in the Chaos course is a great place to start. To find space for you, solidarity with other mamas and renewed joy in your interactions with your little ones.