Praise around Maggie Gyllenhaal’s “The Lost Daughter” seems to indicate no condemnation of the idea of mothers abandoning their children on the basis of inconvenience.
Based on a novel of the same name by Elena Ferrante, the film follows middle-aged college professor Leda Caruso while work-vacationing on the Italian coast. As she fixates on a family who is vacationing alongside her, especially on a young mother named Nina who struggles with her young daughter Elena, we see Leda relive her own past.
The Story of an Ambivalent, Absent Mother
The film reveals Leda’s past as we see her observe Nina struggle with Elena, who on top of being an already needy toddler, is upset over losing her doll – though we later see that it wasn’t lost, but instead taken by Leda, who is plagued by what it represents and struggles with returning it.
In her flashbacks, we see that motherhood was arduous work for Leda. She juggled work as a young academic, trying to balance her efforts to be recognized and respected, while also mothering two little girls, Bianca and Martha, in a small apartment. Her husband was also a young academic and was often away for work, leaving Leda alone to care for their daughters. We see how her struggles and solitude led her to grow weary and lose patience with her daughters to the point of destructive bursts of frustration, and we see how she grew resentful towards them. She expresses her own view of herself as an “unnatural mother.”
One day, Leda gets the opportunity to attend a conference, where she finally gets the recognition she’s been working for, and where she has a passionate affair with an older professor. This sequence of events is what in part spurs her to make some life-altering choices: to forfeit her role as a mother and leave her young daughters with her soon-to-be-ex-husband. There’s more to her life than the constant feeling of being overwhelmed, and she’s very much exactly that. So she leaves – for three whole years. As she eventually relays this story to Nina, we learn that Leda only came back after three years because she missed her daughters.
It took three years for her to come back, and not out of any sense of guilt for abandoning them during some very formative years, but because she missed them. Leda shares this with Nina so as to express how she has been in Nina's exact situation, but there’s no clear sense that she regrets what she did while she speaks with Nina.
Leda isn’t exactly happy with her decision, or else it wouldn’t be weighing so much on her while she contemplates something as simple as giving a little girl her doll back. But the spirit in which her story unfurls is a conflicting one: on the one hand, mothering was hard and it didn’t come naturally to her, but on the other, could it be that she feels like she did what she needed to do? As Leda realizes in the film that Nina is getting involved in an affair herself, she doesn’t try to stop her. Would she be as sympathetic and understanding if Nina also expressed her intention to abandon Elena?
“Defying Stereotypes” and “Subverting Expectations”
The moral of the film can vary. Perhaps for some it’s a cautionary tale: Leda’s life doesn’t appear to be particularly joyous. She works and appears to be content with that, but her daughters now live far away from her. The book goes into more detail about this: Leda’s daughters live in Canada, near their father, while Leda remains in Europe. The film hints at some amount of estrangement from Bianca and Martha, but in this adaptation, Leda lives in the United States and it isn’t clear where her daughters live. If the separation in the film isn’t meant to be interpreted as estrangement, Leda still spends her whole vacation reliving the past, so much so that the emotions manifest as physical ailments.
It could be that others see this as acceptance or sympathy for women who come into motherhood without strong maternal instincts, or who never develop them, who see themselves as “unnatural mothers.”
There is a danger in having too much sympathy, though. Sympathy can lead to acceptance, which can lead to celebration, and for something as heart-wrenching as abandoning your young children, there can’t be any room for that.
The film depicts motherhood as something that plunders the self, instead of actualizes it.
Many reviews of the movie – or at least, those in the top search engine results – fixate on how the film breaks stereotypes, subverts expectations, and offers a “compassionate look” at ambivalent mothers. Leda is an “unnatural mother” who doesn’t represent warmth, love, or “a bastion of safety,” whereas many films depict mothers as exactly that, or as something on the opposite side of the spectrum: pure evil. Beyond individual characters, the film depicts motherhood as something that plunders the self, instead of actualizes it.
A different artistic depiction of life and human behavior isn’t inherently evil, but in the case of The Lost Daughter, it hits a little too close to home. Just because mothers in artistic mediums are often depicted as bastions of safety, who will move heaven and earth for the sake of their children, it doesn’t mean that’s the norm in reality. Many people have had the misfortune of being raised by a mother who resented them, abused them, or had no qualms about keeping them in unsafe situations. Some people have mothers who expressed no love for them growing up, and who are essentially dead to them. A film like this can be seen as a slap in the face, if we’re meant to sympathize and feel compassionate towards Leda.
Why Should We Praise Parents Who Wound Their Children?
Imagine if we tried to encourage others to express acceptance for “unnatural fathers.” It’s difficult to do so, because we generally don’t; deadbeat fathers are ridiculed and they’re vilified in the media and in our culture. How many stories are there where we’re supposed to sympathize with a man who abandons his children because fatherhood doesn’t suit him?
Fathers who up-and-leave their children, whether they’re deadbeats or not, aren’t deserving of sympathy or celebration, and the same applies to mothers. There are many parents who came into fatherhood and motherhood unprepared, and at an inconvenient time in life (although, is there ever a perfect time to have children?), and yet they buckle down and get through it because it’s not just about them, but about a child who didn’t ask to be born.
Leaving a child can cause them more pain than it causes you.
If you’re bringing a child into the world, you have to put them, their needs, and their well-being first. It’s not easy, and in that sense, it’s easy to sympathize with Leda’s struggles in caring for her young daughters all on her own. But leaving a child can cause them more pain than it causes you; you sow seeds in their mind of perpetual doubts that they’re good enough and worthy of love and sacrifice.
Instead of praising the acceptance of “unnatural motherhood,” we can acknowledge that it can, and does exist, and that the feeling can be exacerbated if a mother feels like she’s all alone in caring for and raising her children. But it’s not like there’s nothing that can be done about it. We ought to emphasize the importance of having a spouse to help you, as well as a community you can rely on for additional support, such as family, friends, or neighbors.
We can express sympathy or compassion for ambivalence in parenthood and the abandonment of maternal duties in favor of the pursuit of personal liberation and professional growth – all at the risk of growing complacent and accepting of mothers who abandon their children. Though I do think it’s preferable to celebrate and praise buckling down and raising children you brought into the world, through difficult circumstances or arduous work. It’s not like the latter has never been done before.
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