The Lost Daughter

People who read voraciously will tell you the book is always better than the movie. 

I take it one step further by requiring my children to read the book before they watch the film adaptation, a rule I usually follow myself.  But when I watched The Lost Daughter on Netflix, I did not realize the story came from a novel of the same name by Italian author, Elena Ferrante.  Fascinated, if slightly unsettled by the film, I did some research after viewing it and obtained the book. 

The movie touches on nearly every single note of the book, something that cannot be said for most film adaptations.  Even nuanced subtleties are included.  It is a book lover’s dream. 

Both are a conflicted mother’s nightmare. 

The main character, Leda, is a conflicted mother. 

With the main line of the plot centering on Leda’s solo beach holiday, one might assume that’s all behind her – but as Ferrante so deftly proves, the mother/child bond is one that pulls a thread through lives, years, generations. 

Leda’s holiday at the shore is a celebration; not of her daughters’ departure, but of her independence, of the absence of obligation.  Yes, she brings a bag of books to the beach to prepare for the upcoming year’s classes, but she “carried a wicker chair out to the terrace, and sat for a while to watch the evening descend on the sea” as her first act upon arrival, something she never would have been able to do when “for years every vacation had revolved around the two children.”

Leda enjoys one supremely relaxing day at the beach – before her past, in the form of a large Neapolitan clan, blocks her path to the water.  The group, both large in size and attitude, whose continual return to this same spot inspires a sense of ownership in them, reminds Leda of the extended family of her childhood from which she fled.  She remembers her mother’s abhorrence and yet ultimate adoption of their crude and violent ways.  The interactions of a young mother and daughter make Leda reassess the bonds she had with her own daughters. 

In an expert weaving of past and present, one mother/daughter pairing to another, Ferrante explores how polarity and magnetism can exist at the same time within maternal bonds: motherhood vs. selfhood, generational transference and connection, love vs. duty. 

A bedraggled doll covered in beach sand becomes a character as real and large as any of the humans.  She is the love Leda needs from her childhood, she is the care Leda aches to give her own children freely, she is the unquestioning fragility of the mother/child bond. 

Conflicted mothers want to know that walking away, that tending to their own needs and desires, though viewed as monstrous by the outside world, is worth the internal validation.  Leda’s mother threatened to do so many times (“You will never ever ever see me again”) yet never followed through.  Leda made a point to never utter those words, but actually did walk away.  Now the young mother Nina laments how “your heart shatters: you can’t bear staying together with yourself and you have certain thoughts you can’t say.”  She believes it will pass, comforted by the fact that Leda returned.  Yet, Leda answers, “With my mother it became a sort of sickness.  But that was another time.  Today you can live perfectly well even if it doesn’t pass.”  Ultimately, Leda cannot offer young mothers a satisfying response.  

Leda herself hasn’t found a solution.  Years after her own disjointed upbringing, a strangled happiness in motherhood and a thwarted success in academia – she finds herself drawn to the very things from which she was running.  Closing herself off ultimately opens her to the dangers of these present-day manifestations. 

Both the novel and film treatments of The Lost Daughter come across as haunting and unnerving.  There is an undercurrent of threat throughout: of loved ones leaving, of missed opportunities, of loss and bodily harm.  Sometimes the threat isn’t even apparent; there is just the feeling of dread.  There is a meditative melancholy to this story, much in keeping with the heavy machinations of life and communion Leda carries with her. 

At times, this story is even esoteric.  Given the central question at its heart – can a woman attain selfhood and motherhood in the same lifetime – this is the perfect paradigm.   It has haunted three generations in just this story and countless women throughout the world.  There is no clear answer.  There are many iterations of the lost daughter. 

Shadow Work

“What are you doing tomorrow?”

My twelve year-old often asks me this as we bid each other good night. 

After years of staying home amidst the push and pull of patriarchy vs feminism, I instantly sense a trap. 

Why do you ask?  Why do you need to know?  Who put you up to this?  What do you want me to do?  Are you insinuating that I do nothing with my day?  Do I need to account for all my time?

Her reaction the first time I came back at her made me realize, that while her query had triggered me, my tone was not meant for her.  She was simply wondering what mom was going to do while she spent the day at school.  She knew how her day would go, but not mine.  Perhaps it was also an acknowledgment of how much I do to take care of her and her sisters – so what did that entail when I wasn’t physically with them?  Maybe, hope of all hopes, she was actually wishing for/validating some sort of relaxation from or reward for my toils.  That’s most likely reaching, but she is empathetic for her age. . .

I chose to leave the workforce when my first children were small, when they needed full-time care.  Having four children, that time stretched to encompass the younger ones as they came along.  As they all began to spend more time out of the house, I remained at home because there were always varied schedules, sick days, afterschool obligations – and that was before the inconsistencies of COVID life.    

But as they get older, and I angle myself toward both personal and professional pursuits – though none as of yet in a structured or official capacity – I wonder if the assumption that I will always be there is stunting the growth of all of us.

I wonder if we (mothers, women, parents) set ourselves up for more work and less appreciation by being available to our children.  By being there every afternoon after school, do they assume we’re the snack purveyor, chauffeur, laundry service, backpack picker-upper?  By doing less – or by being home less, as in working – would they appreciate us and what we do more?  The only time they usually acknowledge what I do is when it’s not done.  So if they are left to do more things for themselves, would they appreciate when I do complete a task for them more?  Because of its special quality, its novelty, or unexpectedness? 

In supporting our children and being there for them, are we making them less able to actualize themselves? 

Don’t get me wrong, I feel the heft of the unloading of a day’s troubles in a walk home from the bus stop.  I cherish the teachable moments that occur as we unpack their belongings and experiences.  I revel in the jokes and laughter as we all come together again at the end of a long stretch of separation.  These are valuable moments – for me and, I hope, for them. 

But the in-between moments. 

The assumption that I will pick up the slack because I don’t answer to a bell-schedule or time-clock.  That the jeans/leggings/sweatshirt they love will always be in the drawer when they reach for it.  That I will unlock the door at the exact moment they reach for the knob even though they have a key hanging from a hook slung over their shoulder. 

Perhaps I am rehashing the existential loop of my own childhood/mother’s experience.  Perhaps I am perpetuating another generation of children who live in a world of the laundry fairy and the fairy godmother, who don’t see the magic beyond the end of their noses because it’s always been there; who don’t sense the wizard behind the curtain because they don’t look long enough to see it ripple – or aren’t allowed to approach and draw it back for themselves. 

Work/life is a balance.  Supporting our children so they can flourish while allowing and urging them to apprentice in their own lives is as well.

It’s ALL in a day’s work. 

A Note to My Children, Aged 43 and 5/12

Disregard my previous missive.

While that advice may have been sound – in a low-level survivalist sort of way – it was ordered toward others rather than centered on you.

Yes, it suggested simple ways to keep the lid on things at home with small children – and you would be the one responsible for completing them – but that’s the only part of YOU that factored into that equation.

It put you at the center of others’ judgment of you – via your home and your housekeeping skills.

Rather than giving you the legacy of neurosis founded on society’s standards of good parenting and homemaking, I challenge you to give yourself the gift of not caring what unexpected guests think of your house; of not deriving your own worth based on how the physical place you share with a slew of other people with their own free wills and sets of hands and collections of things looks.

And if you want to stay in your pajamas all day, please do so without explaining yourself to anyone. You work damn hard and deserve a comfy pair of pants when you want them.

Some Kind of Savant

Most people would probably have a hard time totally fucking up their life in under an hour. But then again, I’m not most people. I’m amazing. I’m like some kind of fuckup savant.

The Art of Crash Landing by Melissa DeCarlo

Cancel Control Freaks

There are no such things as control freaks. They are simply the adult version of children whose autonomy has been wrested from them.

– Jennifer Butler Basile

That may be the single most profound thing I have realized and written in my life.

Ode-o-meter

Measure distance covered in the length of a song

Imagine geographic area given the musicians to roam

Number songs down before destination done

Hit corner by time clock hits the next minute

Shave time off ETA

Not late until start time elapses

Envision window into where you are

Just how close, closer,

            every inch, every minute, every mile

Pray for a well-played EP

Holy Smokes

I was going to say something along the lines of “Holy Therapy Session, Batman!” but this has nothing to do with male superheroes. This is all about the ladies.

The innate power of women.

The smoke is from the top of my head blowing off, my mind exploding. The holy vespers of the spirit swirling around the space.

When something is known with surety, a warmth spreads from your chest, across your shoulder blades, up your neck into a tingling of the scalp. Water rises and pools along the cusp of lashes, glazing the eye in a softened yet magnified lens. The heart swells and throws the arms outward, seeking the embrace – of an idea or confidant or both.

Searching all one’s life for the fiat; once found, the yes is effortless.

The Word

Clerestory

comes to mind

from the white light

spilling down

onto my bed.

A canonical,

conical

shaft from above.

From its singular point of origin,

w i d e n i n g

to envelope me in its illumination.

Just sit

and

Be still.

Breathe in the light.

Irrational Reptile

With tough, leathery skin,
it’s a wonder she moves without notice.

Yet she skulks and slithers
throughout the mind,

the soul,

the psyche

leaving a trail of bad decisions in the name of self-preservation

Seeking only comfort and survival
not peace or progress

After years of hiding in the shadows,
she is an expert at skirting around the edges,
dropping pebbles here,
rolling beads of water down there,
until they gather in a puddle,
pushing behind the eyes
pulsating in the inner ear
an ache in the chest
an unease in the soul

Don’t trust this,
she says.
Run the other way,
she says.
And if you won’t listen,
she whispers ways to sabotage

All so softly that you don’t even question that her voice isn’t your own.

Mother as Refugee, Part II

Stemming from the author’s note I addended to my last piece, I have some more thoughts to share on the idea of mother as refugee.  I alluded to the fact that my musings obviously came from a very ‘first world problem’ place.  Even had I not used that actual phrase, there were many details in my post that gave me away.

Assumption: access to child care

To escape, i.e. leave one’s home, someone else has to watch the kids.  While many mothers may dream of it, the point is moot if there is no one to care for the children in their absence.

Assumption: a partner in child-rearing

Raising one’s children with a support partner – both emotionally and logistically – frees one to care for oneself, offers the space to do so, validates the importance of . . . an act which is exponentially harder without one.

Assumption: financial solvency

My piece presupposes that there is extra room in one’s budget for such frivolity as a fancy coffee drink.  Buying a coffee I could’ve made at home is a luxury I need to plan for in my first world budget.  It’s also a way to secure space in the establishment.  For mothers with low incomes, buying a drink in exchange for a seat isn’t even an option.  This also assumes that one doesn’t first have to pay for child care in order to get some time to oneself, in which case even an overpriced cup of coffee is a drop in the bucket.

Assumption: local resources/community

A latte at a coffee house as self-care is the ultimate example of white mom privilege.  Coffee shops – one really – are also the only places in my mostly rural town that are open in the evenings.  If the library happens to be open when I get the chance to escape, there isn’t a quiet section for me to hide.  I’ve resorted to sitting in my car in some picturesque spot, but that only works during daylight hours in warm weather.  Winter in the Northeast is not conducive to this.  In other words, place plays a large role in the opportunities available to mothers.  If there is no building, no business with availability that suits her schedule and economic needs, there is no escape.   

Assumption: home as a safe and comforting place

Perhaps home as it exists is a very triggering place.  Some mothers may associate their surroundings with abusive episodes or people who live(d) there.  The emotions elicited may be polar opposite to the relaxation response.  Others may be overwhelmed by the sight of dishes to wash or piles of laundry to process, a very real and overwhelming reminder of her daily duties.  Or perhaps others expect her to perform such duties when at home or consider her time squandered.

I cannot assume that I’ve done any justice to the situations I’ve described above.  I cannot presume what it is like to actually live in such conditions.  I only open them in an attempt to unpack some of my own privilege and honor the experience of every mother.

 

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