There are so many ways to get motherhood wrong, one mother is told. She can be overbearing or aloof. She may suffocate or neglect. She can mother in such a particularly bad way that she is assigned a bad mother archetype: stage mom, fridge mom, “cool mom.” She can hover like a helicopter mom or bully like a bulldozer mom. But what she can’t do—which is so taboo that it rivals killing her offspring—is leave.
The mother who abandons her children haunts our family stories. She becomes a sinister tabloid figure, an exotic exception to the ordinary father. Or she is sketched into the background of a plot, where her absence gives a protagonist a propelling origin story. This figure arouses our ridicule (think Meryl Streep’s crazy American president in “Don’t Look Up,” who forgets to save her son while fleeing the apocalypse) or our pity (see “Parallel Mothers,” where an actress has her daughter dumped for useless television parts). But lately, the disappearing mother has provoked a new response: respect.
In Maggie Gyllenhaal’s film “The Lost Daughter,” she is Leda (played for two decades by Jessie Buckley and Olivia Colman), a promising translator who abandons her young daughters for several years to pursue her career (and a fling with an Auden scholar). . In HBO’s “Scenes From a Marriage,” a gender-coded remake of Ingmar Bergman’s 1973 miniseries, she is Mira (Jessica Chastain), a Boston technical director who flies to Tel Aviv for an affair disguised as a work project. And in Claire Vaye Watkins’ autofictional novel “I Love You But I’ve Chosen Darkness,” she’s also Claire Vaye Watkins, a novelist who leaves her baby to smoke a ton of weed, sleep with a man who lives in a van lives and confronts her own difficult upbringing.
In any case, her children are not outright abandoned; they are left in the care of fathers and other relatives. When a man leaves like this, he’s inconspicuous. When a woman does it, she becomes a monster, or perhaps an anti-heroine riding a dark maternal fantasy. Feminism has given women options, but choice also means exclusion, and women, being people, don’t always know what they want. As these protagonists collide with their own decisions, they also collide with the limits of that freedom, revealing how women’s choices are rarely socially supported, but always thoroughly judged.
A mother who loses her children is a nightmare. The title of “The Lost Daughter” refers in part to one such incident, when a child disappears on the beach. only a mother leave her children – that is a daydream, an imagined but suppressed alternative life. In the reboot of “Sex and the City” “And Just Like That…”, Miranda – now the mother of a teenager – advises a professor who is considering having children. “There are so many nights that I would love to be a judge and go home to an empty house,” she says. And on Instagram, the airbrush of motherhood is challenged by expressions of raw despair. The Not Safe for Mom Group, which unearths confessions from anonymous moms, pulses with vain threats of denial of role, such as, “I want to be alone!!! I don’t want to make you lunch!!”
Being alone: that is the mother’s reasonable and functionally impossible dream. Especially recently, when escape routes were closed: schools closed, nurseries suspended, offices closed, jobs lost or abandoned in crisis. Now the house is never empty, and 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 kids at the same time, from the floor of a lawless living room.
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Cards on the table: I struggle to compose this essay on my phone as my pantsless toddler — banned from daycare for 10 days because someone has Covid — wages a tireless campaign to requisition my device, hold it to his ear, and say hewwo. I feel charmed, annoyed, and concerned, as I wonder if his neediness is due to a parental defect, perhaps related to my own constant phone use.
Do I want to abandon my child? No, but I’m re-attuned to the psychological headroom of a woman who does. The Auden scholar of “The Lost Daughter” (played, in an inspired bit of casting, by Gyllenhaal’s husband, Peter Sarsgaard), seduces Leda by quoting Simone Weil, “Attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity.” Attention is a loaded word: it can mean caring for another, as well as a 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 it hair. To be blunt, she wants to work and have sex. Often in these stories the two are linked in a hyper-individualistic fusion of romantic careers. In “Scenes from a Marriage,” Mira plans to tell her daughter, “I have to leave for work, which is true” — only because she’s arranged a professional commitment to facilitate her affair with an Israeli startup brother. Her gateway to abandonment is, as is often the case, a business trip. Mira first wanders off 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 journey 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 may notice her absence somewhere with school secret disapproval. In Caitlin Flanagan’s 2012 indictment of Joan Didion, re-circulated after Didion’s death, Flanagan scolds Didion for taking a film job across the country, leaving her 3-year-old daughter behind for Christmas.
Yet there is something absurd about designing work as the ultimate escape. It is only remotely plausible if our desperate mother enjoys a high status creative position (translator, novelist, thought leader.) When other mothers depart from fiction, their fantasies are quickly revealed as delusional. In Nicole Dennis-Benn’s novel ‘Patsy’, a Jamaican secretary abandons her daughter to pursue an American dream in New York, only to become a nanny looking after someone else’s children. And in Jessamine Chan’s dystopian novel “The School for Good Mothers,” Frida is sleep deprived and drowns in 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 fantasy life is short and bleak: she escapes to her office, where she sends emails. For this, she is enlisted in a re-education camp for bad mothers.
Each of our absent mothers has her reasons. Leda’s academic husband has prioritized his career over hers, and this makes her decisions readable, even sympathetic. But in ‘I Love You But I’ve Chosen Darkness’ Watkins does not give her doppelganger any exculpatory circumstances. Claire has a doula, daycare, Obamacare breast pump, tenure track job, several therapists and the world’s most understanding husband. When she goes to sleep in a hammock on campus, her husband says, “I think it’s cool that you follow your … heart, or … whatever happens … out there.” Nothing obvious prevents her from giving capable motherhood, but like Bartleby, the carrier, she just would rather not.
By giving Claire privileges, Watkins suggests there are burdens of motherhood that cannot be solved with money, lifted by a co-parent, or cured by a mental health professional. The problem is motherhood itself, and the ideal of total selfless devotion. Motherhood had turned Claire into a “white person,” a figure who “didn’t seem to think much” and “had trouble finishing her sentences.” As these women discover, their menu of life choices isn’t that extensive after all. They long to be offered another position: Dad. Claire wants to “act like a man, a little bad.” As Mira leaves abruptly, she assures her husband, “Men always do it.”
These women may leave, but they won’t quite get away with it. Mira eventually loses both her job and her boyfriend and begs for her old life back. Leda’s abandonment becomes a dark secret in a thriller that culminates in a violent ending. Only Claire is curiously insensitive to consequences. She follows her selfish impulses into the desert, where she spends her days alone in a tent crying and masturbating. Then she calls her husband, who flies towards her, happy toddler in tow; eventually Claire claims a life where she can “read and write and nap and teach and enjoy and smoke” and see her daughter during breaks. By not inflicting cosmic punishment on Claire, Watkins refuses to facilitate the reader’s judgment. But she also makes it harder to care.
When I was pregnant, I also had a fantasy. In it, I was single, childless, somehow still very young, living an alternative life in a van in Wyoming. Reading “I love you but I have chosen the darkness” broke the spell. As Claire ripped bongs and circled new sexual partners, she struck me not as a monster or a hero, but as something perhaps worse: boring. Even as these stories work to expose the complex emotional truths of motherhood, they indulge in their own little fiction: that a mother doesn’t become interesting until she stops being one.