In a recent interview, Elena Ferrante was asked what she thought of the latest adaptation of one of her novels, Maggie Gyllenhaal’s The Lost Daughter. “I generally avoid praising a film on the basis of its fidelity to the book,” she replied with diffidence. “A good novel is elusive; as a film-maker you don’t ever really possess it, you only get an idea of it and you work on that idea.” As for Gyllenhaal’s film, it has, she said, “the faithfulness of betrayal.”
Fans of books that have been adapted into films have much to learn from Ferrante’s counsel. Loving a book can make it hard for a reader to appreciate the film based on it; worse, it can make them into pedantic killjoys: “Hamlet is not 45 years old!” While of parochial interest to fans of the book, from the perspective of the film, the question of whether it “captures” the letter or spirit of the original is irrelevant. A screenwriter and director are free to draw as much or as little from the source material as they wish—a filmmaker works only on “an idea” of the book, as Ferrante says—and the final product ought to be judged as the work of art that it is, not as an attempt at cinematic facsimile of the original.
It is necessary to state our support for Ferrante’s approach to evaluating film adaptations upfront not in order to inform readers of proper critical etiquette, but because we are about to violate it. In the case of Gyllenhaal’s film, the flaws are directly related to its unfaithfulness to the original. This is not because, as Richard Brody argued for the New Yorker, the film cannot do justice to the rich inner world revealed in the digressive first-person narration of the novel—film has never been a natural medium for inner monologue—but because the film attempts to maintain the scaffolding of the plot of the book while systematically withholding half the story. The result is not just lopsided, it’s incoherent. For, unlike the impression one might receive from the critical response to the film, The Lost Daughter is not only a story about a mother who leaves her children; it’s a story about a mother who leaves her children and returns.
The film follows Leda Caruso, a middle-aged English professor on holiday in Greece, and traces the circumstances that lead to her collapse, previewed in the opening scene, on the water’s edge at night. Caruso, the mother of two daughters in their early twenties, is a comparative literature professor. After the manner of a particularly insufferable kind of undergrad, she cannot help but make sure you know where exactly she teaches by repeating, in a cleaned-up middle-class English accent, that she is from “Cambridge, near Boston.” Also in the manner of a certain kind of undergrad, she has traveled all the way to Greece to mark up a copy of Dante on the beach. There she becomes fascinated with a fellow vacationer, Nina (Dakota Johnson), a young mother of a child of almost three named Elena. The mother and daughter belong to a clan of outer-borough New York City riffraff with ties to the island, complete with gold chains, tattoos and copious quantities of drugstore-variety water-resistant eyeliner. (From the beginning, the film’s aesthetic is fully committed to arthouse gravitas but the portrayal of the family, in particular, frequently threatens to slip into caricature. Think My Big Fat Greek Wedding meets Jersey Shore: “Hey, what’s the big deal?” Nina’s Greek father-in-law says to Leda with a Corleone drawl: “You do us this favor today, we’ll do a favor for you tomorrow…”) In their first encounter on the beach, Leda stares as Elena pours water over the lithe, swimsuited body of Nina, who is lounging like an odalisque in nineteenth-century painting, languorous and detached. Leda seems to recognize something of herself in Nina’s manner, and especially in her relationship to the child. A subsequent series of disappearances—of the girl and then her doll—provokes Leda to interject herself into Nina’s life. In the first instance, Leda retrieves the wandering child. In the second, she takes and keeps the doll to herself. For the rest of her stay on the island Leda watches as the loss torments the child, who, inconsolable, clings violently to an increasingly exasperated Nina. Meanwhile, Nina and Leda become friendly—chatting at the beach and tourist market—and Nina seems to look at this older independent woman with some combination of coy admiration and envy.
We do not see the moment Leda makes the fateful choice to steal the child’s doll. Once in her possession, Leda washes the doll, attempts to expunge the brown sludge inside her, creepily dresses and caresses her. When she finally returns the doll to Nina, the young mother, incensed, demands an explanation. She doesn’t know why she took it, Leda says, and, when pressed, offers what seems like a non sequitur: “I’m an unnatural mother.” On her way out, Nina turns around and stabs Leda in her side with a hat pin. Weakened and stupefied, Leda manages to pack her things, kick her suitcases down the stairs and drive off. In the penultimate scene she stops the car and walks down to the water. In the final moments of the film, it is morning, she is awake on the beach, and she is on the phone with her daughters, whom we are meant to imagine on the other side prattling on about their lives, ignorant of their mother’s ordeal.
The strange plot of the doll’s abduction is punctuated with flashbacks to Leda’s past as a young mother to two small girls. An exhausted Leda, a graduate student and budding literary translator, is besieged by the annoying children’s demands, who whine, hit her and destroy her favorite doll. Her relationship with her husband—too busy with work to help—is strained; their sex is bad. Everything changes when an American comparative literature scholar—portrayed rather convincingly as a critical-theory sleazeball by Peter Sarsgaard—praises Leda’s work publicly at a conference, giving her a first seductive taste of intellectual validation and professional success. An affair ensues. But this is not enough. Not long after, Leda commits the ultimate act of betrayal: she leaves.
This past haunts Leda’s present. The flashbacks to young Leda’s life are shot in warm tones, using light-filled close-up camerawork that evokes the transcendental cinematography of Terrence Malick, or a commercial for SSRIs. The present-day scenes are harsher and moodier, suffused with suspense and dread. The physical setting is barely comfortable despite its postcard beauty—the lighthouse’s glare and ominous foghorn penetrate into the apartment, as if in search of an escaped felon; the complimentary fruit bowl is literally rotting; a cicada makes a cameo as the world’s largest bedbug. Interpersonal interaction is equally strained. Nina’s heavily pregnant sister-in-law, Callie, constantly invades Leda’s personal space: she tries to move her from her spot at the beach, feed her cake, rub her injured back with miracle ointment (“it’s amazing!”). (Reviewers have noted that the transposition of the characters from their Italian cultural context has obscured the way that the Neapolitans remind Leda of her own coarse background—concentrated in the figure of her own mother. None have commented on the subtler ways the film rings false in its attempts to graft Ferrantean social idioms onto Anglo-American tourists in Greece circa 2019.)
Gyllenhaal tries to express most of the emotional subtext of the book in dialogue, with uneven results. When the Callie character in the book says children “put us through so much,” Leda merely thinks to herself, “already she wanted to enter the circle of us mothers”—an arch thought, but not necessarily an unsympathetic one. The film’s Leda, however, retorts caustically: “I thought you said you’re pregnant with your first?” Indeed, Gyllenhaal’s Leda comes off as far more openly hostile and aggressive, and more emotionally incontinent, than her novelistic counterpart, with Colman ramping up her performance to match the barbed lines in the script. She is by turns cool and put together, prickly and antisocial, solicitous and eager to please. She delivers associative, frenetic and overly intimate monologues to strangers—focused on the subject of her daughters, her own mother and the web of inheritances that bind and alienate them from one another—in a manner that suggests she is constantly on the verge of a breakdown. This, we are led to believe, is the price of motherhood.
For its courage to portray such an apparently unsympathetic mother tenderly, without condemnation or judgment, the film has received much critical acclaim, some deserved. “Leda is often rude and unkind,” Lydia Kiesling wrote for the New York Times Magazine, but the performances “allow the viewer to inhabit her desperation, rendering judgment irrelevant.” The combined result is a rare, truly realistic representation of motherhood through the ages: “a crafty treatise on maternal ambivalence” (the Washington Post), “an astute portrait of the painful expectations of womanhood” (Paste).
No doubt, frank portrayals of the tedium and pain involved in raising young children serve the important function of normalizing the bouts of impatience, frustration and anger that are par for the course for parents. Sympathetic representations of such unflattering moments help reassure young mothers that their own struggles to maintain composure and cheer are not idiosyncratic. But reviewers see much more in the film: it breaks a code of silence, they say, freeing us from the harmful cultural prohibition on speaking the truth about the challenges of motherhood and how hard it can really be for women to embrace it. This assessment is almost unanimous: The film “unravels the myth that motherhood comes naturally to women” and shatters “one of our culture’s most enduring and least touchable taboos: the selfish, uncaring, ‘unnatural’ mother—one who doesn’t shift easily to care-taking, who does not relish her role, who not only begrudges but resents her children” (the Guardian); it is “breaking the taboo on regretful motherhood” (the New Republic); it “understands the secret shame of motherhood,” challenging “Hollywood’s ideas about what women owe to their children—and to themselves” (the Atlantic). The film unsettles “the comfortable fantasy of selfless motherhood and whose interests it most serves” (Vanity Fair). Leading the assessments of the film’s significance is Gyllenhaal herself, who, in an interview with the New York Times, described maternal ambivalence as “a secret anxiety or terror” and said she was driven to make the film out of a desire to “create a situation where … these things were actually spoken out loud.” On this view, the film does not merely bring to light a particular form of suffering, it performs an ideological service of historic proportions.
Such hyperbolic assessments stretch credulity. Is it really a “secret” that a woman may be neither a “fantasy mother” nor a monster? Is the possibility of selfish, uncaring mothers an “untouchable taboo”? Euripedes’s Medea, a mainstay of the Western dramatic repertoire since the Renaissance, was one of the most frequently performed Greek tragedies in the twentieth century. Shakespeare’s Lady Macbeth brags that she would dash out the brains of her nursing baby, if her ambition required it, “while it was smiling in my face.” Perhaps these are what Gyllenhaal would call “monstrous mothers,” mere reversals of the fantasy of perfection. So let’s read on. The nineteenth century teems with novel heroines like Emma Bovary and Anna Karenina who, though not monsters, abnegate maternal duties for the chance to fulfill other desires, usually romantic. These literary celebrities are joined by a slew of supporting cast members who less dramatically but just as clearly lack in maternal feeling—mothers who begrudge having to stay at home with injured children rather than go to parties (Mary in Jane Austen’s Persuasion), mothers who devote themselves so thoroughly to moral causes that they become indifferent to their own children’s well-being (Mrs. Jellyby in Charles Dickens’s Bleak House). Ibsen’s Nora is at first a paragon of nineteenth-century motherly virtue but becomes disillusioned with her marriage and opts to leave her family rather than stay with a self-absorbed, inconsiderate man. Moving into the twentieth century, in Edith Wharton’s novel The Custom of the Country, Undine Spragg neglects her son, whom she sees as standing in the way of her social climbing. Lolita’s Charlotte Haze is vain, lusty and selfish; she is not only so completely oblivious to Humbert Humbert’s predations on her daughter as to raise the question of how much her will is implicated in her blindness but actively resentful of Lolita for interfering with her attempts at seducing him. Rabbit, Run’s Janice Angstrom accidentally drowns her baby. To these literary works there were added in the twentieth century feminist tracts (Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex, Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique) that exposed the misery that afflicted women who were confined to the home, and explicitly attacked the idea that caretaking comes “naturally” to women. Thinkers like Adrienne Rich and bell hooks warned that characterizing women as essentially possessing maternal traits was detrimental to the very possibility of gender equality.
In our own time, the strained attitude of women to motherhood has often taken center stage. In Michael Cunningham’s 1998 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, The Hours, as well as in the Stephen Daldry 2002 film adaptation, the character Laura Brown, a former housewife, refuses to apologize for leaving her children in infancy. Staying was not a viable option: “It was death. I chose life.” In her 2001 memoir, A Life’s Work, Rachel Cusk depicted her pregnancy, birth and the difficult first year of her motherhood as an assault on her very being as a woman and writer. In a variation on a theme first explored by Doris Lessing in The Fifth Child (1988), who herself left two children with their father in order to move to London and pursue her writing career, in We Need to Talk about Kevin (the 2003 Lionel Shriver novel, and the 2011 Lynne Ramsay film) the mother of a psychopathic murderous teenager is haunted by the possibility that her own ambivalence towards motherhood had created or exacerbated his condition. One gets a good sense of just how common representations of flawed, absent mothers actually are when one does a little cinematic genealogy: In Gyllenhaal’s film, Nina is played by Dakota Johnson. In 1997, Johnson’s own mother, Melanie Griffith, played Charlotte Haze in Lolita, and before her, in 1963, Johnson’s maternal grandmother, Tippi Hedren, starred in Hitchcock’s The Birds as a woman who is abandoned by her mother in childhood.
The theme is not exclusive to high- and middlebrow books and films. Married… with Children (1987-1997), a successful prime-time TV show about a lower-class couple and their children, starred Katey Sagal as a lazy stay-at-home mom who spends her days watching talk shows, pestering her husband for money and ignoring her children. The show went on to become one of the longest running live-action sitcoms on American television. More recently, the bawdy comedies Bad Moms (2016) and A Bad Moms Christmas (2017) earned a combined $313 million at the box office. The following year (2018) Diablo Cody and Jason Reitman completed their unofficial trilogy (having previously worked together on Juno and Young Adult) with Tully, the story of a third-time mom who is so overwhelmed by the arrival of her latest child she hallucinates a spritely helper—a version of her younger, childless self, equal parts Mary Poppins and manic pixie dream girl. In the same time period, “Mama Needs Wine” merch has become a top seller on Etsy.
“In most films,” Emily Gould writes in Vanity Fair, “a child’s bath time symbolizes tender innocence and womblike safety.” But the most memorable recent scene of bath time portrayed on screen, from Mare of Easttown, involves a young mother recovering from an opiate addiction passing out from exhaustion while her young boy nearly drowns. (She later relapses and loses her hope of regaining custody over him.) The myth that motherhood “will give something without taking something irreparable and valuable away” is “so deeply woven into our culture,” laments Adrian Horton in the Guardian—but who exactly believes today that motherhood does not exact costs? Who ever has? Already in Genesis—no more than three chapters in—we see God cursing Eve: “In pain you shall bring forth children.” To Gyllenhaal, the story of The Lost Daughter exposes the entrenched myth of the “natural mother.” But we need merely to switch from Netflix to HBO to find, in the penultimate episode of the third season of the TV show Succession, Caroline, ex-wife of the grand patriarch Logan Roy and mother to the three contenders to his throne, telling her own daughter: “Truth is, I probably should never have had children. … Some people just aren’t made to be mothers.”
It is difficult to determine how commonplace and acceptable an idea really is, but even such a partial list suffices to establish that there’s little forbidden in acknowledging that many mothers feel and, indeed, are far from perfect. If this is so, we must ask: Where does the impetus to insist otherwise among the film’s reviewers come from? Why are we so invested in the idea of the taboo in the first place? These are the questions that call for us to return to the novel: not to judge Gyllenhaal for diverging from her source material but in order to understand the impulse that motivates the particular misreading that seems to have appealed both to her and to the film’s critics. For part of the greatness of Ferrante’s novel is the way in which it sharply anticipates our desire for simple answers to the problem posed by motherhood.
The Lost Daughter is not the story of a mother who abandons her family. It’s a story of a mother who leaves her daughters and returns to them. Gyllenhaal retains this development in her adaptation as a bare fact. But while Gyllenhaal gives us ample material through which to understand and empathize with Leda’s departure, she obscures and at points straightforwardly reverses those elements in the novel that could help us comprehend the struggling mother’s decision to return.
For Gyllenhaal’s Leda, staying with her daughters involves a tremendous repressive effort. Leaving them, she tells Nina, “felt amazing… It felt like I had been trying not to explode, and then I exploded.” In the film we see Leda struggle to find time for work, an outlet for her sexual desire and avenues for intellectual stimulation. It is not hard to see why, finally unburdened, Leda feels so good. At the same time, we see almost nothing to render intelligible why, once liberated, the same woman eventually goes back. In the final exchange, Nina poses to Leda this very question. Here Leda’s answer is straightforward, shorn of figurative language, and borders on cliche: “I’m their mother. I went back ’cause I missed them. I’m a very selfish person.” This is the only explanation she gives in the film for her return and it is delivered by Colman in a matter-of-fact staccato, telegraphing defensive, almost irritated, self-condemnation that leaves no room for further explanation.
In the novel, by contrast, Leda’s leaving her daughters is not an act of unambiguous liberation. It is, among other things, a mistake—a human one, but a mistake nonetheless—that the protagonist is relieved to have recognized as early as she did. In the book, Nina’s questioning performs an important function for Leda, too. Nina asks the very questions that Leda’s own daughters, in their pain, could never pose: Why did you leave? Why did you return? In response, Leda is finally able to speak truthfully of her past, not simply to warn Nina (“It doesn’t pass, none of this passes!” Gyllenhaal’s Leda proclaims to Nina moments before she gets stabbed), but in an attempt to convey an irresolvable, intrinsic ambivalence. What was hardest for the young Leda in the novel was not keeping all her pent-up energies—sexual, intellectual, creative, destructive—under control but the weight of her tremendous, terrible love for her girls: “I loved them too much and it seemed to me that love for them would keep me from becoming myself.” The figure Leda reaches for to express what it was like to leave them is not of an orgasmic explosion but of disintegration: “It was as if my whole self had crumbled, and the pieces were falling freely in all directions with a sense of contentment.” The self breaks up, scatters. She tells Nina, “I was too taken by my own life” to feel “sad,” but she felt a persistent “weight right here, as if I had a stomachache,” and her “heart skipped a beat whenever I heard a child call Mama.”
This exchange—at once probing and confrontational—marks the emotional climax of the novel and inaugurates its final movement. Here Ferrante captures genuine maternal ambivalence: the way that the sacrifices and frustrations of motherhood are intertwined and coeval with its pull and rewards. The possibility of escape engrosses Nina but Leda refuses to endorse it. Nina is confused: “You felt bad, then, not good.” She wants to pin Leda down, but Leda won’t let her: “I was like someone who is taking possession of her own life, and feels a host of things at the same time, among them an unbearable absence.” To explain her eventual return, Leda does not supply her with irritated or rote phrases; instead:
I chose my words carefully.
“Because I realized that I wasn’t capable of creating anything of my own that could truly equal them.”
She had a sudden contented smile.
“So you returned for love of your daughters.”
“No, I returned for the same reason I left: for love of myself.”
She again took offense.
“What do you mean?”
“That I felt more useless and desperate without them than with them.”
Leda’s answer that she “wasn’t capable of creating anything” of her own that could equal the children echoes a pivotal earlier moment from her encounter with two traveling hitchhikers, who had abruptly left their jobs and families to be together. Before leaving, the woman asks Leda for something of hers to read. “Of mine,” Leda reflects, “I savored the formulation—something of mine.” In telling Nina that she realized she could not create anything of her own that could equal the daughters, Leda signals that what made it possible for her to return was the discovery that her daughters, too, were her creation, perhaps the best creation she was capable of. Leaving them did not free her from feelings of uselessness and desperation, it augmented them. She returns when she is able to find room for her love for her daughters as an inalienable part of her own identity, alongside the others; when loving them becomes not what would keep her from “becoming herself” but a necessary condition of becoming, and loving, that self. (And this is a statement that remains true for Leda even though the relationship she returns to, a difficult one to begin with, is obviously complicated and strained by the act of abandonment.)
In Ferrante, the notion that children are a threat to a woman’s independence, possibly even her life, is central. This anxiety, which characterizes Gyllenhaal’s adaptation and underlies the critical responses to it, dominates Leda’s outlook in her younger days, and it is one that Nina feels pulled by. But it is notable that, for Ferrante, what counts as a character accomplishment is not just developing this perspective, but moving through it, surviving it. During the critical exchange between the two protagonists, Nina conjectures that Leda must have returned because she was disappointed by whatever she was looking for outside the family home. Leda resists the interpretation: “Nina,” Leda says, “what I was looking for was a confused tangle of desires and great arrogance. If I had been unlucky it would have taken me my whole life to realize it. But I was lucky and it took only three years. Three years and thirty-six days.”
It is hard to tell whether the film’s version of Leda, under Gyllenhaal’s direction, is as fortunate. For most of the film, she seems to embody, still, not much more than “a confused tangle of desires and great arrogance.” And the flattening of the character seems to be more than an accidental omission: Gyllenhaal cut from the final version of the film the only reference in her original screenplay to Leda’s ambivalence (“It felt like a lot of things,” Leda says, after Nina reminds her that she called leaving home “amazing”).
The result is not just a less intricate or less interesting character sketch. Without the astute combination of growth, hindsight and regret that Ferrante captures in the novel, Leda’s actions in that beach town are inscrutable. Why did she steal the doll? In Gyllenhaal’s telling, when Leda witnesses Nina and Elena on the beach, it stirs up agonizing memories of her unhappy life as a young mother. She is, as we would say today, “triggered.” But in Ferrante’s novel, Leda’s encounter with Nina does not just bring back bad memories. It is cathartic—offering a chance at a kind of redemption.
With a better grasp on Leda’s genuine ambivalence, it is possible to recognize, first, how a haunted Leda projects her guilt on the discontented young mother, and, second, why Leda provokes Nina to exact her revenge on her. In taking the doll, Leda turns the screws on the relationship of young mother and toddler, forcing it to become increasingly more like the relationship Leda had with her own daughters. Withholding the doll from Nina, from this perspective, is a form of symbolic self-punishment: Leda makes the young mother suffer for her disaffection and inattentiveness, for her self-absorption and impatience, as she, Leda, deserves to suffer for her own. But the story cannot find meaningful resolution here. By using Nina in this way, Leda repeats her original transgression: once more, she is making a young child endure a painful loss and in turn causes a young woman—who is all the while treating her as a mother figure—to suffer. A merely symbolic self-punishment turns out to be just another act of selfishness. On some level, Leda seems to know this: throughout the story she keeps neglecting to properly hide the doll, tempting fate and risking its discovery. The return of the doll is, we can now see, a staging of what Leda needs most, to encounter her daughters’ crushing disappointment, to face their hurt and their rage.
In the last pages of the novel, Leda, shortly after getting stabbed, receives a call from her daughters. Their words, in the novel, take the form of the very pleas they would have made all those years ago, when they were abandoned in their early childhood, and have barely managed to express since:
“Mama, what are you doing, why haven’t you called? Won’t you at least let us know if you’re alive or dead?”
Deeply moved, I murmured:
“I’m dead, but I’m fine.”
Leda is “deeply moved” because the questions the daughters ask mark just how far they have come since their days of abandonment. Now, they can ask her why she hasn’t called, whether she is okay, now that they know not to fear the answer. Leda’s response, and the final line of the novel, resonates with a statement she delivers to Nina in her first hasty attempt at explaining why she left: “Sometimes you have to escape in order not to die.” (It, too, does not appear in Gyllenhaal’s film.) Submitting herself to Nina’s punishment, Leda does not try to run, and she does not try to save herself. Herein lies the key to Leda’s decision to return: sometimes you do not have to escape in order to live, after all. And sometimes, it is alright to die.
The novel demonstrates a point at the very heart of Ferrante’s whole oeuvre: the challenges of motherhood are no doubt exacerbated by adverse social conditions—economic hardship, sexism—but the deepest ambivalence that accompanies the experience of motherhood can never be eliminated. It is no more possible to escape it than it is to escape the child-mother relationship itself. To give life to someone else is always to give away something of your own and to saddle yourself with a love that can be almost unbearable. A child’s life really does come at the cost of yours. But Ferrante’s novels, which cover decades and span multiple generations, remind the reader that no matter how hard we might try, life cannot be hoarded. Every life is a life that will be lost. We grow up, we grow old, we lose our youth and strength and eventually we lose the sources of creativity and inspiration that make it possible for us to create something new of our own. This is true whether or not we have children. If we have them, along the way, we can at least pass on something of what we lose to someone else. This possibility—of sharing our life, entrusting that which we will lose to someone else—may be one good reason not to try to escape, after all.
Gyllenhaal’s Leda does not know of such reasons and, in an exact reversal, declares herself very much alive. Her daughters call her as she wakes up on the shore, still bleeding from the puncture wound:
“I left you so many messages, I thought you were dead.”
“Are you alright, mama?”
“No, I’m alive, actually.”
Among the things Ferrante told the interviewer she’d missed from the original, she included, alongside her emphasis on the happy moments Leda shares with her daughters, “the curt sentence that ends my story.”
What interests Gyllenhaal most, she told the Atlantic, is those “aspects of all of us that are unlikable and mean, that are unkind.” For Gyllenhaal, the goal of the adaptation is not just to show that in all of us there is darkness, cruelty and blindness to our flaws; she wants to say, further, that it is unjust that we cannot wear them proudly: “This fantasy that … those parts of ourselves are not allowed to be expressed puts us in a box about our own relationship to the world.” Mothers should be whatever they can be, whatever they want to be. Here, Gyllenhaal conflates an important distinction: between the repression of the artistic expression of our flaws, of our humanity, and the equally human longing to overcome those flaws, to be good.
To return to our basic question: Why must we believe that the taboo against “unnatural mothers” continues to persist in so many damaging forms? Why must we insist that acknowledging that motherhood is difficult—that it requires work and effort and can at times be miserable—is a truth that cannot be expressed? Perhaps the best answer is the simplest: Parenting is hard—the demands of caring for dependent, growing human beings with their own distinct personalities, needs and faults can, as Leda says, feel like a “crushing responsibility.” And no doubt, women still feel this most acutely. It is something you can and will fail at from time to time—maybe, to some degree, at all times. You will lose patience, you will get frustrated, you will be bored. You will let your children down. The prospect, and the daily reality, of failing one’s children can be so intolerable that it is always tempting to imagine that this suffering has external causes. That the ideal we hold ourselves to is an unreasonable expectation based on false premises—rather than something fundamental to the relationship itself. Even though we might not live up to it, the desire to be a good mother—to do right by our children, to ensure they know they’re worthy of love, that they will always be cared for, to raise them to be good, happy people themselves—is not just a false image, imposed from the outside by patriarchy, capitalism or Hollywood. It is etched deep within us. From our first days on earth we feel the caress of a mother’s love; we bear the marks of her insufficiencies. Both have made us who we are, and no amount of myth-busting or taboo-shattering can change that.
There is, of course, some comfort to be had in the thought that the things that cause us pain reside outside us—that, like a witch’s curse, we could break their spell by uttering the right words, saying the right things (or, like the young Leda, turning our backs to them and walking out the door). But this too is a myth.