Tuesday, January 4, 2022

The Heartbreaking Choices of Motherhood

I watched The Lost Daughter on Netflix last week and I haven’t stopped thinking about it. 

You don’t have to be a mother to be moved by it, but if you are a mother, it cuts to the core. The protagonist, Leda, who is played by Olivia Coleman is a young mother but also a brilliant scholar. When her daughters are five and seven years old she leaves them to pursue her career as an academic in the field of comparative literature.

The movie is set during a working holiday Leda is taking in Greece, alone. She is forty-eight-years-old and her daughters are now twenty-three and twenty-five. During her vacation, Leda forms a relationship with a young mother of a daughter who is about the same age as her daughters when she left them.

Throughout the film we are taken back to Leda’s memory of being a young mother; a young woman also trying to pursue an academic career. There are heartwarming and heartwrenching scenes of her life as a young mother. It is clear that Leda loves her daughters but she also loves her work and she is devastatingly torn between the two.

I find myself thinking about the movie at random moments of the day. How could Leda make that choice? And how couldn’t she? In the film, Leda’s husband is also a young scholar and in memory after memory, it is her work, not his that is compromised because of the children.

When Leda finally leaves, her husband begs her to stay. He tells her he cannot do this on his own. He threatens to take the girls to live with Leda’s mother. He drops to his knees, weeping, imploring her to stay. But she can’t. She knows that her work, her brilliant work will die if she stays.

In the end, we learn that Leda left her girls for three years and then came back for them. But the damage was done. Leda had done the unthinkable and left. And though she has clearly reached success in her career, she is eternally haunted by this decision she made those many years ago. Her life is forever changed. She is plagued by having done the unthinkable. 

Leda’s life story is a catch-22 that so many women face. Is it possible, as a mother, to put your career, or to put anything before your children? Even with ample support, an engaged and loving partner, can a woman feel at peace about putting her work before her children?

I think about women like Sheryl Sandberg and Ruth Bader Ginsberg, outliers who parented and excelled in their careers. I wonder how they found balance. I wonder how they found peace. Or if they found peace. Maybe they struggled like Leda. 

At one point in the movie, the young mother Leda befriends in Greece asks Leda how she felt leaving her girls. “Amazing,” Leda replies. This honesty is why Leda’s story was so powerful for me. The natural thing to say would be, “horrible” or “guilty.” But Leda is crushingly honest.

That moment of Leda declaring that being free of her responsibilities of motherhood felt “amazing” is why she could leave her girls in the first place. Several memory scenes in the movie show Leda in a playful relationship with her daughters. She loves them and they adore her. Though young Leda is married, she and the girls spend all their time together and Leda appears to be their sole provider.

But Leda loved her work. She was inspired and dedicated. She was being noticed, receiving acclaim for her brilliance. And there wasn’t room for it. We are taken to a few gut-wrenching scenes of Leda losing all patience with her children, showing nothing but frustration and irritation. 

After so many moments of seeing that she would never have enough time for her work; that these two daughters, constantly in need would always take priority, Leda makes the life-changing decision to walk away from her children. 

In the movie, Leda is playing with her daughters, deeply engaged with them. They are having fun, connecting with each other, but then the girls want more. They need more from her and something shifts in Leda. Slowly she gets up from her chair, even as the girls are calling for her. She puts on her jacket. Her face is steady, solemn, and there are tears in her eyes. She knows that she has to do this, now.

As she walks out the door, her young daughters calling to her, that is the moment when, as a mother, my heart broke. I felt so much sadness for all of them — for the girls, for Leda. That is the moment when their world changed; when the mother-daughter relationship was ruptured. That is the moment that would haunt Leda for the rest of her life. 

I have been thinking about this movie for days and I’m sure I will keep thinking about it. Motherhood is the most amazing experience in the world, but, as Leda so beautifully shows us, it can also be a life-changing heartbreak. Thank you for writing this book Elena Ferrante and Maggie Gyllenhaal for making this movie. I think you are brilliant geniuses.

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