On The Lost Daughter, the physicality of motherhood, and the impossibility of escape
While I was away from this newsletter, I took a beach vacation with my kids and husband. When Jon and I first began planning our trip, it was a kind of post-pandemic dream. We hadn’t traveled beyond the mainland since before we married. We never took a traditional honeymoon. We imagined ourselves reclining with little umbrella drinks in some very White Lotus-y spot, gazing out over the ocean, watching the kids play, the pandemic fading with the sun. I know!
Jon had never been to Hawaii, but his parents once vacationed there. I had traveled there with my parents once when I was a kid before they divorced. They told me stories about how they had lived in Kona, where my sister was born, before I came along. I later learned the trouble in their marriage that occurred off stage, but that trip remains one of the only memories I have of belonging to a normal, nuclear family. It was a feeling I wanted for my two kids.
When Covid started spiking again in December, Jon and I discussed cancelling. We agonized about the decision for days. We didn’t want to be out the money we had spent, and since it was a trip to be taken with extended family, some of whom had given us financial support for our travel expenses, we felt the pressure to go. It didn’t feel like things would get better soon, or ever. We got sad and depressed. We live in California, where things didn’t yet feel too dire in early December, but we still felt ashamed by the indulgence of vacationing at the end of the world.
We also didn’t want to give up the only joy we had planned for the year, a trip we could only afford because we had squirreled away funds we had saved when I took on the burden of childcare during school and daycare closures – because I was both working from home and not paying for childcare, an arrangement that drove everyone in the house mad. I’ve barely left the house since then, since I’m able to work from home. We have an under 5 kid, but the rest of us are fully vaccinated. We test frequently (but not too frequently!). My children don’t complain about mask-wearing because we’ve taught them about protecting their community. We have been privileged in many ways during all this.
But our house has also often been a locus of anxiety, rage, uncertainty, depression. I’ve seen my daughter worry about her body betraying her, about death and illness. She spent her kindergarten year on the couch Zooming, with a debilitating fear of playing outside after a bee sting. And I have snapped at my children, lost my cool, wounded them because of my own isolation and sadness and confusion.
So, we invested in good masks and kids’ face shields and decided to go. While we were away, the kids surfed for the first time and built moats around wonky sand structures. We swam in the ocean and went down hotel water slides together. We ate (strictly) outdoors and took in sunsets. At night, in our hotel room, the kids asleep in a bed beside us, Jon and I watched HGTV and dreamed of relocating somewhere we could afford to buy a house.
On our last full day, I helped row an outrigger canoe over soft ocean waves with a few relatives, scattering the ashes of a family member who we lost in the Spring of 2020, when we couldn’t gather to mourn. Later, Jon, the kids and I floated dried rose petals into the sea, commemorating Jon’s mother, who we also lost during the pandemic. He showed the kids a picture his father had taken, many years earlier, of his mother in a muumuu. When we came home, my daughter sobbed that the trip was over.
There are many things I could say about making decisions as a parent, and especially a mother, during a never-ending pandemic. Mothers are America’s only social safety net, but also its affective safety net, constantly processing feelings of fear, grief, terror, and anxiety. We leave emotions to the private sphere in America, only trotting them out in public as pathos, as rhetoric, then stuffing them back into homes, into the bodies of mothers, wagging our fingers when moms make the wrong moves. Mothers have become affective trash cans, into which everything uncared for is dumped. They receive no support and are to blame for everything. Decision making is getting harder, not only because we’re overwhelmed by the sheer volume of risk mitigation, but because we are finding it hard to do the right thing, to know what that thing is. Meanwhile, no one in charge here cares about us at all.
Our bodies have no doubt been deeply marked in ways we don’t yet understand by the feelings we have been forced to carry around in recent years (and before). The demoralization we feel in motherhood only echoes the demoralization we feel being women in America. All of us need a break that doesn’t seem to be coming any time soon. Many of us feel dead inside.
After we returned from our trip, I watched The Lost Daughter, a film about two mothers on a seaside vacation. Nina is a young mother, a sexual creature balancing the desires of her child with the desires of her husband. Leda is an older mother, the work of caring for children seemingly over for her, save a few emotionally distant phone calls with her grown daughters.
When we first meet Nina, Leda is eating an ice cream cone alone, a kind of sad sensual moment. Later, she watches as Nina’s daughter pours water on Nina’s tanned, taut body. The child goes on with this for some time. Nina’s tolerance for the game feels saintly. It seems Nina might burst at any moment, might suddenly yell, or shoo the child away. She never does. She’s just a body, being used by the child.
I had similar moments on my recent trip, and on other little vacations I’ve taken with my children before. Moments where I let my children have their way with me. It’s part of why I love going away with my kids. For a short span of time, I pretend I am only a mother, with no other ambitions, no other aspirations. It’s part of the fantasy. I let them tell me what to do and where to go in the ocean or the swimming pool, anonymous and hollow. I stop aiming for the impossibility of being a mother in America and retaining a body and mind that belong to me. I refuse to intellectualize anything. I rarely read or write. I carry my children everywhere, they sleep on me like they did when they were babies, we eat up the sun.
Sometimes I get the feeling that I could go on this way, as nothing other than a caregiver, a lover, a curator of joy. But I’ve been down that road before and have learned that the endless physicality and the disappearing required in such a life would destroy me.
And anyway: the temporary utopia of tending only to my children is eventually ruptured. A child won’t sleep, or loses their favored object, or doesn’t get what they want, or eats too much candy, all ending in scenes where the premise of rest or restoration or just being a mother is punctured by the inescapable need of my children: their tugging and yanking and wailing. I circle back to where I came from, wondering what being a mother even is.
I am reminded in such moments of something I knew even before the pandemic. Even before vacations were colored by the fear of getting sick or making others sick or what life would be like when we went home or whether this is just now the way things are now and always will be – tinged with a fear we try not to deny but have to ignore on occasion. I am reminded that to be a mother on vacation is to be reminded that mothers never get a vacation.
In another scene in The Lost Daughter, in a toy store, Nina attempts to have a breezy conversation with Leda. Nina’s daughter is in the middle of a ongoing meltdown. She’s lost her doll. (Spoiler: Leda has taken it, she’s “playing” with Nina.) Leda watches as Nina tries to ignore the child. It’s clear now that Nina’s patience is frayed, that this is all familiar to Leda, as it is to every mother watching the film. Nina struggles to stay composed, to not push her daughter away, to ignore the needs of her own body, to pretend that she is have a relaxing vacation and capable of small talk in a store. But she is not.
Eventually, Nina breaks off to yell at her daughter in a strained, hushed, angry, embarrassed voice. Nina tries to put the child down, but she clings harder to Nina, refusing to let go. Nina’s sister volunteers to take the child, giving Nina a brief moment to collect herself, to ready herself for more. We watch, unsettled, knowing the impossibility of escape.
Whenever I’m on vacation and the kids go off with their father, I often spy on other mothers, watching how they handle all the pleasure and pain of caring for children, observing how they tenderly coddle their children, how they lose it on them.
In The Lost Daughter, all the women study each other. They assess other mothers, remembering through them, comparing themselves, making this their vacation labor.
Leda relives her own experiences of motherhood through her observations of Nina. Watching Nina try to hold it together, Leda recalls the moments she snapped at her children, once slamming a door so hard it shattered glass panes, another time refusing to kiss a cut finger. Memories of when, as a young mother, Leda gave in to being a something more than a mother. When she fully witnessed the stark reality of her own exploitation and didn’t patch herself up and pretend to be okay for the sake of the children. When she refused to hollow herself out for motherhood.
The Lost Daughter, though, is more than a story about locating identity as a mother, complex terrain on its own. The film zeroes in on the gut-wrenching phenomenology of mothering in an individualistic, nuclear family. The physical work of keeping up the charade as mother when one is always pressed to her limits.
As Lynn Steger Strong wrote for Romper, the result is that watching the film is itself a bodily experience. We lurch with the women as their kids assault them. We feel on the brink of losing it, too. Our skin crawls. We growl at Leda’s husband when he’s too busy on the phone with Columbia to help with the kids, even though Leda says she’s “suffocating.” We, too, long to set our bodies free.
And, in the delicious moments in the film when the bodies of mothers and daughters come together in joy or excitement, we long for that other iteration of suffocation.
These are familiar moves for most contemporary American mothers. Always negotiating the limits of the body. Always trying to take more than she can stand. Motherhood as a bending of the body’s will, the body’s needs. And because being a woman in America requires this, too, mothers are always on the edge of exploding.
“It felt like I was trying not to explode,” Leda says in the film, when she explains her decision to leave her children for three years to pursue an intellectual life, “and then I exploded.”
Leda is the ultimate academic mother-monster, a manifestation of my own worst fears for myself. She’s sort of the mother I don’t want to be, maybe the one I don’t have the courage to be, maybe the one I am.
But Leda returns to her daughters after her three-year hiatus from motherhood. When Nina asks why Leda came back if it felt so good to be away from her children, Leda implies that leaving was not enough. She was still a mother. She still yearned for her daughters. Motherhood had become for her a physical condition from which she could not free herself.
The emptying of self I pursue in vacation motherhood is what makes it hard for me to return to daily life once the trips have ended. Normally, I love the new energy of the new year, but this year, I’m finding it hard to invest in rebirth and regeneration. It’s not only the generalized detachment I’ve been cultivating since the pandemic began that’s making it hard to dive back into the daily hustle – the vacation mother in me is also worried about the return of the rest of me.
I worry about the inevitability of getting off balance again. About the ideas and projects I want to pursue, those that make up something like, I don’t know, my soul. Desires I have that I know will get in the way of me loving my children, being patient, giving all of myself up to them. Already, I am back to my distracted, irritable self, consumed by ideas I want to pursue in the three hours a day I have to myself, the tasks I can never finish. My kids have watched two too many shows today, because I felt compelled to write this.
Like Leda in The Lost Daughter, I often feel the pull toward an intellectual, creative life. Like Leda, I have fallen asleep on floors playing with my children – tired, but also just bored.
None of this is wrong or bad, and I no longer entertain the alternative of sacrifice or martyrdom. But that doesn’t make the struggle any less painful, the craving for some other form of motherhood any less present.
In The Lost Daughter, motherhood is more than making the right choices. Maybe that’s what makes the film so timely. To be a mother is just to be haunted, physically, by what’s happened to the body, what it’s done and what has been done to it.
Doubles abound in the film. Leda gives her own toy doll, a mini mother, to her children. Her daughters mistreat it. Nina’s daughter, who has her own doll, is Elena, and when Leda first introduces herself to Nina’s sister she’s confused for “Neda,” like Nina. All the women in the film are voyeurs; everyone is looking in the mirror.
It’s as if the mothers cannot locate themselves outside or inside their children, outside or inside other mothers, however they try. Instead, they are stalked by memories of how their bodies have been transgressed by their children, by their partners, by their lovers, and how they have hurt their children and others in their efforts to fight back, or just survive.
This is what felt most true to me about the film: not just that a mother can be something other than good, but that motherhood, especially in our current moment, splits the body into so many parts, it can be hard to locate one’s center. Even if we could run away, the women in the film seem to ask, who would we be, given how this motherhood we know has marked us?
Classes coming up:
@Hugo House: “Labors of Love,” on writing while reading Silvia Federici, sign up coming soon so mark your calendars! Wednesdays, April 13 - May 4, 5 – 7 pm PST
@Catapult: “Blending Memoir and Criticism,” sold out, but you can sign up to get notified when I run another session.
@Corporeal Writing: I’ll be running another session of my “Writing And/As The Mother” class this spring/summer. Planning in the works and details soon!
Also very excited to be partnering with Community Arts and Trinity Center in the East Bay this spring to offer creative writing classes for community members who are under-housed or homeless; please consider donating to support Trinity Center’s services here!