Love comes naturally, but does motherhood also? It should, we are told, in perfect sunlit frames beaming out at us from movies, books, social media posts, and trite Hallmark quotes, sprinkled with honorable nods to “purpose”, “fulfillment”, and so on.
But what if you are an “unnatural” mother, as Leda Caruso asks in The Lost Daughter (the book, and the new Netflix film)? Is there space for a mother who loves what her tiny tots have brought into her life, but also resents how much they have taken up of it? Is there space for a mother who always carries around with her the warmth of her child’s stretched arms to welcome her home, but who can’t shake off that feeling of being overwhelmed by it all? Is there space for a mother to be selfless at all times, but also selfish? Is there space to be a caring mother, yet one who in public has shown herself “to be unaffectionate, not the mother of church or Sunday supplements”. And is there space for a mother to step away from it all, and then make her way back?
It’s not often that you get a mother such as Leda in popular culture. Sure we have our horror and killer moms, cruel and cold moms, and young and tired moms. However, Leda, in Elena Ferrante’s novel, is a run-of-the-mill mom. She is warm, likable, loving, leads the hunt when a stranger’s child goes missing and is understanding towards a harried young mother. However, she is also a woman who once dreamed of a life starkly different from her own mother’s long line of domesticity, of independence and some recognition in the big city, who fears she is getting sucked into the same “hell” that she had managed to escape. And who, tentatively at first and then more openly, knows it is her children (whom she had when she was too young) who are standing in her way. “Children,” she tells in one passage, to a shocked audience, “are a ‘crushing’ responsibility.”
One fine day, in the midst of an affair that appropriately starts at the kind of dreamy literary conference that romantic novels often talk about, Leda walks away from her children, doesn’t look back, and gets at least somewhere close to where she wants to be. Only, what is that she wants, and can she ever know it for sure?
Ferrante explored some of the same themes in her four acclaimed Neapolitan novels. And in the Netflix film directed by Maggie Gyllenhaal, Olivia Colman as Leda and Jessie Buckley, playing a younger version of her, bring home with heartbreaking tenderness this other side of motherhood — in their every twisted smile and wrenched tear, broken hugs and desperate calls.
Mothers and daughters, daughters and mothers, girls and dolls, dolls and girls, is this cycle ever broken? We sustain them, and they sustain us. In the best of times and the worst of times, the things we leave behind are also the things we take away. As Ferrante writes, the more twisted the bond, the stronger it gets in “remorse”.
In the book, Leda’s daughters never indicate to her in any way what they thought of her attempt to explain why she went away. Is it an act of kindness on their part, or that of cruelty? Leda herself can’t really say why she came back. But we know, don’t we, as she sits down to peel an orange in one long tendrail, without letting it break, just like her daughters want her to.
In the end, that’s what it is about. We mothers, we agonise, we guilt, we chafe, we overwork and think we underwork, we are never ever enough — never enough loving, never enough strict, never enough around, never enough away, never enough patient, and with never enough time.
But having raised my children into their teens now, on and through a time that has kept testing us, what I can tell Leda — and an older Leda can perhaps tell us — is that there is no one right way to be mom.
And that your kids probably know that already.
National Editor Shalini Langer curates the ‘She Said’ column