tags: gender, feminism, womens history, family, motherhood
Judith Levine is the author of five books and countless articles exploring politics, policy, and public emotion, especially at the intersection of sex and justice. She lives in Brooklyn, NY and a small town in northeastern Vermont.
In the early 1970s, a woman moved into my Brooklyn commune. She was older than us, in her thirties, relocating from the Midwest after breaking up with her husband. She stuck to herself; we figured she was getting over the divorce. Then one night in the kitchen, she opened up to a few of us. She had started out conventionally, she said. Straight job, straight partner, and one after another, three kids. Then feminism happened. She realized she was suffocating. “I abandoned my children,” she said, almost in a whisper.
I had already decided not to have a family. I didn’t think I could manage writing, politics, an erotic life, and kids all at once. A part of me felt that this woman should have thought family life through beforehand, as I had. But I had the advantage of youth, a feminist adolescence. For this reason, another part of me admired her. What courage it must have taken to throw off the patriarchal burden of kinder and kuchen! Mostly, though, I was stunned. Sure, men leave their children all the time. But what kind of woman does this?
Many of Italian novelist Elena Ferrante’s characters are that kind of woman. “In Ferrante’s world, mothers regularly walk out on their children, neglect or forget about them in favor of writing and/or sexual passion; love and hate, protect and resent, guide and thwart them in equal measure,” writes Jacqueline Rose in Mothers (2018). One of these mothers is Leda, protagonist of the 2006 novel The Lost Daughter, recently adapted for film by Maggie Gyllenhaal. While on vacation at a Greek beach, Leda (played with vulnerable froideur by Olivia Coleman) finds her attention magnetized by a beautiful young mother, Nina (Dakota Johnson), who is engaged in languorous play with her young daughter. This intimacy, both enthralling and claustrophobic, throws Leda back twenty years, when her own two daughters’ ceaseless demands for attention and touch overwhelmed her every attempt to think, read, or even masturbate. Leda leaves her husband and children to pursue an academic career and a love affair, returning after three years. “Children,” Leda tells Nina’s pregnant sister-in-law, “are a crushing responsibility.” Only in the end of the story does she confess her maternal crime. “I’m an unnatural mother,” Leda says, without explanation or excuse.
Not everyone has loved “The Lost Daughter,” but almost all agree that its content is shocking and Gyllenhaal was courageous in making it. The Atlantic’s review is headlined: “The movie that understands the secret shame of motherhood.”
What is the shameful secret? Jeannette Catsoulis answers in the New York Times: the “raw, and even radical . . . notion that motherhood can plunder the self in irreparable ways.” Ferrante agrees. “The risk Leda runs seems to me all in that question,” she writes in an essay. “Can I, a woman of today, succeed in being loved by my daughters, in loving them, without having of necessity to sacrifice myself and therefore hate myself?” Another question might follow: can a woman like Leda choose herself over her children and not be hated?
“The Lost Daughter” is what Ann Snitow called, in a 1992 piece on feminism and motherhood, a “demon text.” Written by white feminists between 1963 and about 1974, this handful of books were in fact more demonized than demonic. Their offense? Imagining that we might “break the inexorable tie between mothers and children” and that a woman’s life could be meaningful without children. Such writing vanished as quickly as it had appeared, Snitow wrote, yet “we have been apologizing ever since.”