The Lost Mother
It’s Mothering Sunday today. A bittersweet day if you no longer have your own mother to celebrate with a well-chosen card, but made more palatable if you have your own children to acknowledge your importance as the mother in their lives.
What is a good mother? In our culture she’s expected to combine the virtues of unconditional love with kindness, patience and selflessness. Mother Mary has no ego, no personal needs beyond the need to cherish her children and is utterly condemned if she dares to transgress when she will be swiftly labelled as ‘bad’ or ‘unnatural’.
I was powerfully reminded of this when Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe was speaking at her first press conference a few days ago. Her’s is the story of the Lost Mother. Lost to the life of her daughter Gabriella for six long years as she was held hostage in a prison in Iran, the home of her birth. In our imagination of the perfect fairytale ending, Nazanin would preferably have appeared closely cuddling her happy daughter, perhaps with tears in her eyes as she thanked everyone for working so tirelessly for her release. Instead of which, Nazanin calmly but clearly expressed her anger that she’d missed those crucial formative years of Gabriella’s life because of the failure of five successive foreign secretaries who had each promised action and only delivered it after six long wasted years.
We like our mother figures to be emollient and ‘nice’, not eloquently outspoken, so inevitably, Nazanin has been roundly condemned by some as ‘ungrateful’.The nasty hashtag #sendherback was even trending on Twitter for a while. It was also notable that Nazanin didn’t sugar coat the challenges of rebuilding relationships with two people from whom she has been separated for so long. ‘We’ll need to build bridges’ was the way she expressed that challenge. Let’s fervently hope that she, husband Richard and daughter Gabriella will now be left alone to do just that.
Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe and her husband at her first press conference
A transgressive mother was also the subject of the film ‘The Lost Daughter’ which has garnered Oscar nominations for Olivia Colman and Jessie Buckley as leading and supporting actress for their roles as the older and younger mother, Leda. Both would deserve to win for a searing portrayal of the price to be paid for going against societal expectations by being an unnatural mother. The film starts with Olivia’s Leda arriving on holiday in Greece. She is some kind of academic and is looking for peace and rest. She finds a quiet spot on the beach and is resentful and watchful when a large, noisy Greek/American family descends by boat on the bay. She finds herself surrounded and they ask her to move her sunbed, but she stands her ground and refuses. This refusal to ‘play nice’ earns her a volley of violent swear words and, as she walks back to her rented villa, an unseen person ‘stones’ her (in an almost biblical reference) which causes a nasty injury to her back.
This early scene sets up the male aggression, hostility and threat that Leda is then subjected to. It becomes clear that the older Leda identifies strongly with the beautiful young Nina in the family group who is obviously finding motherhood both onerous and frustrating. Leda says to Nina “children are a crushing responsibility” and we understand via flashbacks to the younger Leda’s life just how much she and Nina have in common. Jessie Buckley portrays the young Leda as a brilliant academic writer with two pretty little girls who both vie for her attention. As a mother she comes across as impatient, and at times neglectful and almost cruel. Gyllenhall in her direction and screenplay pulls no punches. Leda is portrayed as a truly terrible mother. And her ultimate transgression comes when, tempted away by a new lover to lead the life of the mind that she dreams of, she abandons her children for three years. However she goes back to them, and when Nina asks why she went back, she replies “I missed them - I am a very selfish person.” So even when she eventually does the right thing, there is no redemption or fairytale ending. Leda returns to satisfy her own needs, not those of her abandoned children.
This film spoke to me on so many levels. I identified especially with the younger Leda. As a young mother in the 1970s I knew what was expected of me but found it very hard at times to fulfil those expectations. Looking back, I know that I was often impatient, short-tempered and filled with guilt. I felt trapped, frustrated and (although I couldn’t admit it at the time) angry and resentful. However I wanted my two beautiful little girls to feel safe, secure and loved, so, unlike Leda, I would never have left them as she did. My escape route was to enrol in a degree course when Anna was eight and Suzy was five, and thereafter to find employment in a management training consultancy. Shortly after that I divorced my husband and, as my life gradually settled to become happier and more fulfilled, my relationship to motherhood gradually changed for the better.
Olivia Colman as the older Leda, and Dakota Johnson as Nina in the Lost Daughter
I have been a mother now for forty seven years. If I am honest I’d say that the first twenty or so years I was at a loss for much of the time, but most especially when trying to meet the demands of my very young daughters. As they grew up and reached adulthood, mothering them became much easier and much more satisfying. When they became mothers themselves I went out of my way to alleviate some of the pressures of caring for a young baby and toddler, so that they’d feel less overwhelmed and exhausted than I had done. And when my special granddaughter India was born I willingly stepped up to the plate to offer daily support to my distraught daughter and son-in-law. If I am honest I think that the retrospective guilt I felt about my shortcomings as a young ‘lost’ mother made me determined to make amends for my emotional absence from their young lives.
So today here in the UK, we celebrate mothers, mothering and motherhood. It’s a special time to pay tribute to the unique bond between the person who gave birth to you and the people to whom you gave birth. Motherhood and mothering is challenging and mothers come in all shapes and sizes. Happily, with a long life comes the possibility to heal, repair and acknowledge any regrets you may have about the past. This happened right at the end of my mother’s life as she lay dying. I haven’t left it quite so late with my two lovely girls to whom I say: “Thank you for your forbearance when I was struggling as a young mother. I’m so glad we were eventually able to find each other as adults in a much happier place.
Happy Mother's Day to you all
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