Everyone has relationships with ourselves and others. But do we also have relationships with the roles we play? If so, what might that look like?
Watching the film The Lost Daughter, directed by Maggie Gyllenhaal and based on the Elena Ferrante novel by the same name, made this concept real for me. The film depicts a relationship between a woman and her role as a mother. Can that really be a relationship? I know for me, it certainly is.
Leda, played by Olivia Coleman, is holidaying on a Greek island. Originally from the U.K., Leda is a middle-aged English professor at Harvard. Her quiet idyllic holiday is suddenly disrupted by an American family staying nearby, whose presence is impossible to ignore. Becoming an observant of intense family dynamics, specifically, of the mother-daughter relationship between the young mother, Nina, played by Dakota Johnson, and Elena, her preschool daughter, Leda’s own conflict with motherhood resurfaces.
We don’t immediately know what happened to Leda and her two daughters in the past, but there is a constant ominous sense (also suggested by the title) that contributes to the overall unsettling atmosphere. In flashbacks, we see the young Leda, played by Jessie Buckley, with her demanding toddlers. And while she is never uncaring, we definitely see her exhausted, struggling to fulfil their needs, to be constantly and relentlessly in demand, while trying to establish her academic career at the same time.
Back on the island, when little Elena suddenly goes missing. Nina, her mother, is beside herself with worry, and the whole resort is filled with the energy of a frantic search. Leda, too, participates in the search, bearing no grudge for previous hostilities and in what may seem like a knowing solidarity. It is Leda, who eventually finds Elena playing quietly in a wooded section by the water, and brings her safely to her mother.
In flashbacks we see the young Leda in a similar situation years ago. Parallels are drawn between Nina and Leda, and perhaps between every other mother whose biggest fear is losing her children, while at the same time the sense is often of a mother losing herself.
Gradually we learn of Leda’s formative and traumatic event. When her daughters were ages five and seven, she left and didn't see them for three years. It seems that all supposedly opposing pressures - of parenthood, womanhood, a keen intellect and academic aspirations - have taken their toll and she took off. What kind of mother would abandon her children? This to many would seem like the ultimate act of selfishness. These inherent judgements are embodied in everyone, and mostly in Leda herself.
The pressures on women to prove their value are brilliantly brought into light in this film. They are everywhere: in the domestic sphere, at work, in society as a whole. In the pay gap at work, in the higher standards that women are held to, and hold themselves to, in the glass ceiling which they need to break, in their agency over their own bodies and reproductive choices. The pressures are relentless, and hugely impact women’s wellbeing, both mentally and physically. Young Leda’s choice is one which aims to deal with these pressures as controversial as it may seem.
The film is riddled with what to me was sometimes crass symbolism, like the doll which the toddler loses and then finds, which is the subject of love and frustrations of those who hold her (or lose her). Another such symbolism is that of the snake. There are various snakes in the film, one coming out of the doll’s mouth, and many in the peeling of fruit with a knife to create a snake — a skill which to me as a child, seemed magical and that only my mum could perform. It is hard not to think of the concept of “original sin” in this context. Eve is traditionally judged as weak and evil for giving into temptation, by choosing the apple and not adhering to the word of the “father”.
In her book “Cassandra Speaks” Elizabeth Lesser gives another interpretation of Eve’s temptation:
“She accepts direction from the snake, who in biblical times was a symbol of wisdom — the one who sheds the skin of ignorance and is born again.” (page 29)
She then adds:
“The way I see it, Eve is humankind’s first grown-up. The “temptation” she succumbs to is the most fundamental human yearning - to know oneself, to find one's own path, and to courageously engage with the big world beyond the gardens of childhood.” (page 30)
Like Lesser’s invitation to re-evaluate our “origin” stories and see them from a woman’s point of view, so does “The Lost Daughter” invites us to reassess our own assumptions and cultural conceptions of motherhood and womanhood in our time. Traditionally Eve’s “fallibility” is accepted as the “original sin”, but Lesser reclaims it as the manifestation of her agency, maturity, responsibility, and leadership.
Leda, like Eve, is asking us, and herself, to consider another way of seeing a mother’s devotion to her children. The way we see motherhood and womanhood is dictated by the culture around us. Women are told to be either one thing or another, as is often the case in many other situations. They are either neglected or needy, frigid or a slut etc. Our culture pushes these expectations to polarities where the two seemingly (and that’s debatable) contradicting terms — mother and woman — cannot co-exist.
Pulled by those externally dictated narratives of what a mother should be, and what a woman should be, we are riddled with guilt if we don’t quite align with them in a pure sense. We may feel abnormal, as though something is wrong with us. At the end of the film Leda says, “I am an unnatural mother.” She judges herself for the choices she made, resigning to the accepted notion that such behaviour is wrong, and a mistake. Even if her actions are deemed as mistakes, why are mistakes unnatural?
When eventually talking openly with Nina about her own experiences as a young mother, Nina asks her:
Why did you go back?
I went back because I missed them. I am a very selfish person.
Here too, she deems herself to be selfish, suggesting that her action was only serving her own interests. Indeed, in this choice she perhaps risks losing herself. But if we listen to Lesser’s interpretation of Eve's choices, in losing ourselves, we might very well end up getting to “know [ourselves], to find [our] own path, and to courageously engage with the big world beyond the gardens of childhood.” Perhaps the only “lost daughter” in this film, is the little girl inside Leda as she becomes this courageous, knowing and engaged woman.
If the roles dictated by society were more flexible, and allowed for more complexity, Leda would have been able to not give herself up for the sake of her children. She could have been both a mother and an academic, an artist, a friend — a person in her own right.
I often talk with clients about “taking an interest in ourselves.” They usually tell me that they think that doing that would be selfish. Of course it can be, if it is done at the expense of others. But if it's done in such a way that fills us with vitality, with a sense of accomplishment, with curiosity, and engagement with the world we live in, it can only be beneficial to those around us. I try to do this, by questioning the narratives that activate our guilt and resentment, and help my clients find their real interests and passions. For me, it is about permission, and allowing ourselves to be who we are, without the constant comparison to the narratives told to us by others, and that we have been taught to internalise as truth. In that way, we can become more authentic, creative, loving, and present for those around us.
For this to work we need our culture to change. We need the role of raising children to stop being seen as that of just women (of course this is a generalisation, but still, is true). We need parenting to be shared so that women have time to pursue their interests without feeling guilty and while being valued, and rewarded financially for this. This way, parenting and motherhood, would not be a source of constant judgment and shame, but a catalyst for growth and love.
Through the Coaching Lens posts are my own commentaries of film and TV a coaching perspective. What movies or TV do you suggest I look at with my lens? Comment , and please share if it is of value to you.
Illustration by Evie Fridel