The Lost Daughter is a 2021 psychological drama directed by Maggie Gyllenhaal. It touches upon themes of motherhood, freedom, expectation, and loss. With tragically imperfect and multi-dimensional characters, the film sheds light on our common perceptions surrounding motherhood, and how these contrast with the actual, intimate experience of being a mother.
The film tells the story of a professor named Leda who, in her younger years, leaves her two daughters and husband to pursue a life and relationship without them. She returns to her girls after a while, but, as we see in her reflection many years later, she remains deeply ambivalent about her maternal role. In some ways, Leda seems to fit the role of the “bad mother”, but the truth is much more complex. More than anything, Leda is human.
Our culture places undue pressure on women to become mothers, regardless of whether that is part of their plan. Those who have children, whether they desire to become mothers or not, are often burdened with the expectation that they execute family life flawlessly. For Leda, this becomes too much, and she cracks under the pressure.
While Leda’s is a fictional and dramatized account, there’s no doubt these expectations take their toll on the mental health of even the “best” of mothers. The pressure isolates, it breeds fear and anxiety, and it turns people inward when they might benefit from asking for help.
Laura is a mother of three who has struggled with depression in several stages of her adult life. While this took place even before children, she says postpartum depression was particularly devastating for her. She was able to catch the signs quickly and was prescribed medication to help with symptoms, but she found many coping mechanisms, like therapy and exercise, difficult or near impossible.
The pressure to “do it all” doesn’t help, but Laura isn’t sure how this social habit can be broken. Historically, we evolved in networks and communities that allowed mothers and daughters to lean on one another and the people around them. As Laura says, generations and generations of empirical evidence shows that this is the way to maintain healthy families, but this feels far from our current culture of individualism.
In the modern Western world, we seem to have tendency to push back against community, to see motherhood as a competitive sport rather than something complex, something that needs be nurtured and supported.
This is particularly frustrating when you throw social media into the mix—how can one even strive for perfection when there are so many differing opinions on what that is? Of course, social media can exist as a network of support, and many people find comfort in online connections. But there are also many unrealistic standards out there that contradict each other and lead to overwhelm.
Maria (name changed) is a mother of four who says these portrayals of online motherhood are not only frustrating, but also damaging.
She describes a familiar Instagram scene: “A mother standing in the perfect white outfit, in a pristine and tidy house, with her beautiful children wearing hand-knit sweaters, happily playing with wooden blocks. That’s not what my life looks like, and if that’s my comparison, I will always come up short and feel like shit. It’s also not realistic and not a true representation of that person’s life,” she says.
This feeling of not-enoughness can become exacerbated by our time spent online, and it can take a toll on a mother’s mental health, which leads to a less happy, fulfilled family life.
For Maria, motherhood changed her entire outlook on the importance mental health.
“Prior to becoming a mother, I admit I didn’t give mental health the weight it deserves. Motherhood with four kids has tested my mental health and stability multiple times,” she says.
Busy moms tend to prioritize everything and anything before themselves, which can lead to burn out. Their own well-being can seem almost optional, something to tend to when and if they have the time. Maria knows that finding time to move her body, get outside, and go to bed early makes her a better parent, spouse, and person. But it’s not always easy.
After having children, Laura and Maria have a deeper respect for their own mothers, and the sacrifices they made, even though they didn’t do everything flawlessly.
Laura says her mother was very much a “good mother”. She acknowledges that while her mother’s parenting methods weren’t perfect, such a thing doesn’t really exist. Looking back on her childhood, Laura she sees her mom as a larger-than-life figure. Stepping into that role herself made Laura keenly aware of the fact that her mom was always just doing the best that she could.
“As a society, we are now talking about generational patterns, and specifically, breaking them. And I try to be mindful in my own parenting. There is a joke that goes something like, ‘I opened my mouth, and my mother came out,’ which is both comedic and tragic. I don’t think I can lay much blame at my mother’s feet, but I do try to be ‘better’”, she says.
Maria also has a newfound appreciation for her mother after diving headfirst into being a mom of four, with multitasking and looking after different schedules and personalities, homework, appointments, etc. She tries not to judge any other mom now that she understands how hard the role can be.
Reflecting on these stories and on Leda’s journey in The Lost Daughter, it’s fair to say there are many different paths to and through motherhood. None are flawless, some are tragic, but many have lots of joy.
In every aspect of life, joy is more attainable when we share our experiences with others. As Mother’s Day approaches, we’re given the opportunity to reflect on our relationship with motherhood as individuals and as a society. We’re given the opportunity to do away with moralizing motherhood, and this leaves space to support those persevering through the deeply varied, complex experience of being a mother.