MOTHER AND CHILD (2010)

MOTHER AND CHILD (2010)

The bonds between Mother and Child are mysterious but not at all instinctual.  “Karen” (Annette Benning) and her daughter, “Elizabeth” (Naomi Watts), never meet but are incomplete without each other.  “Karen” and her mother, “Nora” (Eileen Ryan), live together for fifty years but are distanced by their mutual disappointment.  “Lucy” (Kerry Washington) wants a child so much she loses her husband, “Joseph” (David Ramsey), but gains a new closeness with her mother, “Ada” (S. Epatha Merkerson), in the process of saving a child who has “no one.”  The ensemble cast tells separate stories that move slowly, take time to build, but end up intersecting for a satisfying end.  Each cast member is a veteran actor, some, like David Morse and Lawrence Pressman, have only small parts, but the star power never overtakes the story.  This fine film, one of the best of the spring, can be greatly illuminated by the excellent book, Ann Fessler’s The Girls Who Went Away (2006).  Fessler, a sociologist, did a number of case studies of young girls who got pregnant too young, in a time before single mothers were chic.

The study, punctuated with narratives from these girls, now adult women, is moving and often almost too painful to read.  “Karen” was typical of these teenage girls.  The film jumps between her innocent tryst with her boyfriend to the birth of her child to her empty life with her dying mother, nearly forty years later.  The Girls Who Went Away fills in the gaps: “Karen” would have been “sent away” to a home for unwed mothers.  Without parental support or empathy, she would have waited alone, given birth alone and returned home alone.  Alone, she would bear the burden of her “secret shame” and the memory of a child she never knew.  According the research that Fessler did among these women (now of the same age as “Karen”), the mothers never get over the loss of the child and bear the marks of the trauma throughout their entire lives.  The choice they face is an unimaginably cruel one: to try to raise a child while one is still growing up, to face community ostracism, to live with parental disapproval, to be unable to complete the normal course from high school to college to a profession to marriage or give up one’s own child.  And live with the void.

Mother and Child is also an interesting film to watch in the fiftieth anniversary year of the invention of the Pill.  The ability of women to control their own bodies and to decide to have children or not and how to plan their family, thanks to a tiny pill, taken daily, is considered one of the most significant technological revolutions of the Western world, akin, in its impact, to the invention of the printing press.  Like the printing press, the consequences are slow to build and impossible to foresee.  No, the pill did not make marriages happier,or sex better, and, after a time, unplanned pregnancies became stuck at a certain point, and abortions did not go away. In addition, there are indications that having an abortion is as traumatic and its effects are as long lasting as giving up a child.  Whether or not a woman is able to take charge of her destiny seems to be linked  to the region of the county—the Midwest and South have the highest number of early marriages due to pregnancy and the highest divorce rate in America.  The other indication of female empowerment seems to be class—-lower class women with low levels of education and low expectations tend to get pregnant very young at time when the age of marriage is now mid to late twenties.  The women who have benefited from the Pill are upwardly mobile middle class educated women who have a lot to lose by having a child. These women are marrying late, if at all. Recent studies indicate that the financial cost to mothers (not to the fathers) is significant, even in the Twenty-First Century.  Having a child is a serious business for a woman and requires serious thought for the serious responsibility that follows.  Mother and Child examines the complex relationship between mothers and children, or to be more precise, mothers and daughters.

Directed by Rodrigo Garcia, Mother and Child is a woman’s film in which men are often sidelined.  “Joseph” is a good son who listens to his mother and abandons his wife when “Lucy” wants to adopt.  Samuel L. Jackson has a very nice role as “Paul,” Elizabeth’s boss and head of the law firm.  Although he allows her to seduce him, “Paul” never understands “Elizabeth” and her need to be independent.  “If,” he says, “the child is mine…” and he makes promises to take care of her, but only if the child is his. Only “Paco” (Jimmy Smits) is able to make a connection with a woman, for it is as if he recognizes that he and “Karen” belong to each other, and he persists in the face of her self-confessed “difficult” nature.  “Paco” stands in contrast to the other men who abandon the women: “Joseph” who wants a child of his own and “Paul” who offers to take away the independence Elizabeth so prizes.  “Ada” is alone and “Lucy” seems to have no visible father.  The women suffer on their journey to resolution.  “Karen” cannot forgive her mother for not loving her enough to help her through her ordeal.  The rejecting attitude that “Nora” displayed was that of a conservative and condemning society, unforgiving of a young girl’s awakening desires.  Social customs were stronger than whatever instinct a mother would have had to protect her daughter.  “Nora” has to connect to the maid and her daughter because she does not know how to ask forgiveness.  “Karen,” who gives her love and care to strangers in need in the hospital, has to be taught to trust another human being.  “Elizabeth” also exhibits the same inability to attach: she moves restlessly from job to job, from lover to lover, “independent” because she, also, cannot trust.  She dies in childbirth before she has someone to love, but “Elizabeth” is redeemed when she sees her beautiful little brown-skinned girl before she closes her eyes for the last time.

The deus ex machani of these severed relationships are nuns in an adoption agency, which is the focal point of all the stories.  According to law, adoptions are closed and forbid all communication between birth mothers and their children.  Although the adoption laws are more relaxed and less punitive now, the nuns must contend with old adoptions, sealed by old laws.  In those cases, the mothers who have given up their children can leave letters, in case the child should want to find them.  And vice versa.   This makeshift post office allows birth mothers and their children to reconnect.  Fessler follows the stories of some of the mothers who found their children.   Sometimes the mother and child reunion works, sometimes not.  Strong feelings are involved and it takes a mature child to understand the mother’s motivations.  All are caught up in social circumstances which dictate rules instead of empathy; rules so powerful they must override all natural feelings due to the desire to punish the transgressions of young girls.  Fessler makes the point that, thanks to their anatomy, men can simply walk away, but, to be fair, this book does not investigate the repercussions of unplanned pregnancies upon men, especially the little boys.  It is a story waiting to be told.

The Girls Who Went Away speaks of the Catholic homes for unwed mothers who had to endure the freezing scorn without pity from the old-fashioned nuns.  But in the movie, the nuns in the contemporary period are compassionate, and they work patiently to find good homes for the children.  Agents of kindness, these celibate women seek to heal a lifetime of pain.  A simple mistake comes between the letters written by “Karen” to “Elizabeth” and by “Elizabeth” to “Karen.”  Fate does not allow them to find each other and the child of “Elizabeth” is left with “no one.”  After being cruelly manipulated by a deeply conflicted young mother, “Lucy” is given the little girl of “Elizabeth” and “Paul,” who will never know his daughter.  There can be no happy endings in this film, only resolutions and a final peace.  “Lucy” lives in the same neighborhood as “Karen” and allows her to visit her granddaughter.  “Lucy” has lost a husband and gained a mother; “Karen” has lost a daughter but gained a husband and a granddaughter.  Sadly, the Christian Science Monitor gave this film a most un-Christian review, seemingly ignorant of the pain that women go through, the newspaper dismissed Mother and Child as a “soap opera.”  The review is, however, an excellent example of the kind of social attitude that sends girls away and abandons them to a lifetime of struggle.  In Mother and Child, Life has a way of working things out, not always for the best, but some of these traumatized women start the process of healing.  Each woman comes to terms with her life and rejoices in the gift of love.

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette

The Arts Blogger

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