The mother who abandons her children haunts
our family narratives. She is made into a lurid tabloid figure, an exotic
exception to the common deadbeat father. Or she is sketched into the background
of a plot, her absence lending a protagonist a propulsive origin story. This
figure arouses our ridicule (consider Meryl Streep’s daffy American president
in “Don’t Look Up,” who forgets to save her son as she flees the apocalypse) or
our pity (see “Parallel Mothers,” where an actress has ditched her daughter for
lousy television parts). But lately the vanishing mother has provoked a fresh
In Maggie Gyllenhaal’s film “The Lost
Daughter,” she is Leda (played, across two decades, by Jessie Buckley and
Olivia Colman), a promising translator who deserts her young daughters for
several years to pursue her career (and a dalliance with an Auden scholar). In
HBO’s “Scenes From a Marriage,” a gender-scrambled remake of Ingmar Bergman’s
1973 miniseries, she is Mira (Jessica Chastain), a Boston tech executive who
jets to Tel Aviv, Israel, for an affair disguised as a work project. And in
Claire Vaye Watkins’ autofictional novel “I Love You but I’ve Chosen Darkness,”
she is also Claire Vaye Watkins, a novelist who leaves her infant to smoke a
ton of weed, sleep with a guy who lives in a van and confront her own troubled
In each case, her children are not abandoned
outright; they are left in the care of fathers and other relatives. When a man
leaves in this way, he is unexceptional. When a woman does it, she becomes a
monster, or perhaps an antiheroine riding out a dark maternal fantasy. Feminism
has supplied women with options, but a choice also represents a foreclosure,
and women, because they are people, do not always know what they want. As these
protagonists thrash against their own decisions, they also bump up against the
limits of that freedom, revealing how women’s choices are rarely socially
supported but always thoroughly judged.
Liana Finck/The New York Times
A mother losing her children is a nightmare.
The title of “The Lost Daughter” refers in part to such an incident, when a
child disappears at the beach. But a mother leaving her children — that’s a
daydream, an imagined but repressed alternate life. In the “Sex and the City”
reboot “And Just Like That … ,” Miranda — now the mother of a teenager —
counsels a professor who is considering having children.
“There are so many nights when I would love to
be a judge and go home to an empty house,” she says.
And on Instagram, the airbrushed mirage of
mothering is being challenged by displays of raw desperation. The Not Safe for
Mom Group, which surfaces confessions of anonymous mothers, pulses with idle
threats of role refusal like, “I want to be alone!!! I don’t want to make your
Being alone: That is the mother’s reasonable
and functionally impossible dream. Especially recently, when avenues of escape
have been sealed off: schools closed, day care centres suspended, offices
shuttered, jobs lost or abandoned in crisis. Now the house is never empty, and
also you can never leave. During a pandemic, a plucky middle-class gal can
still “have it all,” as long as she can manage job and children simultaneously,
from the floor of a lawless living room.
Cards on the table: I am struggling to draft
this essay on my phone as my pantsless toddler — banished from day care for 10
days because someone got COVID — wages a tireless campaign to commandeer my
device, hold it to his ear and say hewwo. I feel charmed, annoyed and
implicated as I wonder whether his neediness is attributable to some parental
defect, perhaps related to my own constant phone use.
Do I want to abandon my child? No, but I am
newly attuned to the psychological head space of a woman who does. The Auden
scholar of “The Lost Daughter” (played, in an inspired bit of casting, by
Gyllenhaal’s husband, Peter Sarsgaard) entices Leda by quoting Simone Weil:
“Attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity.” Attention is a loaded
word: It can mean caring for another person but also a powerful mental focus,
and a parent can seldom execute both definitions at once.
Leda wants to attend to her translation work,
but she also wants someone to pay attention to her. To be blunt, she wants to
work and to have sex. Often in these stories, the two are bound together in a
hyperindividualistic fusion of romantic careerism. In “Scenes From a Marriage,”
Mira plans to tell her daughter, “I have to go away for work, which is true” —
only because she has arranged a professional obligation to facilitate her
affair with an Israeli startup bro. Her gateway drug to abandonment is, as is
often the case, a business trip. Mira first strays at a company boat party;
Leda tastes freedom at a translation conference; Claire embarks on a reading
tour from which she never returns.
The work trip is the Rumspringa of motherhood.
Like the mama bird in “Are You My Mother?,” a woman is allowed to leave the
nest to retrieve a worm, though someone somewhere may be noting her absence
with schoolmarmish disapproval. In Caitlin Flanagan’s 2012 indictment of Joan
Didion, recirculated after Didion’s death, Flanagan dings Didion for taking a
film job across the country, leaving her 3-year-old daughter over Christmas.
Still, there is something absurd about the
fashioning of work as the ultimate escape. It is only remotely plausible if our
desperate mother enjoys a high-status creative position (translator, novelist,
thought leader). When other mothers of fiction leave, their fantasies are
quickly revealed as delusions. In Nicole Dennis-Benn’s novel “Patsy,” a
Jamaican secretary abandons her daughter to pursue an American dream in New
York, only to become a nanny caring for someone else’s children. And in
Jessamine Chan’s dystopian novel “The School for Good Mothers,” Frida is
sleep-deprived and drowning in work when she leaves her toddler at home alone
for two hours. Although Frida feels “a sudden pleasure” when she shuts the door
behind her, her fantasy life is short and bleak: She escapes as far as her
office, where she sends emails. For that, she is conscripted into a reeducation
camp for bad moms.
Each of our absent mothers has her reasons.
Leda’s academic husband has prioritised his career over hers, and this makes
her decisions legible, even sympathetic. But in “I Love You but I’ve Chosen
Darkness,” Watkins lends her doppelgänger no exculpatory circumstances. Claire
has a doula, day care, Obamacare breast pump, tenure-track job, several
therapists and the world’s most understanding husband. When she starts sleeping
in a hammock on campus, her husband says, “I think it’s cool you’re following
your … heart, or … whatever … is happening … out there.” Nothing obvious
impedes her from capable mothering, but like Bartleby, the Child-bearer, she
would simply prefer not to.
Liana Finck/The New York Times
In heaping privileges upon Claire, Watkins
suggests that there are burdens of motherhood that cannot be solved with money,
lifted by a co-parent or cured by a mental health professional. The trouble is
motherhood itself and its ideal of total selfless devotion. Motherhood had
turned Claire into a “blank,” a figure who “didn’t seem to think much” and “had
trouble completing her sentences.”
As these women discover, their menu of life
choices is not so expansive after all. They long to be offered a different
position: dad. Claire wants to “behave like a man, a slightly bad one.” As Mira
abruptly exits, she assures her husband, “Men do it all the time.”
These women may leave, but they don’t quite
get away with it. Mira eventually loses both job and boyfriend and begs for her
old life back. Leda’s abandonment becomes a dark secret in a thriller that
builds to a violent end. Only Claire is curiously impervious to consequence.
She follows her selfish impulses all the way to the desert, where she spends
her days crying and masturbating alone in a tent. Then she calls her husband,
who flies out to her, happy tot in tow; eventually, Claire claims a life where
she can “read and write and nap and teach and soak and smoke” and see her
daughter on breaks. By exacting no cosmic punishment on Claire, Watkins refuses
to facilitate the reader’s judgment. But she also makes it harder to care.
When I was pregnant, I had a fantasy, too. In
it, I was single, childless, still very young somehow and living out an
alternate life in a van in Wyoming. Reading “I Love You but I’ve Chosen
Darkness” broke the spell. As Claire ripped bongs and circled new sexual partners,
she struck me not as a monster or a hero but something perhaps worse: boring.
Even as these stories work to uncover motherhood’s complex emotional truths,
they indulge their own little fiction: that a mother only becomes interesting
when she stops being one.
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