Saturday, May 7, 2011

Balancing Mothers on the Big Screen: A Mother's Day Tribute

In honor of Mother's Day, I would like to highlight five lovely leading ladies who have embodied the balancing mother on the silver screen. These are women who have juggled babies, careers, challenges, and everything else that comes their way.

1. Ruth Jamison and Idgie Threadgood from Fried Green Tomatoes

This film presents us with a pair of women who navigate motherhood in some of the most tumultuous of times: escaping Ruth's abusive husband, starting their own business, grieving, illness, and even being placed on trial for murder. Through it all, they are heartwarming and inspiring.

Bonus Parenting Tip: When Buddy Jr. loses his arm in a train accident, Idgie insists that they start calling him "Stump" since everyone else is surely going to do it anyway. She teaches us the best way to protect our children from the, sometimes cruel, realities of social interactions is to be aware of them.

2. Novalee Nation from Where the Heart Is

You can mock my love of Where the Heart Is if you’d like; you wouldn’t be the first, but I stand firm in my stance that it’s fantastic (though the corniness of that tornado scene is probably unforgivable). Anyway, in addition to being one of my favorite movies to watch on a rainy day (the others being Pulp Fiction and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, to keep things balanced), it also features another juggling mother: Novalee Nation. Novalee starts her motherhood at the age of 17 by giving birth to her daughter in the Wal-Mart she’s been living in. She overcomes the adversity of illiteracy, poverty, and an unstable upbringing to balance motherhood, taking courses in photography, starting her own career, and remaining a supportive friend to all around her.

Bonus Parenting Tip: Though Novalee is yet another woman on this list who raises her child without the help of the father, she is absolutely destitute until she reaches out to others. The movie centers around her relationships with the nurse on duty when she recovers from delivery, the local librarian who delivers her child, and the kindly recovering alcoholic (Rizzo!) who takes her in so she doesn’t have to sleep under that creepy Wal-Mart Smiley Face. She teaches us that you can’t raise a child without a good support system, whatever form it might take.

3. Beatrix Kiddo from Kill Bill

Talk about having a lot to balance! Beatrix's day job as assassin has her traveling a lot, and that's never an easy feat to fit into motherhood. In addition, her near-death experience leaves her in a coma for the first four years of her daughter's life, also a challenge, but it's an absence that she intends to make up for. So, in addition to recovering from a gunshot to the head and reentering the workforce, Beatrix also maintains an intense workout regiment. She is a balancing mother, indeed.

Bonus Parenting Tip: When Beatrix finds out that she's pregnant, she disappears, faking her own death and escaping the life of an assassin to give her little girl a shot at a normal life. It all catches up with her eventually, showing us that being a mother is an important facet of who we are, but we cannot let it consume our full identities, and we cannot pretend to be something we are not.

4. Alison Scott from Knocked Up

The most normalized narrative about motherhood tells us that we fall in love, get married, and have a baby. Thanks to the hard work of feminists everywhere, that narrative is shifting a little to something like work hard, get a career, find stability, fall in love, get married, and have a baby. Alison is in the early stages of this modern path when a one night stand leads her to unplanned motherhood. She has moments where she has to test her new balance, but she manages to get a promotion in her career, navigate the complexity of a budding relationship, and handle pregnancy. 

Bonus Parenting Tip: Even though her pregnancy is a shock, Alison reacts to it by consuming as much information as she can. She reads lots of books about pregnancy and goes through a series of doctors to find the right fit. These actions lead her to decide a natural birth is right for her (and she gets it, though not quite how she planned). She shows us that the best way to handle the unknowns of parenthood is to become informed and make decisions that make sense to us.

5. Erin Brockovich from Erin Brockovich

I include Erin on this list because the film often portrays her struggling to balance. Her role as mother is often sidelined while she follows her passion as an advocate for those wronged by PG&E's greed. Over the course of the film, we see her miss her youngest daughter's first words, enrage her son because she's not available to take him to play with his friends, and fight the guilt of feeling like she's neglecting her kids. To me, this film illustrates that the balance is not always, well, balanced. Sometimes the scales tip, but always with the understanding that they will even out in the long run. Erin made the sacrifice because she wanted a better life for her and her children and because she wanted to use her skills to make a difference in the world.

Bonus Parenting Tip: Erin oringinally leaves her children with an in-home daycare provider who totally flakes and drops the kids off at home alone. Stuck without childcare, she gives in to the neighbor who offers to help: a long-haired, motorcycle-riding man. This decision surely raised some eyebrows, but her kids were in an immensely safer environment. She teaches us that sometimes we have to trust what we know is best for our children, regardless of how the outside world might view it.

Lest you think Hollywood itself is unbalanced in its portrayal of mothers with multiple roles, there are plenty of films where the balancing act doesn't go over so well. To illustrate, I give you the following examples:

1. Samantha Caine/Charly Baltimore from The Long Kiss Goodnight-

If you haven't seen this movie, you should. Not because it's good. It's not. But it's hilarious. Samantha Caine washed up on shore pregnant with no memory. She falls into the life of a sterotypical housewife, baking cookies and waving from the town's parade float. Then she gets involved in a ridiculously entertaining series of events that leave her piecing together her prior identity (as a spy) while being pursued by her ex-enemies who thought her dead. Now, admittedly, this would be an unorthodox amount of stuff to balance, but that doesn't excuse the fact that, at one point, she blows a hole through the wall with a bazooka and launches her daughter into a nearby tree house. Or that her tenderest mothering moment is taunting her whimpering daughter after she falls on the ice.

2. Ginger from Casino

I think Ginger gets a bad rap. She clearly explains that she's not wife material, but she gets married anyway. When we meet her at the beginning of the movie, she is gorgeous, self-possessed, and successful (if not always ethical). By the end, she's a trainwreck drug addict who has pretty much single-handedly ruined the lives of everyone around her. In between, she ties her daughter to a bed so that she can go out for a drink without the hassel of finding a babysitter and uses her as a bargaining chip so that her husband will let her back in the house to get the one thing she really cares about: her jewelry.

So, Happy Mother's Day! And if you ever feel like it's all crashing down around you, just remember, you've probably never thrown your kid through a hole you just blew in the wall!

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