The Redemption of the Bad Mother

Two recent works challenge the long-standing pact of American motherhood: We give mothers nothing and expect everything in return.

A cracked image of a woman holding a child and staring intently
Claire Merchlinsky

The moments I felt most viscerally in Maggie Gyllenhaal’s The Lost Daughter, an intermittently dreamy and menacing exploration of maternal ambivalence, weren’t when Leda (played by Olivia Colman) confesses, weeping, that as a young mother she abandoned her children, or when a worm wriggles out of the mouth of the doll that Leda has stolen, as if to literalize the movie’s themes of love and caretaking corrupted. Rather, two other scenes felt jarring to me: one when Leda is sitting in blissful solitude on a beach, and another when she’s at a cinema watching The Last Time I Saw Paris. In both, Leda’s contented absorption is rudely interrupted by loud, thoughtless groups who commandeer her space and disrupt her peace.

This is, it has to be said, a fairly brutal re-creation of the experience of having children. In motherhood, there is no space anymore; there are no idle stretches of time within which to ruminate or look at the sky or simply let your mind do nothing at all. There is no more catering only to yourself. Time, while precious, can be bought; space, that mental state of unfettered carelessness, cannot. “When I leave her,” Rachel Cusk wrote of her baby in her 2001 book, A Life’s Work: On Becoming a Mother, “the world bears the taint of my leaving, so that abandonment must now be subtracted from the sum of whatever I choose to do. A visit to the cinema is no longer that: It is less, a tarnished thing, an alloyed pleasure.”

Space is selfish, and the bargain you make when you decide to be a “good” mother is that there is no self anymore—all happiness and gratification now comes from the happiness and gratification of your children. “You have to recognize the difference between what you want and what she wants,” a social worker tells Frida, the central character in Jessamine Chan’s lightly dystopian new novel, The School for Good Mothers. Her implication is that what Frida wants no longer applies. “A mother is always patient,” instructors tell Frida when she’s institutionalized after making the catastrophic decision to briefly leave her toddler alone. “A mother is the buffer between her child and the cruel world. Absorb it,” they tell her. “Take it. Take it.” Left unacknowledged is the truth that human beings can only stretch so far before they break.

The question is what that breaking looks like. I had hit what felt like 20 breaking points at this time last year, when I had two six-month-olds who were supposed to be starting at a day care that was closed because of a COVID outbreak and a brain that was too exhausted and anxious to be able to find words to write. I hit one this week when I finally managed to finish a paragraph but then got a phone call asking me to pick up a child who was coughing and crying inconsolably. I have broken over and over in these past 18 months and nothing has come of it, because, truthfully, breaking isn’t an option. I do—almost all mothers do—care more about my children’s happiness and safety than my own. But I’m grateful for a spate of new works, The Lost Daughter and The School for Good Mothers among them, that are confronting the idea that being a “good” mother means totally suppressing all your own needs and desires and instincts. They challenge the long-standing pact of American motherhood: We give mothers nothing and expect everything in return.


Let me return to this idea of space, because it’s the opposite of children, of days ritualistically carved into mealtimes and nap times and playtimes and bath times and No and Please mama mama mama pleeeease. Space is what compels Leda to leave her daughters, what induces Frida, after sleeping only six and a half hours across four nights, to stow her toddler in an ExerSaucer and leave the house without her. Frida feels “mounting frustration and angst, the selfish desire for a moment of peace.” Most days, she thinks, “she can talk herself down from that cliff.” But one day, she can’t. She gets in the car to pick up some papers she needs for work, but can't make herself go home. The pleasure of being gone is too potent, “the pleasure of forgetting her body, her life.” When she returns about two and a half hours later, a neighbor has called the police and her daughter is in state custody.

Chan is clear-eyed in describing Frida’s crime. While she’s gone, her daughter, Harriet, cries so much that her voice is hoarse by the time Frida sees her at the police station. The ExerSaucer is soiled, visible proof of Harriet’s distress. The point of the scene is not to doubt that Frida has done a terrible thing, but to consider why she did it, and to experience her punishment alongside her. Chan’s novel is dystopic but grounded in emotional realism: After a judge determines that Frida abandoned her daughter, she’s obliged to spend a year in an institution charged with rehabilitating bad mothers, a new initiative seemingly funded by tech money and likely implemented by a referendum in a local election. Housed in a former liberal-arts college (a dark joke), the center puts its inmates through ordeals meant to replicate the tests of motherhood, each more awful than the last. If the bad mothers succeed in “learning to be good,” they have a chance of getting their children back.

The School for Good Mothers is crafted like a sinkhole, all the more nightmarish for how plausibly it pulls Frida in and entraps her. The book’s futuristic twists—at the school, robots simulate toddlers—jazz up its defiantly simple premise: This is a novel that portrays what it’s like to make a terrible mistake that costs you your child. We are party to Frida’s doubt and exhaustion and panic. The weight of her guilt is suffocating. The institution is less brutal, in some ways, than her own internal monologue—all the voices in her head telling Frida how she’s failing. On Thanksgiving she imagines in detail, over several pages, all the awful things her family members are saying about her and why she’s absent. The state can scrutinize Frida as ruthlessly as it likes, but it’ll never manage to best all the ways she critiques herself.

Chan states in the book’s notes that she was inspired, in part, by two stories in The New Yorker: one about a mother who, like Frida, left her child at home unsupervised, and another about efforts in Providence, Rhode Island, to train low-income parents to talk more with their children, in part by recording those mothers throughout the day. Some of the power of Chan’s narrative comes from being shocked that the kind of mother who’s typically protected by the state—an educated, upper-middle-class woman who screws up—is suddenly as vulnerable to it as a mother without those kinds of privileges. “Torture is not a word to use lightly,” an instructor tells Frida after a particularly monstrous round of assessments. “We’re putting you in high-pressure scenarios so we can see what kind of mother you are.” It’s an accidentally frank acknowledgment that the “kind” of mother one person is might depend less on her than on circumstance.


The Lost Daughter has a different, starker viewpoint. “I’m an unnatural mother,” Leda tells Nina (Dakota Johnson), a younger woman whose depression and reluctance to engage with her child reminds Leda of herself. Gyllenhaal, who both directed the movie and wrote the screenplay, which is based on an Elena Ferrante novel, makes no attempt to ground Leda’s behavior in mitigating circumstances. Rather, Gyllenhaal makes her joyful disconnection, her freedom on a vacation in midlife, the film’s core argument. In one of the movie’s opening scenes, Leda drives to her apartment on the fictional Greek island of Kyopeli, light and loose in the sunlight, letting her arm dance in the currents out the window. The next day, she wakes and walks down to the water, letting herself float in the sea, unburdened. It seems almost unfair, two years into a pandemic that has squeezed and enraged parents like never before, to present this alternative reality: sun, sea, solitude, Paul Mescal cheerfully proffering a Cornetto.

Ultimately, though, Leda can’t escape her children. The arrival of Nina’s family, a boisterous clan from Queens, floods Leda with memories of holidays with her daughters, screaming fights, all the days she wanted room to work but couldn’t have it. In the movie, Leda’s lover quotes the philosopher Simone Weil, who wrote that “attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity.” Looking back, Leda has little of either for her children. (We rarely remember the times we did everything right.) “What did it feel like without them?” Nina asks when Leda confesses her sins. “It felt amazing,” Leda replies. “It felt like I’d been trying not to explode and then I exploded.” In flashback, her husband feels not only abandoned by her actions but also unmanned: “Do you need me to cut my balls off?” he asks her. The moment reminded me of the narrator of Claire Vaye Watkins’s novel I Love You but I’ve Chosen Darkness, who declares that she leaves her child because she wants “to behave like a man, a slightly bad one,” her choice of adverb its own explanatory footnote. Leaving your children is only a mortal sin, apparently, when women do it.

To condemn Leda is easy; like Frida, she condemns herself. (“I went back because I missed them,” she explains, adding, “I’m a very selfish person.”) One of the reasons I appreciated thinking about The School for Good Mothers alongsideThe Lost Daughter was that one portrays, in agonizing detail, the load of motherhood, and the other its absence. In an interview with my colleague Shirley Li, Gyllenhaal pointed to Leda’s “unnatural mother” line as presenting its own inverted question: “What’s a natural mother?” I’d argue that, however you define the answer, it is not the same thing as being a “good” one.


Related Podcast

Listen to Sophie Gilbert discuss The Lost Daughter on an episode of The Atlantic’s culture podcast The Review:

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