Ms. Representation: Our mothers need to be saved
This weekly column is a rumination on how women are portrayed in cinema, and this week the author discusses why the glorification of motherhood needs to stop
“You know, had that been my bandaid, you would have asked me to shut up and fix it myself,” says Mare to her mother Helen, in the HBO series, Mare of Easttown (streaming on Disney Hotstar). “Oh, is that something you talk about in therapy?” Helen asks, with a small smile, before acknowledging that she had indeed used her daughter as a vent for her anger. “Your father wasn’t the man I thought he was, I couldn’t fix him. I was so angry, and I took that on you.” When Mare forgives her, Helen says, “Good, because I forgave myself long ago”, before breaking down into tears. And then comes the clincher. “You need to forgive yourself too, Mare… for Kevin. It is not your fault,” she says. (For context, Kevin is Mare’s drug-addict son, who dies of suicide.)
This is an example of mom guilt, in Mare of Easttown, a series about many mothers. Mom guilt is the feeling that you haven’t done enough as a parent. Though the term is inclusive of dads, it must be noted that across the world, women are expected to be the natural caregivers, not just as moms, but even as caretakers of the elderly and the ill. Research suggests that women suffer more than men, from the negative consequences of providing care.
On the surface, Mare of Easttown might be a whodunit, but it is actually about the trauma women bear as caregivers. There's the cancer-stricken Dawn, searching for her daughter Katie for more than a year; there’s 17-year-old Erin, trying to gather funds for her infant son’s ear surgery. There’s Carrie trying to become sober and take better care of her son; Betty, who’s exhausted from taking care of her drug-addict brother. There’s Mare herself, reeling from the trauma of two suicides. The burden falls on them, whether they seek it or not. Even when they have help, they blame themselves when something goes wrong. Mare’s husband, for instance, has moved on, but she is still stuck in the trenches of grief.
I loved the series for how it breaks down the myth of the ‘supermom’. Mare breathes exhaustion throughout the show—like she knows that she would collapse if she stopped walking forward. The exceptional writing shows how women rarely do something for themselves. Kate Winslet is terrific as the flawed, grieving, and yet charismatic, Mare Sheehan. The show also acknowledges the toxic cycle of women inflicting guilt on each other, but it’s beautiful when they realise the humanity of it all. It is even more refreshing when Mare eventually embraces therapy, opens up, and truly grieves.
This conversation is important particularly in the Indian context. Women are taking to work outside their homes, and yet, they are also expected to double up as the dominant caregiver at home. As writer Amy Westervelt puts it, “We expect women to work like they don’t have children, and raise children as if they don’t work.” Psychiatric epidemiological data cites a ratio of one woman for every three men attending public health psychiatric outpatients’ clinics in urban India.
This is why a show like The Family Man 2 too, that discusses mom guilt, is refreshing. It has been criticised for its representation of LTTE, and the dark makeup used on Samantha to portray her as an Eelam woman. But with Suchitra’s (Priyamani) story, it hits some right notes. Not only does it discuss the guilt that a mom faces in balancing her career and family, but it also shows how kids react when a mother is absent as opposed to when a father is absent. Furthermore, it shows Suchitra rightly shutting down Srikanth when he says he has been trying to make her happy by taking a less demanding job and spending time with the family. She has been doing this for their whole marriage. Men, somewhere, subconsciously, still seem to believe that their ‘sacrifices’ need to be rewarded, while for women, it is simply 'duty'.
It all boils down to one important message: Glorification of motherhood needs to stop. Recently, there was a viral image that showed a mother making rotis while wearing an oxygen mask. As sad and infuriating as the image was, the caption made it worse: ‘Unconditional love = Mother. She is never off duty.’ Our mothers are conditioned to feel instinctive guilt when they fail to live up to expectations—from society, their family, and themselves. They need to be rescued.