Before Big Little Lies, how many other films and television shows have portrayed women who regret becoming mothers? We’ll wait.
As advanced and progressive as humans seem to think we are, it’s troubling that women are still mainly defined by whether or not they opt in to motherhood. Those who do have supposedly fulfilled their purpose on earth. Those who opt out are stigmatized and publicly shamed.
I’ve chosen to remain childfree, and I’m one of those women who is regularly shamed for it. In contrast, my husband gets high-fives and understanding glances. I am on the receiving end of confusion, furrowed brows, anger, resentment. I’m told things like, “You’ll never truly understand love,” “You’ll regret it when you’re old,” and “You’ll never be a real woman.”
When I found myself sucked into HBO’s Big Little Lies, I never imagined that my choice to be childfree would be affirmed over and over again while watching a group of affluent mothers struggle to find balance in their kid-oriented lives. It took me a few episodes to figure out why I kept getting drawn back into their drama, aside from the as-yet-unreavealed murder victim.
The majority of the women in Big Little Lies are the kinds of mothers nobody ever talks about: women who are not as fulfilled by motherhood as they thought they would or should be.
Celeste Wright (Nicole Kidman) was a successful lawyer with a thriving career until her abusive and possessive husband Perry (Alexander Skarsgård) pressured her into forgoing her passion to be a stay-at-home mom. Renata Klein (Laura Dern) refused to give up her career for full-time mothering and is one of the most hated mothers at her child’s school because of it. Madeline Mackenzie (Reese Witherspoon) is a helicopter mom who can’t help but stick her nose into everyone’s business to keep herself from dwelling too much on her unhappiness. Jane Chapman (Shailene Woodley) decided to keep her baby, conceived during a rape, because she thought that would help her deal with being sexually assaulted. Pro tip: That doesn’t work. Ever.
Once Celeste re-dons her lawyer hat after more than six years away, she says to Madeline:
“I feel so ashamed for saying this, but being a mother is just not enough for me. It’s just not. Not even close. It’s evil, right? I said it aloud. I’m evil.”
Wow. I don’t think I’ve ever heard a woman on film or television ever admit that motherhood isn’t the pinnacle of a woman’s experience.
Thinking it makes a mother evil to want to be more than a mom is true patriarchal entrenchment. To not be satisfied by motherhood only. That there is something fundamentally wrong with her if it’s not enough.
And Celeste isn’t the only one in Big Little Lies who wants more. All the women miss being someone more, though some deal with it better than others. Even the moms who are at war with each other in Big Little Lies have this one incredible, dark thing in common.
Watching Big Little Lies — a show I had pegged as “white women shit” and “peak white feminism” over and over to my husband — suddenly became a subversive act.
I went through my mental file of film and television shows for other examples where motherhood is presented as something of a regret. Are there other narratives where women openly show their displeasure with the limitations of motherhood? Not really. Other than We Need To Talk About Kevin, Precious, The Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood, Mommie Dearest and — marginally — Malcolm in the Middle, Mermaids and Bread and Tulips, nobody I asked could come up with fresh examples.
It seems that presenting motherhood as something with even the potential to not be fulfilling is as taboo a topic in film and television as it is in real life. Yet there are a lot of women who struggle with this question. Because I’m child-free, mothers often confide in me how much they admire my resolve to not have kids. Often, these women confess that they regret their choices. They love their kids, but if they could do it over, they wouldn’t have them.
There probably are mothers out there who wanted nothing more than to be moms; I’m happy they found their calling. The problem is when that particular group becomes representative of and for the experience of all mothers. Worse, when that niche group becomes representative for all women.
It is an unreasonable expectation to expect that all women should be fulfilled by this one particular — and exceedingly difficult — life choice. Because, let’s face it, motherhood isn’t even considered a choice for many. It is considered the gold standard, a fait acompli, a social demand for human beings who possess a uterus. (And that’s in countries where women and girls aren’t still treated as property.)
HBO’s Big Little Lies is doing a lot of things right when it comes to nuanced portrayals of domestic violence and abuse. And major kudos to HBO for finally including a rape content warning at the beginning of episodes. We’ve been asking for that for years.
But the most important thing Big Little Lies has done is make clear that motherhood is not the be-all end-all for women. It is not always the solution. It does not always mean living the dream. Motherhood doesn’t assure a perfect life and a perfect woman’s experience. And it is okay for women to want more, even as mothers. Big Little Lies performs an important social service in this regard. The only way to smash a patriarchal taboo is to bring it into the light. I hope we see more like it.