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Motherhood Is Not Just For Mothers

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In the comedy "Motherhood," which I wrote and directed, and which stars Uma Thurman, Anthony Edwards and Minnie Driver, Uma's character Eliza is a stalled fiction writer who channels her desire for self-expression into a mom blog called "The Bjorn Identity." I have to confide that until quite recently, I had never read a mom blog, partly because I still can't get past the first 4 pages of the novel I checked out of the library three months ago, which I consider most essential to nourishing my psychological well-being.

So I imagined what would likely appear on those blogs, and in what sort of voice. And I just went from there. Sometimes this is what writers do, especially when those writers are themselves mothers responsible for the vast majority of domestic tasks in their household, which means they are often both exhausted and seriously pressed for time.

Recently I had the occasion to be interviewed by a large group of mom bloggers on a conference call to promote my movie. Then I went and read their blogs. I found I was not at all far off in terms of content and tone, but that's not the point. The point is that even though I used the notion of mom blogging as a vessel for frustrated creative expression in my film, I didn't understand until recently exactly why mom blogs matter - and they matter desperately, especially to the women who write them, but also in a larger cultural sense.

Let's face facts: a sizable portion of the population looks upon mothers as whiney, trivial, and self-pitying, or at the very least, unworthy of feature film-length investigation. Both my movie -- and the myriad mom blogs floating across cyberspace - suggests that instead of dismissing mothers' voices, you should take a closer look. And then think again.

Yes, at times Uma Thurman's character Eliza wallows in her woes - or more precisely, finds herself so crushed by daily household duty that she can no longer see beyond them. But she is also fiery, opinionated, melancholy, funny, compassionate, loving and pissed off. In short, human. "Motherhood," like many mom blogs, insists that while the experience of motherhood inevitably trades in certain clichés (playground etiquette, the politics of snacking, the perils of overpraising), it also encompasses much more than that. The maternal condition in and of itself probes questions of female selfhood, the often-painful passage of time and the loss that accompanies it, the relationship of sacrifice to identity, even if sometimes those depths are masked by the art of the self-deprecating wisecrack (thank you, Erma Bombeck, our tart-tongued pioneer).

The problem is that as soon as a mother opens her mouth to talk about something mother (or child)-related, her audience is presumed to be only other mothers, because only other mothers could be interested in what that mother has to say - even though everyone on this planet originated from a mother, and thus might be curious about what aspects of that person's existence might be like. This is but one reason why I love the poster the marketing team came up for "Motherhood": a gigantic head shot of Uma-as-Eliza with a big pink pacifier stuffed in her mouth. As if to say, "Speak in this voice only." Or "Watch out, sister, motherhood will shut you up." And in some wider societal sense, it often does.

The stifling of a mother's self-expression starts early on, even when a child is in utero, and allegedly well-meaning strangers feel free to intervene in discussions about what you're eating, whether you're drinking any alcohol, how you're carrying, whether or not you're doing x, y or z thing 'correctly' because suddenly you're both presumed to be in dire need of help simply because you're a pregnant woman, but also because your body is no longer your own. This surrendering of self continues into early parenthood, and on through a child's passage toward independence.

Then what? If you've done your job right (whatever that means), your children take off and hopefully come home to visit once in a while. Once they're gone, some women have grown so unaccustomed to speaking in their own voices that they have to struggle to relocate who that original speaker actually was -- that distant creature who moved through space unencumbered before birthing babies. In a sense this is the crisis Uma's character Eliza faces in "Motherhood" - will I ever retrieve my original self? But also, can I adore my children and run a household and still carve out space to love not just my husband, but also, at the risk of sounding all Oprah about it, myself?

The mom blogger turns an entrenched history of domestic muffling on its head by allowing any woman with a high speed connection and a laptop to design a cool home page, come up with a funny-idiosyncratic site name, and then express whatever the hell she wants to express about what's going on with the kids, her own interests, or odd passions. What was most amazing to me about my conversation with the mom bloggers and the posts that resulted from it was how profoundly many mothers need to feel that there's a community of mothers who are both dedicated parents and committed to expressing themselves in the odd corners of the day. One can both serve and speak. These mom bloggers are trying to unplug the big pink pacifier and break a very isolating silence, the same one that created the phenomenon of "mother's little helper" to get a gal through those endless afternoons of stooping to pick up stray socks with no intelligent adult conversation in sight.

What was also remarkable about the mom bloggers was their thirst to realize that mothers in the public eye (like, for instance, Uma) still grapple with the questions that plague merely mortal mothers, and not just in some superficial "Stars - They're Just Like Us" ("they get parking tickets!") way. Even celebrity moms, unless they farm out every conceivable maternal task to paid staff, face such nagging questions as, Am I doing a good job? Did I unwittingly harm my kids by doing something I'm not fully conscious of doing? Why do I feel like I woke up from what Meg Wolitzer has called "the ten year nap" now that my children are through with the initial phases of childhood? Who did I see in the mirror once I woke up? These are universal questions that rarely get asked in any sustained way at the movies.

When people talk about who's going to go see "Motherhood" (and it's not going to be "Kill Bill" fanboys, because they're already ticked that their goddess of the yellow jumpsuit sports a baggy dress and a toddler in a backpack in this one), I get a lot of "Single men would rather take out their eyes with hot pokers than see this" or "For the childfree, isn't the movie kind of like birth control?" I often wonder what would happen if you extended this line of thinking to westerns, gangster flicks, film noir, Apatow comedies, or many other kinds of movies. Would anyone actually ever tell a cinemagoer they could only enjoy a particular 'genre' (and I'm not sure motherhood movies could even constitute a genre, since there are barely any of them) if he or she were a member of the exact group being explored? "No, you won't like that, you're not a cowboy."

Movies are stories. Stories that take us places we may not have been to before, in the hope of enlarging our sense of human drama or frailty or complexity. "Motherhood" is a story, too -- an experiential, quotidian kind of story that says one day in a mother's life, with its chores and errands and fervent efforts to make kids happy and keep a marriage alive and then, oh yes, possibly sustain an independent thought and maintain a soupcon of self-worth- that is enough, that warrants a movie. Certainly films have been hung on far less. And yet, somehow, for reasons that warrant a much deeper exploration, motherhood is never enough.

This is why I decided to write a movie that insists a mother's life is worth watching, even if its shifts are small, closer to eddies than raging rivers. There's no big story 'arc' except the more minor key movements of frustration and acceptance, fatigue and endurance, self-doubt and the clarity of a well-expressed emotion. Unless a mother's experience is integrated into the rest of the world's with some sense of agency, moving beyond the usual one-note deification or withering reduction that's just another way of robbing a mother of dimension, and until a mother's activities are considered to have as much value as a space warrior's or an assassin's, a movie like "Motherhood" is going to stand on its stubborn, lonesome two feet - feet that may very well not have seen a pedicure in months, by the way. A mother's experiences constitute a life that's both rich and sometimes frustrating, but above all, it is a meaningful life. So instead of treating motherhood as an insular experience of interest limited to only its own female practitioners, maybe it's time to consider that motherhood can actually help give a woman her voice.

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