Much is being written or vlogged about Greta Gerwig’s “Little Women.” May I join in?
Seated in perfect seats in the Somerville Theater on a rainy Saturday afternoon, a beloved, grown daughter by my side, I was already prepared to adore this latest iteration of a beloved novel-turned-film classic, released on Christmas Day of 2019. (Remember back then?) And I wasn’t disappointed.
Geraldine Brooks’ 2005 Pulizer-prize winning novel, March much on my mind, which features a hot-tempered Marmee, I was eager, over dinner, to discuss this latest film version of that fictional mother, played by Laura Dern, with my insightful daughter. Who is painfully aware of both my own struggles with anger —and my mother’s. And so my daughter was moved, as was I, when Dern’s Marmee admits to her daughter Jo, “I’m angry nearly every day of my life.”
My mother used to tell me that one of the things I did that infuriated her was that I gave my father a free pass but was highly critical of her. Her anger. “Double standard,” she’d hiss when she perceived yet another transgression. For years I’d dismiss her hissings as indicative of a far more hurtful truth: my dad was so much more lovable. He deserved a free pass. (Ouch.)
Older now, I see much truth in my mother’s accusation; a Truth inexorably bound up in powerful and cultural expectations of the Good Mother, aka “The Angel of the House.” (Another highly successful nineteenth-century writer, Charles Dickens, deserves lots of blame here.) An avid reader of Dickens and Louisa May Alcott, as a child and adolescent I both expected my mother to be another Marmee and gave little thought as to why she wasn’t. Marlee’s saintly and unselfish actions? Like when Dern’s character, exhausted, destitute, nevertheless wraps her own scarf into a bundle she hands over to a struggling father who’d lost two sons in the Civil War? That’s what a Good Mother looks like. Yikes.
So, right here, right now, a shout-out to another novelist, Sue Miller, for her 2002 The Good Mother, to Donald Winnicott, who’d coined the phrase, “the good enough mother,” and to feminists everywhere.
Good enough mothers like mine, like me, often confuse anger* with sadness. (Which is a whole other subject.) More to the point: Like Marmee, whose idealistic husband gives away all the family’s money before abandoning his wife and four daughters to go off to war, we, too, are plagued by present-day outrages and injustices and cruelties. So, yeah, we’re endlessly pissed, too. Of course we are! There’s plenty to be angry about. So we lose it. All the time.
And then many us are then overcome by shame. Because we can’t be like Marmee.
*Not talking about rage, although God knows my daughters know and I know what that looks like on the face of a furious mother. That’s terrifying! Rage should be squashed. Controlled. Redirected. Might Marmee’s scarf-giving have been a symbolic handing-over of her rage at War? Might she have been, in that instant, creating her own ritual?