I watched two movies about mothers of young children recently that reminded me how it felt to be judged by teachers and other parents. It’s been a long time now, but the feeling came back, raw, as I watched Tully and Little Children, now out on DVD.
In Tully, Charlize Theron plays Marlo, struggling to parent a difficult child, her second, while imminently expecting a third. As her due date looms, we learn that her son’s school doesn’t want him there. We can see why—he’s difficult—but our sympathies go with Marlo, and not the stuffy, full-of-itself school.
I went through this too. My child was much more complicated than other kids. (That was the psychiatrist’s word, the one who did my son’s evaluation at 3. “The most complicated kid he’d ever seen.”) I needed a manual, or barring that, support, but this was in the early days of the autism bump and awareness was almost non-existent.
There weren’t any special schools or magic pills so I put my son in the best-rated school I could find.
Most days they summoned me to come pick him up early. He didn’t follow instructions. He grabbed toys from other kids. He was disruptive. The teachers’ notes implicated me—I was the cause of his behavior problems, though I’d shared his diagnosis. It was Pervasive Developmental Disorder Non-specified. (Gotta love those DSM categories—it’s easier to say “autism spectrum” and leave it at that.)
Awareness improved over the next couple decades, but for a while I was in the same bind as mothers in the 1940s-1960s, when autism was blamed on “frosty” mothers.
So, when Marlo is summoned to the school and told by the principal, “It’s not a good fit,” I feel her outrage. She loses it and calls them names, (which I felt like doing, but didn’t).
If the movie had followed this course, it could have been great. Marlo’s unfiltered quips are hysterical. I identified with her and rooted for her. Then the movie took a bizarre turn in a different direction. I’d compare it to a push-me-pull-you, it had two heads and no tails.
I don’t like to read reviews—I like to come to my own conclusions, so I should mention that I’m in the minority. Rotten Tomatoes loves Tully. Check it out—you might agree, and for once I haven’t given away the plot.
Little Children was much more satisfying. Sarah, played by Kate Winslet, takes her daughter to play at a park where a clique of mothers derides her for such crimes as forgetting snacks. She gets back at them by kissing the hunky dad they all have crushes on. She doesn’t mean anything by it, but a friendship blooms with him, and then it turns to more.
This is a huge departure from my story as a mother who felt judged by others, but I cheered Sarah anyway, especially when her cold husband turned out to be a porn addict.
Little Children kept me engaged as it explored larger themes—that it’s necessary to look deeper than the surface, rather than making snap judgments, and that motherhood can be complicated.
A sex offender has recently moved back to town and is living with his mother, who loves her son and tries to protect him from attacks by a former policeman, but also, wants desperately for him to be normal, and insists he try online dating to fix himself.
What a dilemma to face as a parent—certainly it makes my struggles look like nothing. Mothers (most anyway) want the best for our children, but we can only do so much. As the movie unfolds, Sarah will be confronted with choices that pit the best interests of her child against what she wants.
For once, I won’t give it all away.