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Women's History Month 2022 Pregnancy in Film Series: Raising a Child

Updated: Mar 15, 2022

Alas, we’ve arrived at the last leg of the series: the birthing and raising of babies in film. Whether the child was planned or not, the mother has made the decision to rearrange her life and welcome the challenges of starting a family. Equal parts overwhelming and wonderful, all the extremes of realizing motherhood are captured in the following selection of films.

One Sings, the Other Doesn't (1977) dir. Agnès Varda

We return once again to One Sings, the Other Doesn’t (1977), the well-aged starter dough for depictions of womanhood. Although the first half of the film builds the friendship of its two protagonists, Pomme and Suzanne, upon their mutual desire for reproductive autonomy, the second half of the film details Pomme’s decision to become a mother.


In her 20s, Pomme is a carefree artist with a feminist musical act that somewhat satirizes traditional aspects of femininity. She has a liberal-minded boyfriend from Iran, Darius, who she is perfectly content to date without family planning. A sudden spur-of-the-moment decision sees her relocating to Iran with Darius. They marry and conceive their first child. Although she is at first excited about having a baby, Darius' more misogynistic traits start to reveal themselves in his locale. Pomme, once encouraged to pursue her artistic inclinations, now feels confined to the domestic sphere. She decides to go back to France to give birth to her baby.

Pomme may have never expected herself to want children, but she describes her experience in Iran as if she fell into a trance. Noting the gendered division of Iranian society, having a child seemed like the natural thing to do. Perhaps it was her isolation that contributed to her craving for motherhood, as she was left at home all day without much to do. Her decision to return to France came along with the realization that she had lost both a valuable part of her identity and a reliable support system that would have reminded her of who she is at her core.


Her now-husband Darius claims their son as his own. Soon after Pomme gives birth in France, he declares that he’s taking him back to Iran. Pomme agrees, under the condition that he impregnates her again so she can have a child of her own to keep. The arrangement is certainly unconventional, but when has Pomme ever been one to cling to tradition? She realizes that she is more herself alone than she is with him. Eventually, she joins another girl group (one that celebrates womanhood in all forms) that lives and works on the road. She chooses to raise her second baby in her caravan of folk singing hippies.

Pomme’s strong sense of self allows her to develop her own definition of motherhood. Although she undoubtedly loved Darius, she was not prepared to settle into domestic life in the traditional sense. It compromised her values and undermined her talents. Her friend Suzanne was able to remarry and provide her two children with some stability. Pomme, on the other hand, needs variability to thrive. Her vagabond lifestyle is not a fit for all, but she was able to come through a time when she lost part of herself to determine where and how she would be happiest. She was not willing to sacrifice that, and ultimately, raising a child on the road with her fellow artists spoke to her as a viable solution.


One Sings, the Other Doesn’t calls upon women to live the life that pleases them. Pomme and Suzanne were there to support each other when the future became foggy. Suzanne forwards her approach to life and motherhood to her eldest daughter, who proudly articulates that she has to fully love someone in order to make love, forwarding the cycle of independence and introspection.


Parallel Mothers (2021) dir. Pedro Almodóvar

Along the same lines of pregnancy uniting two souls is Pedro Almodóvar’s Parallel Mothers (2021). Penelope Cruz and Milena Smit play two women who meet when they share a birthing room at the hospital. Janis (Cruz) is in her late 30s and was impregnated by a married man with whom she had a brief affair. Ana (Smit), in contrast, is barely 18, and is it revealed later on that her pregnancy resulted from gang rape.


After giving birth, the two part ways, but as to be expected with an Almodóvar film, there are plenty of twists and turns. Janis supports herself and has an arrangement with an American study abroad student to watch her child while she is at work. Comments about Janis’ baby looking rather “ethnic” convince her to seek out a maternity test, revealing that her daughter is not biologically hers. Janis runs into Ana at a cafe only to discover that Ana’s baby died in a crib birth, which, with the knowledge of the maternity test, means that it was actually Janis’ biological baby who died. Janis struggles with whether to tell Ana what she knows about her baby, but once Ana moves in to become the live-in help (and eventual sexual partner), things become complicated.

By the time the truth comes out, Ana, who is in unrequited love with Janis, is furious. She takes her baby and moves out of the house. They reconcile to let Janis be a part of the baby’s life, but with Ana as her recognized mother. There certainly could’ve been a co-parenting situation arranged had Janis loved Ana as much as Ana did Janis, but Janis’ true love lies with the married man, who announces that he’s divorcing his wife to be with her. Janis’ stint as a mother who birthed, breastfed, and grew connected to a baby did end. Luckily, she was able to become pregnant again (not all are so lucky), but it’s no doubt a strange concept to go from mother to auntie in a swift movement.

The most compelling aspect of motherhood, for me at least, is possession. A child belongs to you after they are born to you. At what moment does time overpower blood? Parallel Mothers’ discourse of motherhood comes back to the age-old question of nature v. nurture. Janis has taken care of her daughter for weeks before performing the test and months before running into Ana again, which, in all fairness, she herself manipulated by changing her phone number.


But does Janis owe Ana the return of her daughter? There is the element of motherhood being desired: Janis was thrilled at the idea of having a baby, whereas Ana was intimidated. However, Ana grew to embrace the responsibility. There is also the element of the baby’s conception: both were born out of socially frowned upon circumstances, although rape is no doubt a more painful occurrence to relive than infidelity. Both women are on their own at the time of their pregnancy, but while Janis pushed her man away for a sense of control, Ana was abandoned by her career-minded mother. She, too, came to crave self-sufficiency. Ana's baby gave her direction, which not everyone can say. Perhaps it was best that baby Cecelia ended up in her true mother's hands, in all that she stands for as a fortunate byproduct of her life-altering trauma. Ana can credit her ascent to motherhood as a happy miracle.


Although Janis was (initially) lucky enough to choose to raise a child on her own, many women are faced with uncontrollable abandonment by their partners. Such are the cases of Roma (2018), Love, Rosie (2014), and If Beale Street Could Talk (2018). Although the latter was a byproduct of the racist judicial system and not a man being a general dud, the women in all of the situations are forced to deal with aspects of their pregnancy with an alternative support group – in this case, family – used in these films to illustrate women's adaptive and robust nature in child-raising.

Roma (2018) dir. Alfonso Cuarón

In Alfonso Cuarón's Roma (2018), live-in maid Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio) becomes pregnant by her fairweather boyfriend. He subsequently abandons her, leaving her to the aid of her employer, Sofía, who herself is in the process of separating from her own disloyal husband. Sofía and her mother arrange Cleo’s hospital check-ins and show legitimate concern for her well-being. Over time, Sofía makes herself vulnerable regarding her own crisis, solemnly proclaiming, “No matter what they tell you, we women are always alone.”

Unfortunately, when Cleo’s water breaks ahead of schedule, her baby is stillborn. The tragedy of the passing somewhat lifts at the film’s climax when, after Cleo rescues them from a strong ocean current, she reveals that she had not wanted the baby to be born. Sofía’s children hug Cleo, demonstrating her role as found mother to their family. Despite the isolation both women experience by way of abandonment, Cleo and Sofía bond over their mutual love for Sofía’s children. By the grace of God, they are not so alone after all. Even though Cleo would have been willing and able to raise her child in good care, she is grateful to be free of additional burden, and in the company of those who truly love and support her.


Love, Rosie (2014) dir. Christian Ditter

Christian Ditter’s Love, Rosie (2014), meanwhile, depicts its protagonist, Rosie (Lily Collins), as becoming pregnant by a slip in contraception after a one-night stand with Greg in high school. When he finds out, he flakes. Rosie doesn’t tell her true love, Alex (Sam Claflin), out of fear that he will abandon his plans of heading to Harvard. As a result, she has the baby in secret with the help of her family and friends, giving up her own dream of going to college in the U.S.


Rosie deals with motherhood on her own for five years before Rosie reconciles with Greg, but their arrangement still isn’t very happy. It is only by being married to him that she understands raising a child alone is hard, but it can be even harder to raise a child with someone you don’t truly love. Rosie doesn’t end up with Alex for quite a long time, but it isn’t out of a fear of being alone. He is simply the right person for her. Rosie comes to embrace motherhood as a blessing even though it interrupted her plans and made her life messier. She put her daughter first, which came with some sacrifices, but it ultimately helped her find beauty in the little things, which Alex had to go through years abroad to fully appreciate.


If Beale Street Could Talk (2018) dir. Barry Jenkins

Barry Jenkins’ If Beale Street Could Talk (2018) sees its lovestruck protagonists Tish and Fonny (Kiki Layne and Stephan James) split apart by racist institutions that falsely accuse Fonny of raping a white woman. While I would argue that Tish’s character is a little too saccharine to fully dig into (her character embracing traditional roles of femininity is not at all the issue, here, it’s mostly that Jenkins' adaptation glazes over moments of realism for the sake of presentation), I do believe imprisonment is an important issue to discuss when it comes to pregnant women. Whether their partners are wrongfully convicted or not, it is an intense burden for a woman to carry and deliver a child while their father is locked away for an imprecise number of weeks or years.


Tish is condemned by Fonny’s mother for having conceived a child out of wedlock, which burns a bridge with a potentially maternal figure to guide her along her pregnancy. Tish’s own mother is committed and resilient, but the push and pull of her parents and future in-laws leave Tish straggling and somewhat powerless. She is put in an extremely vulnerable position in her household, not only financially, but mentally, as her sense of hope relies on Fonny’s eventual release. It’s a tepid waiting game that threatens to normalize his absence. She may continue to live under the supervision of her equally anxious parents. It’s a bittersweet finale to an epic poem of premeditated grief, with respect to the film’s non-linear organization.

Tish’s adaptation to Fonny’s imprisonment may take years, and even upon his release, she will likely still feel regret about the time they lost as a couple. But in such dire circumstances, women will persevere.


While some relationships terminate before the pregnancy even begins, these next films consider how a baby can change the dynamic of a happy couple, or, more broadly, the development of “family.” Blue Valentine (2013), A Happy Event (2011), and The Lost Daughter (2021) are empathetic to those women who are unable to find solace in their children or partners.

Blue Valentine (2010) dir. Derek Cianfrance

In Blue Valentine, Michelle Williams’ character Cindy discovers she is pregnant within a few weeks of starting to date Dean (Ryan Gosling). However, the film depicts Cindy’s abusive former boyfriend, Bobby, as finishing inside her without her consent earlier on in the film. She initially plans to have the baby aborted, as she has had an abortion before, but upon Dean’s reassurance, she decides to raise the child with him.

The film doesn’t detail their daughter’s birth or immediate life postpartum, instead jumping ahead five years to the couple’s domestic relationship. Cindy was able to complete some schooling, as she is a nurse, but she did not fulfill her dream of becoming a doctor. Dean paints houses and struggles with alcoholism. They constantly bicker, and the stress of her job and Dean’s ailment leaves Cindy desperate, especially when Dean tries to play the hero with their daughter. Her hope that Dean’s romance would offer her some peace was misled.

She is torn between staying true to her marriage vows and wanting to start over, particularly because of their financial misfortune. Although Cindy is primarily the breadwinner, she still feels trapped because of her responsibility to care for her child. Having a child with someone tends to keep someone in a bad marriage longer, and Blue Valentine is a shining example of intense external strain damaging those sorts of parental ties.


A Happy Event (2011) dir. Rémi Bezançon

Rémi Bezançon’s 2011 film Un heureux evénément (A Happy Event) tracks that same kind of disillusionment in the weeks following the birth of mother’s baby. In the film, Barbara (Louise Bourgoin) and Nicolas (Pio Marmaï) happily anticipate their child. They are a good couple, it appears, and half of their film is dedicated to their classic rom-com beginning (with several references to The Umbrellas of Cherbourg [1964], which I almost thought about including in this series due to its similar themes, but elected not to on the grounds of its profound vagueness). However, Barbara starts to feel very isolated in the late stages of her pregnancy and after her child is born.


The movie shows Barbara gradually becoming cognizant of the fact that, upon becoming pregnant, she is seen more as a function – a vessel for carrying life – than as a person. Her dedication to serving the fetus and then the child reduces her to a shell of her former self. Her postpartum depression is alienating to her husband, who wants to help her, but will also never quite understand what her body and mind have gone through in order to bring life into the world. In moments of surrealism, Barbara loses herself to her imagination. What sacrifice, and what dedication, it must take to be present, to love unconditionally, to be a good mom.


The Lost Daughter (2021) dir. Maggie Gyllenhaal

Likewise is that notion seen in Maggie Gyllenhaal’s challenging but powerful The Lost Daughter (2021), a film that might elicit a knee-jerk reaction of rejection from those who grew up with nurturing, always-there parents. Olivia Colman (and Jessie Buckley, who portrays her younger self) as Leda is mean and uncaring, but also filled to the brim with regret. When her two daughters were young, she left for three years. She pursued what she wanted to do – romantic interests, career-forwarding events – unchained to the domestic life she had endured more than she had enjoyed.


Most will interpret that decision as selfish. Does she feel no shame? Does she not love her children? She does, but it’s complicated. It’s unbearable to lose control of your own life to two tiny humans whose brains aren’t fully developed yet. Why do they call all the shots? Why must the sacrifice be made? It’s not a nice, fun movie, and Leda is not a nice, fun protagonist. But these kinds of parents exist out there in the world. Some people are that selfish. We just don’t usually afford women the chance to be. We believe they have to give up a part of themselves in order to fulfill their purpose of repopulating the earth and raising the next generation of thinkers and doers. Choosing the best thing for yourself isn’t lady-like.

Leda’s example may be extreme, but with all the negligent fathers out there in the world, her directness is almost refreshing. She has still managed to be on good terms with her daughters, and they still love her despite Leda’s temporary abandonment. Motherhood is not a perfect, unwavering line. Women, even those who consciously decide to reproduce, are only human, and devotion to child-rearing has its limits. Leda is not proud of her actions, or the joy she took in them, but it’s part of her truth. The stress of untreated frustration may very well lead to dramatic measures by the matriarch if she is pushed too far.


Tully (2018) dir. Jason Reitman

Finishing this series off is the incomparable Tully (2018). Diablo Cody’s second screenplay to make this series, Tully is the go-to mainstream depiction of motherhood. Cody wrote the film in order to deal with her own pregnancy. Charlize Theron’s performance as Marlo relays the unpretty and sometimes devastating side effects of attempts to be the perfect mom. Marlo, heavily pregnant, is ready to get the whole thing over with. It’s her third time through, and her other two kids are at the wonderful age of unexplainable tantrums and bountiful energy.


The movie’s shining opus is its postpartum montage, which coordinates the click of the light switch during the midnight baby cries, the snapping of the infant onesie buttons, and the routine forehead kiss delivered by Marlo’s barely-there husband Drew (Ron Livingston). It’s a sequence of folly for its rhythm, but of cyclical exhaustion for its protagonist. Marlo is left to deal with the diaper changes and the dinners and everything in between. Nearly at her breaking point, she ends up investing in a night nanny who takes care of the baby at night and performs all the tasks to make her a super-mom. But as it turns out, it is just actually just Marlo herself doing everything and tiring herself to a point of medical concern. She created an alter-ego that would be able to do everything that is expected of her as a wife, mother, and woman.

Whether or not that concept is bullet-proof as it is depicted in the film, it is a compelling idea. How far would someone push themselves to perform all the roles at once? Marlo reveals to her night nanny alter ego, who is essentially a younger, more energetic version of herself, that she used to live on the edge. She made the rounds prior to her current husband, and she dated a woman who she really loved. This is a moment of introspection for Marlo as she tries to determine how she got to her humdrum white-picket-fence existence. She reassures herself that she does really love Drew, and that he’s the right person for her. But surely there’s something missing, something left unfinished, some alternative reality she could've lived where she is not at the constant disposal of multiple co-dependents.

In the end, Marlo has to have a near-death experience for Drew to really pay attention to what she’s going through. It might seem a little anticlimactic that she decides to stick with him in the end, but they have their kids, their home, their foundation. Marlo will hopefully seek help for her postpartum depression, and Drew will hopefully open himself up to a romantic connection that is stronger because of the kids, rather than one that dwindles and disappears because of them. They are together in their mission: raising good kids who do the right thing.


Pregnancy can create a divide, but it can also forge a new connection. It can also redefine how you see the world. Whether you’re doing it with a partner, with a found family, or all by yourself, the decision to bring new life into the world and go to bat for it, regardless of the consequences, is an honorable one. Some people will never want that for themselves, and that’s okay too.


Motherhood comes in many different shapes and forms. Creating life is a magical thing that women are gifted with the ability to do, and the fruit of their labor (quite literally) may be the thing that gives someone purpose. The cycles are variable but never-ending, and they make this world possible. So long as women are afforded the ability to choose, they will overcome.

One Sings, the Other Doesn't (1977) dir. Agnès Varda

Thanks to everyone who stuck with me on this series. It’s been a passion project of mine for a while, and I hope people took away some recommendations or at least some new perspective about motherhood as it is portrayed in film. Perhaps I will revisit this topic and discuss motherhood as it progresses with age, but I have seen quite a few birth scenes over the past couple of weeks and I think I need a bit of a mental break. Peace to all, and happy Women’s History Month.


"Women's History Month 2022 Pregnancy Series: Raising a Child" is part of a 3-part series on pregnancy in film in honor of Women's History Month. The prior two articles, “Abortion,” and “Giving the Baby Away,” are available on the site now.


-Lydia

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