Looking around my home, I see a lot of my mother’s artwork. She didn’t give it to me, I stole it. By the time I made it there to pack up her things, she was past the point of noticing and the pieces only collected dust. Most of her work is signed and dated and tells a story that many women know to be true: it’s an uphill battle to raise kids and make art. By reading the dates, I can see that all of it was made either before she had my sisters and I or after she abandoned us. I do remember her doing some work while we were little, but it’s nothing compared to the stacks of paintings, drawings, prints, sculptures, tiles, ceramics, textiles and more that I found in her tiny one bedroom apartment.
When my husband and I met yesterday for a drink after I saw the latest Meryl Streep movie, “Rickie and the Flash,” I expressed my frustration at some of the more cliche elements of the film.
“I have to believe that it was the work of the suits that ruined that script,” I said, imagining Diablo Cody’s story being punched up and dumbed down by executives, rendering what might have been a thought provoking story about a motherhood, work, responsibility and passion into a shallow stab at a summer hit for mid-lifers.
“The big feel good family dance number? Are you kidding??? And are we to believe that Rickie pulls her daughter out of the pit of depression with the power of a mani/pedi and a cute haircut?” I really asked this, because judging from the Facebook posts I’d already seen, a lot of people believed just that.
“But that’s what people want to see.That’s Hollywood. How do you not make a movie like that here?” my husband asked, as we sat in an outdoor cafe on LaBrea.
“You tell the truth,” I answered.
There’s a line Rick Springfield’s character says in the movie, “It’s not your kids’ job to love you, it’s your job to love them.” I’m sure I’m not alone when I say that that line makes me feel pretty damn good. Sweet relief! It reminds me to stop worrying whether or not my kids will one day want to come home for Thanksgiving. The line, a passionate plea for Rickie to chill out about the fact that she wasn’t there to raise her kids, refers to the fact that children grow up and have their own lives, which may or may not include frequent phone calls or visits and, to a great extent, that is out of your control. But it was delivered by a character who, though foxy, admitted to not being around for his own kids. And it was meant to comfort a mother who very much loved her children, but left them when they were young in order to fulfill her dream of being a musician.
What was his point when he said that? Was he saying you can do whatever you want as long as you love your kids? As long as you love your kids, you are a good enough parent? Newsflash: almost all parents love their kids. That does not make you special.
The fact that our culture has long given men a free pass to do this kind of damage (Rickie gives a pretty good speech about this, citing Mick Jagger’s choice to make kids and leave them) is worthy of discussion, but the film doesn’t really go there. They are not saying we should now even the score and give the same pass to mothers, but they come dangerously close to saying the equivalent of, “no biggie.”
Put down the popcorn everyone, and let’s think this through.
Leaving your family is very different from taking time out to finish your novel, leaving them with friends every Saturday night so you can record your new EP, or having the father take over while you are workshopping a new play in another state for a month or two. I was never the woman who could make art while my toddler played in the tupperware drawer at my feet and, although I’m sure these women exist, I now put them in the category of the Giant Squid, so rare as to be almost mythological.
But it is those decisions, the everyday Sophie’s Choice (shout out to Meryl fans everywhere) moments that tear most mothers apart. We wonder if our five year old knows how desperately we wish she had not just walked in the room and asked for dinner. When a tsunami of rage, similar to the more culturally acceptable rage of a mother bear protecting her young, hits us when our partner brings the kids home early from a trip to the park, a trip meant to give us quiet in which to work, we send them out again, locking the door behind them. We guard those precious hours with tooth and claw, often hating ourselves for it, and sometimes our children.
Life is more complicated than can be sussed out in an hour and forty-two minutes. Film as conversation starter is great, as long as it actually starts the conversation, a real conversation with room for the truth.
The inconvenient truth is that people who make kids should know that those kids need them. Not 24/7, but for a good chunk of the time.
To me, the most touching moment in the movie, which also happened to be a heaping helping of Hollywood bullshit, was when Rickie thanked the stepmother of her children, the woman who stepped up and did all the things that one simply can’t do from a distance, i.e. the doctor appointments, graduations and lunch making. Make no mistake, when a parent leaves, they do so on the back of other parents who come in to pick up the slack. That is, if you’re lucky. If you’re unlucky, no one steps in and you walk around like a stray, tending your own wounds as best you can.
In my life, help came in the form of other people’s mothers. I’ve never actually thought about this, but it’s interesting that it was the women who came to my rescue. I knew a few really wonderful men who did no harm and might have actually helped, but it was the women who I needed and the women who showed up again and again with rides, advice, loans, hugs, books and fierce protection when the chips were down. We might shout from the rooftops that this is unfair or that it’s only because it’s what is expected of women and not of men, but I’d challenge us to just sit with this for a minute. I don’t know what it means, I only know that it is so.
To the parents who say that their kids were better off because they left to pursue their dream, you may be right. I most certainly was better off because my mother packed up her things and disappeared. While my sisters had to live through her tantrums and cruelty through their teenage years, she gave me a gift when she left me on my own.
But still.
But still.
I will always be the child that wasn’t worth sticking around for. Who carries forever the shame that I was so uninteresting, uncompelling, that my own mother, who had an artist’s eye for beauty, would rather leave than be in my presence. Of course it’s also true that my mother loved me, so hey, she did her job, right?
When my mother died a few weeks ago, I was with her. It was one of only a handful of times I had seen her since I was thirteen. At her bedside, with her impossibly small hand, bird bones strung together and curled around mine, I couldn’t help but think, “this is it? THIS is IT???” I simply could not get my head around the fact that our mother/daughter story would end this way. Where’s the arc? Where’s the Big Finish? When will she sing at my wedding and thank the women who filled in for her while she did her thing? Never. That’s when.
Come to think of it, she left me one more gift; she left me with a story to tell. As a mother, it’s my job to stick around and tell it.

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10 thoughts on “Why Ricki and the Flash Bugged This Midlife Mom

    1. Heather, thank you so much, first for taking the time to read and of course for your supportive words. You know how much that means. But you might not know how much I admire you as an artist, writer, feminist and mother. You have managed to do exactly the Herculean task I wrote about in this piece of combining your creative work with mothering. Thanks again, for showing us all how it’s done 😉

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  1. So thoughtful. Motherhood – comes in many guises. Mother’s love is expressed in many ways – self-scrafice, generosity, controlling behavior, spoiling the child. It’s a road we each travel learning all the way. Somehow, the children survive – not always well, often despite or because of the circumstances. I think of the children who are blessed(?) with abunbance, but really reared by a nanny or governess – as with the aristocracy of past – where parents rarely were involved with their children. Finally, it does take a village – a Father, friends, relatives, communities to share in this endeavor. And it comes with no guarantees. Still, we have children, we love them and they are the future.

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  2. And…we get the gift of knowing you my friend! This is an incredible piece. Somehow our culture and media is busy excusing way too much. Thank you for calling them out. And mostly, thank you for your heart and soul in this. It is much richer, full, and beloved than any movie story could ever be.

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  3. Just for the record, you CAN be the woman who makes art while her child plays with Tupperware at her feet, in my opinion. I say that because it’s YOU. I remember this from high school. My most impressionable memory of you is as someone with a vibrant and creative personality, able to express herself with both dramatic intensity and overlooked humor. Don’t sell yourself short. And furthermore, write your own damn screenplay. Just for you. Do to your own movie what you wished had be done to the one you wrote about.

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