On my first day of maternity leave, I took myself and my basketball belly off to a matinee. From the theater lobby’s plate glass windows, I looked down on the financial district’s worker bees, feeling decadent and free with my popcorn and M&M’s. I vowed to see a matinee every day until the baby came.
But Ben arrived early, ending my dreams of a lazy leave. That afternoon’s film, Richard Eyre’s Iris (2001), has now achieved iconic status in my life as The Last Film I Saw Before Becoming a Mother.
The film has nothing at all to do with motherhood. Iris Murdoch was famously childless, devoting her life instead to her writing — dense, philosophical novels I confess I’ve never read — and her marriage. Although the film addresses Murdoch’s difficult final years, as she and her husband struggled with her Alzheimer’s, what persists in my memory is the film’s mood of dreamy freedom, scenes of Kate Winslet’s young Iris skinny dipping in the river, her hair indistinguishable from the golden seaweed, and then Judi Dench’s older Iris doing the same, her solid weight evaporating in the water, becoming young and free again.
On the streetcar ride home I thought about Murdoch. Had she ever wanted more than her work and her husband? Had she ever wondered what effect motherhood might have on the twin poles of her life? It was always on my mind those days. I’d already set off on a path quite different than hers. After earning my PhD, I opted out of the national job search my field expects and took a series of one year teaching appointments in order to stay in the same city with my new husband. I planned to put marriage and family first and let career sit on the back burner — but that doesn’t mean I didn’t continually second-guess my plan.
Ben was born near the end of the semester. I filed my grades in a postpartum fog, counted down the days of my brief paid leave, and then resisted my (childless) employer’s earnest efforts to lure me back to work by scheduling my classes around Ben’s naps. I didn’t go back to work (another son born and I’m still at home), nor did I return to the movies for months. I admit, I left work behind more easily than the movies. I’d been teaching for eight years and didn’t mind a break. But the movies . . . I longed for the movies. I love the whole package: the snacks, the previews, the audience chatter until the lights dim and then the hush as the film begins to roll. I’ll watch a video at home occasionally but, perhaps because of years in school writing about films, it doesn’t give me the same thrill. Watching a movie at home still feels a bit like work; going out to the movies is sheer pleasure, a two-hour vacation from my life.
During Ben’s infancy, I hadn’t yet discovered the mom and baby movie screenings that are becoming common in many cities. Instead, I filled my days with other loneliness-assuaging activities: mom and baby yoga! acrosports! swim class! We “swam” in a pool used mostly for rehabilitation sessions, and I’d watch people with weak or injured limbs transform as they were eased into the water. The water gave them freedom, but it only seemed to drag us down.
Ben was a heavy and hesitant fish; he’d clutch at my neck and threaten to pull us both under. Afterward, I’d try to dress with one hand holding him so that he didn’t wipe out on the slick locker room tile, then struggle him out of his soggy swim diaper and back into his clothes, both of us sticky in the oppressive steam. If I thought of Iris then, I was conveniently forgetting the Alzheimer’s, just envying how unencumbered she seemed.
I watched Iris again recently, wondering how her life would look to me now, five years and two kids later. Moved again by the portrayal of this bold woman, I still found no common ground with her. I found myself instead focused on her husband. He putters around the house ineffectually, trying to do small chores, continually bumping up against his wife, who watches Teletubbies now instead of writing. He’s alternately charmed and irritated by her needs, her repetitiveness, her wonder at the everyday. He’s an inadvertent mother to his childlike Iris, and I identified with him.
On our worst days my boys act like the water plants Iris swam through, enticing me closer and pulling me inexorably beneath the surface. But the best days bring moments when I feel like we’re all swimming together, happy and lazy in our own dreamy sea.