Dressed in jeans and an old fleece, my hair pulled back into a messy bun, I looked exactly like what I am: a mom who’d just barely made it out of the house, leaving the post-dinner mess, homework supervision, and the kids’ bedtime to my husband so that I could see a movie. Glancing around the theater, I saw my compatriots, in ones and twos, one pair with a sling-cozy baby, eating balanced dinners of popcorn and peanut M&Ms. Not date night, but mom’s night out at the movies as we all waited for the start of Motherhood, Katherine Dieckmann’s day-in-the-life film about Eliza Welsh, New York City mommy-blogger, former fiction writer, wife, and mother of two.
The movie starts quietly at dawn, panning across the city skyline before moving into an apartment and scanning across wonderfully crowded bookshelves, crammed with funky little pieces of art, photographs, and colorful books; I wanted the camera to slow down so that I could study it all, get a sense of the family members who are snoring quietly in the background. We move into the parents’ bedroom and see Eliza (Uma Thurman) drag herself out of bed without the alarm even sounding. The camera shows us her to-do list, a long column that covers every detail of her day, from dressing the kids and moving the car to hosting her daughter’s 6th birthday party, some of the items followed by question marks (“blog?”). She walks through her children’s bedroom, retrieving a sippy cup from the crib and taking a picture of her older child, which she prints out and carefully labels with a sharpie — “Clara on the last day of being 5” — before adding it to a montage of similar pictures on her office bulletin board. She heads into the kitchen to make a pot of coffee and — in one of my favorite moments of the film — unscrews the lid of the sippy cup, sniffs, shrugs, and takes a swig.
Motherhood, both life and the movie, is full of such moments, and I admire the film for not trying to pretty it up. Uma Thurman is still beautiful — can’t do much about that — but in a messy, frumpy way, wearing floaty clothes that might have suited the MFA student her character Eliza was, but not the urban mom that she is. Her apartment’s a mess, her day is packed with the chaotic tedium of errands and childcare, and she struggles to carve out time to write and keep up with her friends. Nothing significant happens in the film, which is how it should be. Eliza takes her son to the playground (where she talks to a very funny cross-section of urban parents, from Uber-Competent Dad and Celebrity-Stalking Suburban Mom to Over-Protective Earth Mom, who has her son cocooned in a UV-protective jumpsuit which, Eliza observes fondly, makes him look “like a little baby clansman!”); she watches her kindergartner’s recess from the apartment window; she shops for party supplies. She blogs a bit, goes to a sample sale with friends, calls her husband to complain about the car being towed. The story occasionally skates toward moments of drama — Eliza flirts with a messenger; her son starts to choke on a lollipop — but just like in real life, those moments evaporate like soap bubbles, leaving nothing behind but an unspoken “Oh; that was close.” Mostly it’s full of petty annoyances, flashes of joy, and all of life’s alternating moments of boredom and contentment.
And that’s both the beauty of and the problem with the film. I am all for representations of mothers — especially mothers who write — in all creative outlets, and I love the film’s reality, but how entertaining is it, really, to see one’s life depicted so painstakingly on screen? At the theater, I began to wish the other moms and I were getting to know each other in a café; later, when my husband and I watched the DVD together with another couple, my friend said, “I am kind of loving how real and messy it is,” but her husband left the room, bored. Because there’s so little story to the film, perhaps, Uma Thurman seems compelled to push each moment into caffeinated overdrive; every line is breathless, accompanied by eye-rolls and deep sighs. “I’m just trying to raise two kids,” she cries to an unsympathetic roofer, “in this godforsaken city that’s a shadow of its former self!” Eliza’s not some competitive, over-achieving mom who has transferred her corporate ambitions onto her kids — she really is just trying to get through the day — but her high-drama approach to every moment becomes exhausting. It’s true that sometimes just getting the kids out the door can feel like a Nobel-worthy accomplishment, but not every single moment of every parent’s day plays at such high stakes.
What brings the film back down to earth is the enormously pregnant Minnie Driver as Eliza’s friend Sheila; she is calm, snarky, and completely honest. She can reassure Eliza about her penciled-in eyebrows (“They look good,” she tells her friend kindly; “They’re, you know, zesty“) and support her realistically about her work ambitions, but isn’t afraid to make a little dig about Eliza’s blogging; when Eliza complains that her writing’s beginning to sound as pithy as ad copy, Sheila murmurs, “Maybe your brain’s worn out from over-sharing.” She steals the show with a story about sharing a racy bathtub moment with one of her kids’ wind-up toys, and when Eliza thoughtlessly shares the story on her blog, Sheila calls her out, shouting up at Eliza’s apartment from the sidewalk to make her point about what’s private and what’s not. But she still keeps her promise to pick Eliza’s daughter up from school.
Motherhood comes to a sweet conclusion, with the family and friends gathered for the birthday party, and Eliza even sneaks out for a bit to finish her blog post on “what motherhood means to me.” The press material for Motherhood claims it offers “a hymn to the joys and sorrows of raising children, and the necessity of not losing yourself in the process.” My experience of motherhood, even at my most sentimental, isn’t a hymn, though, and neither is this film. It’s more like one of Eliza’s blog posts: an earnest, honest look at one mom’s day, with some sharp comments and funny moments. And although for most Literary Mama readers, watching Motherhood won’t be much of an escape, it offers something else, and something just as important: a moment of recognition, and validation. Someone out there sees us. That’s worth a box of popcorn to me.