Mildred Pierce: Mothers and Daughters

I just finished watching HBO’s five-part miniseries, Mildred Pierce. For those who haven’t seen it or the original 1945 film starring Joan Crawford, the plot is basically this: After her cheating husband leaves her, Mildred Pierce aims to prove she can become independent and successful, but after a chain of successful pie/waffle/chicken restaurants, she still cannot win the approval of her spoiled, ungrateful daughter.

I saw the original film in college, when I was a daughter, and had the same reaction as I did now as a mother of a daughter: Yes, I understood and admired the long-suffering devotion of Mildred, but I still found myself yelling at the screen: Woman, get over it! Your daughter is no good! Live your life! To hell with her! But it took Kate Winslet, who played Mildred this time around, five long hours of melodrama to finally — finally! — reach that point.

The mother-daughter relationship remains one of the most fascinating, elusive relationships there is, even after the exploration by centuries of literature, a century or so of film and a half-century of television. Mildred Pierce, Mommie Dearest, Terms of Endearment, Amy Tan’s The Joy Luck Club and Amy Chua’s Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother are just a few of the creative works that have covered this territory, and as I forge ahead with my second novel, I too will try to make sense of this complex dynamic between a mother and a daughter and, I hope, add a little something to the ongoing dialogue.

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One thought on “Mildred Pierce: Mothers and Daughters

  1. As I watched the Mildred Pierce miniseries it made me feel uncomfortable and sad because I recognized myself in Mildred, and I could see my own daughter in Veda. I recently spent ten days in my daughter’s flat in London to help her “heal” from a bout of depression and during this time, as with all the time I spend with her, I have essentially been my daughter’s “bitch.” In her relationships with others (who don’t really know her) she is charming, sollicitious, caring… but in the privacy of her flat, she is demeaning to me, abusive, berating and demanding. She swings from manic moments of self aggrandizing to crying her eyes out, and in between she will scream at me for offering to clean her kitchen or do her laundry. I’m now in the States on business and I’ll tell you, I couldn’t have gotten out of her flat soon enough. I thought I was going to lose my mind.

    She blames me for all of her troubles – she blames my divorce from her father when she was 11 for making her the way she is today: unstable and needy. She even says that her eating disorders are my fault because I failed to pack her a school lunch every day and didn’t force her to eat salads (she subsisted for days at a time on toast with butter and jam but it would have required literal force-feeding to get her to eat anything else – the girl has always been oppositional and I thought that force feeding would be more traumatic than whatever nutritional damage the toast and jam could be doing.)

    The part that makes me like Mildred Pierce though (and it’s not the sleeping around with men) is that in spite of all the abuse, I keep giving and giving and giving to her. I am virtually broke (the trip here from New Zealand bankrupted me – but she said she needed me and I did it anyway). I have used my credit cards to buy her clothes and gadgets – anything to make her happy. She is jealous of the things I own (all of which has been purchased on credit cards). Her father is an orthopaedic surgeon and has been financing her lifestyle for years. When I buy anything for myself the first thing she does is call him and say: “You will never believe what Mum bought herself!” So while I’m here, the Mildred in me has bough her a new wardrobe at Top Shop, an iPad 2, and a used Vespa. When I return home it’s likely I will have to sell one of my cars to cover these expenses. I know I’m stupid for doing this but I feel guilty for all of her troubles, guilty for the divorce, guilty that I can’t give her what a father can give her, and I hate the fact that they talk about me behind my back – that she complains that I’m cheap with her and he encourages her to keep pushing me to give more and more.

    Since my ex husband has a better relationship with her than I do, I have encouraged her to get her the thing she needs most: psychiatric treatment. She is addicted to pot, has an eating disorder, has a boyfriend at Cambridge whom she’s bullied and bossed into doing her bidding… a nice young chap who is no match for her.

    As successful as I may be in business, I am a weakling against my daughter’s tyranny and I’m ashamed of myself for my weakness.

    A normal person would say:stop taking her abuse, stand up for yourself. But I fear that I will get so angry I will never want to talk to her again. Or vice versa. My own mother was a narcissist and I finally cut her off after a lifetime of abuse. I can’t do that to my daughter, or risk her doing that to me… or can I?

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