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  • Writer's pictureKathy Coudle-King

Got Mommy Issues? The Lost Daughter

I watched The Lost Daughter three months ago when it first appeared on Netflix, the film for which Oliva Coleman is nominated for best actress for an Oscar and Jessie Buckley is nominated for best supporting actress. It has haunted me ever since.

During a conversation with a friend after my first viewing, I came down hard on Coleman's character "Leda," who at best was a negligent parent and at worst emotionally abusive. My friend, who is clearly kinder and gentler than I, raised one lovely, arched eyebrow at my remarks. I said something like, "A mother does not get to walk away. If a woman chooses to have a baby and raise it, then she has to commit." No give backs when they're preschoolers. Fathers walk away and we call them "dead beat dads," but there is no phrase for mothers who walk away because it is simply not done. But of course it is, and those women? Well, those women are as Leda self-identifies, "unnatural mother[s]."

Now, my friend did not debate me, but that eyebrow of hers . . . well, it haunted me. I don't like to think of myself as "judgey," and as a feminist I've long stood against gender expectations. So, I watched the film again last week. And, what do you know?

I applaud Elena Ferrante (the pseudonym for the writer from whose novel Maggie Gyllenhaal's screenplay is adapted). She created a character that reflects the experiences of so many mothers who feel that they are "unnatural." I say, brava to Gyllenhaal for adapting and directing it for the screen. The Lost Daughter was not nominated for best picture, but I think that is a gross injustice. It is beautifully shot, acted with depth across the board, and tells a taboo tale.

Coleman's Leda says what mothers are not allowed to say. Not even in 2022. Once a woman with ambition has a child, she is expected to set those ambitions aside, or at least "to the side," but no one expects the child's father to do this.

There is a scene in The Lost Daughter when Leda has on headphones and is translating a poem -- she is a comp lit grad student, or possibly a post doc. Her husband is on the phone with someone from "Columbia," the university presumably, as he, too, is a young academic. The couple's two daughters are in the next room playing loudly. Leda's husband tries to catch her attention to tell her to tend to the kids, but she ignores him, only removing her headphones after his persistent effort to get her attention. She indicates she's working and it's his "turn." He responds urgently, covering the mouth piece, beseeching her, "it's Columbia". He is doing important work. She is not. Perhaps it is a job offer, which will benefit the entire family. She must see to their children.

Women who are part of a two-career couple may recognize this scene. While a job offer is an extreme example, it could be a meeting he has to take, or a report he has to write, a conference he must go to . . . It is likely he makes more money than she does since pay inequity has not yet magically disappeared; therefore, his work takes precedent. Baby sick? She stays home; he goes to work. It's not sexist, just pragmatic. Right? Except women who were raised in the last two generations believe that their marriage/union will be an equal partnership, and so it does not feel fair.

Leda stands up repeatedly in the film against unfairness and is called a "bitch" and a "cunt" for it, because that's how society reminds women to "stay in their place". Early in the film, she is comfortably situated on a chaise lounge on the beach, a copy of Dante's Inferno (a great beach read) and pen in hand, when a large family descends. The matriarch of the family pleasantly asks her to take a chair further down the beach so that her family can have Leda's spot. Leda politely declines to move. The woman is taken aback. Surely, Leda can understand she wants the chair so her family can all be together. Leda understands, but she also does not want to move. Braving the woman's hostility and a male family member's labeling of her as a "cunt," Leda digs her heels into the sand and returns to her work.

Later in the film, when Ed Harris's character approaches her while she's having dinner alone at a bar, she is initially cordial, but then asks him if he can leave her alone to finish her dinner. Again, we see surprise at the request. A woman dining alone must want the company of a man, right? No. Leda is doing Leda, and she is not afraid to draw boundaries in the sand or at the bar.

A final example of Leda asserting her boundaries and demanding others respect them is when she is watching The Last Time I Saw Paris and some of the hooligans from the beach enter, disrupting the screening. Leda "shushes" them when no one else in the audience does. When they mock her and continue their antics, she asks the box office clerk to intercede. The woman reluctantly agrees and returns to the theatre with a flashlight. While the boys pipe down initially, it takes an older man's admonishment to silence them. Only men can silence men. But Leda tries.

Ferrante gave her character the name "Leda" which is significant to the character, for she is named after the mortal woman in Greek mythology who was seduced (read: raped) by Zeus when he took the form of a swan ('cause every gal wants to do it with a large bird). Leda, the modern woman, pushes back on society. She admits to Ed Harris she is "mean". She boldly wears the red "S" for selfish. We all know that "good mothers" are self-sacrificing. Good mothers drop everything when their child is whining and needs a boo boo kissed. Good mothers are saints. Certainly, good mothers don't walk away from their children.


But young Leda, played so raw-ly by Jessie Buckley, did walk away. For three years.

An affair with an older colleague who seduces young Leda by lauding her intellect -- seeing her as other than mother -- propels her out of her marriage and away from her children. However, even he seems to judge her when she admits she hates talking to her children on the phone; "Don't say that," he admonishes. Bad mother. Shame, shame, shame.

Decades later, Leda's choice to leave her husband and daughters is churned up in the waters off a Greek island. On a working vacation, she becomes fixated by "Nina," a young mother played by Dakota Johnson, who is clearly struggling with the all-consuming role of motherhood. Elena, Nina's daughter, hangs on her mother, giving her small smacks when Nina does not pay her the attention she craves. All is is observed by Leda who begins to flashback on when she was Nina's age, raising her own two daughters. We see indications of the damage Leda's caused her girls due to her rejection. Her psyche is split as her guilt bubbles up. Perhaps it has always been percolating, but something about Nina triggers it to boil over. Next, she is compelled to do something which makes no sense for a grown, rational woman to do.


Leda steals Elena's beloved doll. In spite of the fact that there is an all out search for the doll on the island -- fliers are put up and a reward offered-- and the child is inconsolable about her loss -- Leda does not return the doll. Instead, she buys it a new outfit. She scrubs at the ink scrawl on its skin. She presses on its belly until bile and a worm slithers out from its mouth. She is clearly making amends to "the lost daughter."

When Leda is done, she leaves the doll in plain sight of visitors to her flat, evidence of her transgression. At this point, she seeks others to stone her (perhaps like she was anonymously stoned in an earlier scene with a "pinecone"?). Leaving the doll out for Ed Harris to see, and then returning her to Nina, is Leda's way of seeking confirmation: Yes, you are a bad person. Worse than that, you are a bad mother. Ultimately, Leda seeks condemnation.

I condemned her. It was easy, and I am no one's sainted mother. Therefore, who am I to judge another woman for walking away from her children to recover the self she felt had been lost in motherhood? Society will do a fine job all on its own.

Writing prompt: Mothers and saints. How do you feel about this? Is it a requirement? An expectation for women? What about men?

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