I am on Part 5 of Todd Haynes’ 2011 production of Mildred Pierce, a sad period piece about a woman who kicks her cheating husband out of the house leaving her struggling to care for her two daughters and herself. I watched Parts 1 through 4 last night. I am glad that I put off the final part until this morning, because I think the story needed to ferment overnight so I could process why it frustrates me so.
At the beginning of Part 5, Mildred Pierce begins a set of actions that are destructive. In frustration, I am watching her pursue a relationship with her oldest daughter even though such a relationship will be harmful to Mildred. She is driven to reinstate herself in the role of “mother” of Veda. Her very being is so closely tied to this identity that she cannot seem to live without her daughter in her life.
And that is the harm in identities that overwhelm personal identity: they are destructive. They objectify women.
I began to better understand my identity as a wife after I was no longer living that identity. It took me a good two years to disconnect from that identity. I was so traumatized by not being a wife any longer that I experienced a great sense of loss and went into mourning. Grief consumed me. It wasn’t that I wanted my husband back. Oh, not at all. I knew that our marriage was toxic to me, that our relationship was extremely harmful to me, and to him. I didn’t know what I was if I wasn’t a wife. I had been a wife for over 20 years when we separated and had allowed that identity along with motherhood to consume me.
And it is that way for Mildred Pierce. She is a successful businesswoman and somewhat controls her romantic interests and sexuality. She is an aberration for the 1930s. She cast off the idea that she needed to be provided for and took that upon herself taking back most of her power. But in one area, she cannot seem to reconcile that she is the parent of a child who rejects her because her child is deeply flawed. She cannot shake off the identity of mother, and this gives her much pain and anguish.
After disconnecting from the identity of wife, I began to disconnect from the identity of mother. I had to do this to truly find out who I was as a person. I wrote blog posts about how I am a person first, then a mother to my children. I told my children this fact. And then I acted like it was true. I began to put myself first in different ways. I didn’t neglect to see to the needs of my children (except being unavailable when they had lived with a mother who was available 24/7 without exception their entire lives). Being chronically ill had already accomplished a lot of the disconnect because I was not able to be that full-time, always present kind of mother they had known previously. This final part of the process wasn’t as difficult as it might have been for a family with a healthy, full-time mother.
Female identities, I believe, can be destructive to women. It is possible that Veda, in rejecting her mother, sees this destructive nature. While anyone who sees this miniseries will admit that Veda is flawed, that she borders on being a psychopath, Veda might be reacting to Mildred’s objectification of herself. She sees weakness in her mother, and pounces on it.
She is like a hen picking the wound of another hen. Wow, that last sentence was misogynistic. But it rings with truth.
Women who are wives and mothers, who are consumed by these identities accept that they have given up their own selves. This gives others great power over them. And this is what can be destructive.
Mildred needs to accept that her daughter is toxic to her life. She needs to allow her daughter to be separate and independent, to find her own way. She needs to let her daughter go into the world without her protection because there is nothing she can do to help her daughter. She is not necessary to her daughter’s life anymore and her daughter has nothing to offer Mildred relationally. Veda had rejected Mildred as intelligent and capable when she was very young. She grew up with the idea that her mother was substandard, lowly, and flawed because she was a working woman. That makes Veda very, very flawed. Mildred’s mistake is in not allowing herself to completely emerge from identities. She fails to embrace her personal identity for herself.
Identities, when allowed to overpower a woman’s identity as a person, can be destructive.
Note: Corrected mispelling of Veda and Todd Haynes’ names after publication.