Aging, Motherhood, and Guilt in “Big Little Lies”

By Alexandra Smith

It’s hard to find an issue that HBO’s “Big Little Lies” does not address. It even admirably takes on issues that we, as a society, don’t find sexy– or, for whatever reason, feel uncomfortable talking about. Each of the five main women on the show undoubtedly loves and wants the best for their child. That being said, depending on their age, marital status, socioeconomic status, and career path, they each find themselves with a different set of problems that come with the concept of having to sacrifice their entire entities for their children.

For me, marriage and motherhood have never necessarily been goals. They have always been something I assume that I would want if I met the right person at the right time, but have never been something I worry about achieving. I am eerily aware of, however, the decisions I could/would be forced to make if and when I chose to become a mom. I see these decisions played out with the different women in BLL.

Madeline is beautiful and in her own way, fiercely ambitious. Her second husband Ed supports (almost) every choice she makes and her young daughter Chloe is both bright and well-liked. Yet the wounds she received from being left by her first husband Nathan, and essentially raising their daughter Abby alone, 15 years later, still leave her feeling extremely vulnerable, especially with no career to fall back on.

“I just thought Nathan would get his deal,” Madeline tells Ed in Episode 1, referring to her first husband. “That one day Abigail would love me more. He hasn’t paid in the slightest, for any of it. And now he’s got Bonnie and she’s younger, and sexier, and prettier. And she probably gives mint flavored, organic blow jobs. He got it all. He won.”

Throughout the entire season, Madeline quite openly and unabashedly makes the resentment she feels towards her ex known. And that resentment– the resentment of having someone aggressively alter your life plan and toy with your source of self esteem– is one that makes you unbecomingly bitter. At the same time, it’s easy to see why it doesn’t just go away. The idea that you could build your life with someone, make sacrifices for someone, and then have them move on to the next cooler, more fun thing, is terrifying.

“I just feel like they’re both slipping away,” Madeline continues on. “I just feel like they’re going to grow up and they’re going to be gone and it’ll just be you and I and it’ll be another chapter of our lives. You have another chapter, you have a business. I don’t. I’m a mom. This is my universe.”

At some point, Madeline chose to make being a mom her life’s work. This work is important. It’s extremely selfless, extremely intimate and at times, extremely thankless. She’s excellent at it, but that doesn’t mean she isn’t allowed to have hesitations. In episode 4, Madeline finds out her best friend Celeste has even greater hesitations.

After using her dormant lawyering skills from before she gave up practicing law to raise her family, Celeste breaks down in tears.

“It’s just for six years I’ve been wiping runny noses, organizing play dates, doing everything to be a good mom. And today, I felt alive. I felt good,” Celeste tells Madeline. “I feel so ashamed for saying this. But being a mother, it’s not enough for me. It’s just not. It’s not even close.” After pausing for a moment, Celeste drops her head and says “I’m evil.”

For a long time, saying this out loud would have been extremely taboo and to a certain extent, it still is. But what truly makes “Big Little Lies” so special, is its ability to navigate this complicated, painful territory. It’s entirely possible to love your child with your whole heart, and still want have personal ambitions. Those shouldn’t be at odds with one another. And through Madeline and Celeste, we are forced to look in a mirror. We see how absurd this binary truly is.

Seeing these kinds of complicated life choices and decisions being depicted on television, by for profit companies like HBO is, in my opinion, one of the most under recognized forms of progress. It means people are interested in and therefore there is money to be made, in seeing these stories being told. It means me and my kids, will be able to grow up with characters that they can actually see themselves in. It also means, I get to spend my Sunday nights swooning over Alexander Skarsgård.

Photo courtesy of wegotthiscovered.com

Editor’s Note: Originally, this article was mistakenly published alongside a photo of Dr. Constance Royden, Professor of Computer Science at Holy Cross. Professor Royden is in fact this week’s featured Faculty of the Week, and her interview is available hereThe Crusader regrets this error. 

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