A Conversation With My Mother After We Watched Lady Bird

Photo: Courtesy of A24 Films.
I'm thankful that I can say that my relationship with my mother has never been as tenuous as the one depicted on screen in Lady Bird. The Greta Gerwig hit, starring Laurie Metcalf and Saoirse Ronan as mother and daughter, depicts the semi-autobiographical time in the director's life the year before she went to college. While Christine McPherson, aka Lady Bird, (Ronan) dreams of getting out of Sacramento and going to college on the esteemed east coast, Metcalf's character spends most of the movie preemptively building a safety net for her daughter's reckless dreams.
At least, that's the movie I saw.
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When I brought my mother to see the film — a Monday afternoon matineé my first day home for the Thanksgiving holiday, which happens to be a very fitting time to see the film — it became clear that the message of Gerwig's Lady Bird changes depending on which side of motherhood you sit. For me, this was the story of a young girl who is figuring out who she is while pursuing her dreams against all odds. For my mom, it was about a woman working thanklessly in pursuit of what's best. Luckily, both stories are perfect.
Below is the conversation I had with my mom on the way home from the theater, during which we discussed what it was like to be a mother, but, especially, what it was like to both be daughters.
2017
Me: Okay, mom. What did you think of Lady Bird?
My mom: I really loved it. I liked just thinking about the mother-daughter interactions, having been on both sides of that.
Were there any particular instances in the movie that felt familiar to you?
Am I in therapy right now?
For you as a mother, not you as a daughter.
Yes, there were a couple. There was a way the mom asked questions of Lady Bird. I felt like she was harsher than I was. But there was a way she would try to get information out of her daughter and, you know, you're sort of trying to make a wide circle around something, and ask a question just to understand more about their life and who they are.
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What's an instance of that?
I remember in the dress trying-on part...
Cause I think what's probably interesting about this movie is that someone who is a mother probably latches onto instances —
— different things —
— than the one who is watching as a daughter.
I think that's true.
The follow-up questions are only because —
— I'm seeing something you didn't see.
Yeah.
I felt like she was trying to make a connection but Lady Bird was very...distant, and it was clearly hard for the mom to reach across and make that connection. There are times when you have teenage daughters, they're growing up and forming their lives and trying to make their own decisions and be really independent, and you miss just being a little more involved in things.
What I could relate to, although our situations might have been different, was just trying to reach across and draw out someone who is really wanting to assert their independence, so they're not wanting to share themselves in the way the mom wants them to share. So the relationship is changing and it's when that happens. You want to have closeness and yet you want your daughter to be independent and maybe that's something you just have to go through, but it's hard when the daughter is like, "I don't want to talk about what's going on in my life."
So when you watch, you're like, "The mom is trying and can't break through to Lady Bird," and when I watch, I see it the other way. But I think that has a lot to do with...
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What did you see?
I just saw it from Lady Bird's perspective where the mom wanted Lady Bird to be a certain way and she was not going to be that way and when she tried to show the mom her true self, the mom wasn't receptive to that.
That is true.
I think both these things are true. But obviously you're inclined to connect to the mother's side and I'm young enough to connect with Lady Bird.
The daughter growing from a dependent to an independent person was happening that whole year, and that was hard for both of them, actually.
Did watching this remind you of any instances or struggles or fights that we had when I was that age? You can be honest. None of this is gonna hurt my feelings. Would you say that that time in my life felt frustrating?
2011
Yes. In totally different ways. There was a point where you were a junior and, all of a sudden, school had come really easy to you and then you were dealing with classes that were really difficult. Being able to talk about that and how whatever you'd been doing before with study methods, as well as that had served you, wasn't going to serve you [anymore]. You were clearly upset because you were used to doing really well and you were having a hard time but it was also hard to have conversation where you didn't feel like we were coming down hard on you. Because of where you were age-wise, it's a time when you want to be making your own decisions and doing your own thing, but you didn't have all the tools in your toolkit to figure out how to get yourself to a better place. And you weren't necessarily wanting help, either.
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Are there instances in Lady Bird that you identify with from a daughter's perspective?
I identified with the college leaving scene because when my parents dropped me off at college, my mom was, like, incredibly bitchy the entire time. In a way that, you know, I couldn't wait to leave, because I just couldn't handle it anymore. I know, now, in the same way that the mom in Lady Bird was just trying to hold her shit together, that my mom was having her own issues with me leaving but she wasn't able to express her feelings and say 'This is hard for me,' or 'I'm going to miss you.'
When you had me, did you instantly feel like you were a mother? Or did you still feel like a daughter? Do you feel like a daughter right now? When do you start identifying with one more than the other?
For me, the physical part of being pregnant and giving birth did not instantly change how I saw my identity. Actually, I think when that kind of snapped into place was March [of that year] and Dad had to go to work for a weekend fundraiser and I was by myself with you the whole weekend because, as it happened, a blizzard came and Dad couldn't get home. So it was the first time I had been 24/7 just dealing with having this infant and I was kind of panicky about it but at the same time, after that I was kind of like, 'Oh, I can do this. I have this baby.' It suddenly felt different.
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I also think if you do have children of your own, that becomes such a focus of your life that your role as a daughter, at least for me, became secondary. There were times where we would make decisions conscious that this was in the best interest of the immediate nuclear family even if it's not gonna be received well by the families we came from. There is a shift. You don't forget that you're a daughter, and as my parents became elderly and their health started to fail, even though I wasn't really close with them, that idea of, 'But I'm their daughter, and they're my parents, and I need to be connected to them and look out for them in whatever way's appropriate,' that came back. It certainly doesn't go away.
Do you remember what our first fight would have been as two people cognizant of an argument?
The one that jumps out in my mind was when you had just gotten your driver's license and you were dying to go take the car out and do something with your friends.
I remember this vividly.
It was a dark night, it was a rainy night, and I think you had gotten your license within just a couple of days of this or something, and Dad and I didn't want you to go, and we said no, and you were unhappy with that.
I am still unhappy with that.
I don't have any memories of big epic fights.
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The whole tension of the movie seemed to be that neither of them could say what they wanted to say to each other. Why do you think there's that inability? Do you think it's the time of life they're both in?
I think that you have to be able to be vulnerable with each other and that's hard to do between two people under any circumstances. Is there something unique in a mother-daughter context than in any other close human relationship? I'm not sure. I think that maybe that's another way of looking at the shift from being a dependent to independent person. For the daughter, she doesn't want to show any vulnerability because she wants to show that she can handle everything, and the mom has always handled everything so doesn't want to show any vulnerability. And actually, what they probably both needed most from each other was to let that down and just be together and be able to care for each other and show that.
Lady Bird, starring Ronan, Metcalf, Beanie Feldstein, Lucas Hedges, and Timothee Chalamet, is out in theaters now.
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