The Most Tormented Mothers Ever Depicted Onscreen

Have you noticed that some of the richest, most nuanced roles written for women take the form of mothers in incredibly difficult circumstances? With her latest film mother! (out September 15), Jennifer Lawrence joins the ranks of actresses playing mothers (and expecting mothers) pushed to the edge of their sanity.
The women in these movies live in different eras, with different financial situations, in locations flung all over the globe. Despite these differences, they're in a similarly perilous emotional state. Each is adrift and entirely alone in their experience. If they're married, their husbands are not supportive or present, but expect their wives to behave a certain way. Their kids, on the other hand, are demanding, and provide the regular maelstrom of joy and struggle.
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Consequently, the women are trapped within their unseemly individual circumstances — from living next to Satan worshippers in Rosemary's Baby or being chased by a monster in The Babadook — and are equally trapped by expectation of how a mother should "be." This dichotomy lends to some absolutely unforgettable roles.
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Mildred Pierce (Joan Crawford) in Mildred Pierce (1945)

What's tormenting her? Mildred's caught in one murderous triangle. Her second husband, Monte Beragon (Zachary Scott), was shot, and police are looking to blame Mildred's first husband, Bert (Bruce Bennett), who already confessed. But things aren't as they seem. As a single mother, Mildred spent her life tirelessly working to support her older daughter, Veda's (Ann Blyth), materialism. She even marries Monte, a playboy from a good family, so that her daughter can use Monte's connections to climb the social ladder. Things don't get better for Mildred from here.

Crawford would go on to win an Oscar for her role.
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Rosemary (Mia Farrow) in Rosemary's Baby (1968)

What's tormenting her? You know that feeling you get when you're sure the entire world is operating against you? Since moving into a new brownstone with her husband, Rosemary has that feeling all the time. It's probably because her Satan-worshipping neighbors, Roman and Minnie Castavet (Sidney Blackmer and Ruth Gordon), have enlisted a demon to rape and impregnate Rosemary with the antichrist.
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Kay Adams-Corleone (Diane Keaton) in The Godfather I, II, and III (1972, 1974, 1990)

What's tormenting her: Oh, if only the sweet Kay Adams, daughter of a minister, born in the midwest, hadn't met Michael Corleone (Al Pacino) at Dartmouth. She could've avoided a life orbiting the pain and violence of the mob. At one point in their long relationship, Michael drops her, moves to Italy, and marries another woman. When they get back together, Kay watches him decline from war hero to mafia kingpin. She's so bitterly disappointed in Michael's inability to leave the family business that, upon finding out she's pregnant with their third child, she has an abortion.

We'll let her speak her torture.

"It wasn't a miscarriage. It was an abortion. An abortion, Michael. Just like our marriage is an abortion. Something that's unholy and evil. I didn't want your son, Michael! I wouldn't bring another one of your sons into this world!" she told Michael before leaving him.
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Beth (Mary Tyler Moore) in Ordinary People (1980)

What's tormenting her? All's not well in suburbia. Beneath her flawless veneer, Beth Jarrett is still deeply grieving the death of her firstborn son, Buck. She refuses to mention her feelings. Instead, she withdraws from her husband (Donald Sutherland), and treats her younger son (Timothy Hutton) with spite. She speaks only with passive-aggressive jabs, and is entirely unable to dole out affection. The entire family goes to therapy, but Ordinary People isn't a story of redemption and healing for Beth. Beth decides to leave her family instead of poking deeper into her emotional state.

Moore won an Oscar for her portrayal of Beth.
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Joanna Kramer (Meryl Streep) in Kramer vs. Kramer (1979)

What's tormenting her? A fundamentally uneven marriage with a workaholic husband (Dustin Hoffman)! The confines of motherhood! So, so much is tormenting Joanna. So, she announces that she's leaving her husband and son (Justin Henry). And that tortures Joanna, too. Fifteen months later, Joanna returns to win back her son in a gruesome custody battle.

Streep won an Oscar for her portrayal of Joanna.
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Sophie (Meryl Streep) in Sophie's Choice (1982)

What's tormenting her? After Stingo (Peter MacNichol) moves into a Brooklyn apartment, his new neighbor, Sophie, starts telling him stories of her wartime experiences in Poland. At the movie's end, Sophie finally reveals what, of all that she's endured, has haunted her with such horrific persistence. Many years ago, at the gates of Auschwitz, Sophie was forced to make an impossible decision. The guards forced her to choose whether to send her son or daughter to the gas chamber. Instead of having both killed, Sophie chooses for her son, Jan, to go to the labor camp, and her daughter, Eva, to the chamber.

Streep won an Oscar for her portrayal of Sophie.
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Kate McCallister (Catherine O'Hara) in Home Alone (1990)

What's tormenting her? Think of Home Alone from the perspective of a mother, and you'll instantly break out into hives. Kevin McCallister (Macauley Caulkin) is a demon child who sees a blind spot in his overworked mother's attention span, and snatches her only week of vacation. Who knows when she'll get back to Paris?
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Leticia (Halle Berry) in Monster's Ball (2001)

What's tormenting her? Let's get the obvious out of the way. Leticia is a mean, abusive mother, and frequently makes fun of her son, Tyrell (Coronji Calhoun) regarding his weight. Yet she's been handed a pretty rough set of cards. Her husband is in jail, awaiting death row. Leticia's in danger of eviction and loses the family car. When she meets a guy she likes (Billy Bob Thornton), it turns out he had been her husband's executioner.

Berry won an Oscar.
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A nameless widow (Kin Hye-ja) in Mother (2009)

What's tormenting her? When her mentally slow son is accused of murder, Mama's inner fierceness is unleashed like a hurricane. She does the detective work herself, going to extreme and unsettling lengths to prove her son's innocence.

Hye-ja was nominated for a Grand Bell award, the South Korean equivalent of an Academy Award.
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Laura (Belén Rueda) in The Orphanage (2007)

What's tormenting her? People in movies get the craziest ideas. Laura's is to move back to the orphanage in which she was raised, now abandoned and decaying, and start her own orphanage. While this is a noble idea, did we mention that the orphanage is abandoned, decaying, and the site of multiple murders?

Laura's son, Sebastian, begins acting strangely — as in, he gets an imaginary friend, and starts wearing a bag with drawn-on eyes over his head. Then, after enduring a host of horror movie tropes in a haunted house, Sebastian goes missing. It's only through communing with the orphanage's spirits that Laura's able to find the gruesome truth of where Sebastian went.

Rueda was nominated for a Goya Award.
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Christine Collins (Angelina Jolie) in Changeling (2008)

What's tormenting her? In this film based on real events, Christine Collin's 9-year-old son, Walter, goes missing. A few months later, the police announce that they've found the boy. What becomes immediately clear to Christine, but to no one else, is that this boy is not her son. Christine, a single mother in 1928, faces off against the behemoth that is the L.A.P.D., all the while missing her real son desperately.

Jolie was nominated for an Oscar.
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Eva Khatchadourian (Tilda Swinton) in We Need to Talk About Kevin (2012)

What's tormenting her? While he was growing up, Eva's son Kevin (Ezra Miller), was more than a typical difficult child. Since he started walking and talking, Kevin harbored a demonic, deep-seated animosity toward his mother. His sociopathic tendencies grow more severe, and culminate in an unthinkably violent crime. Once a freewheeling travel writer, Eva finds herself in a mother's nightmare: She gave birth to a school shooter.
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Adele (Kate Winslet) in Labor Day (2013)

What's tormenting her? How'd you feel if some random, rugged, super handsome man (Josh Brolin) turned up on your doorstep, told you he was an ex-con, and asked you to harbor him for a weekend? Would you fall in love with him? Adele does, because she's lonely, tormented, and hasn't really left her house since her husband left her and her son.
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Amelia (Essie Davis) in The Babadook (2014)

What's tormenting her? A gruesome combination of a creaky house, a son she resents, and the Babadook.

For Amelia, the very presence of her son, Sam, is inherently associated with tragedy. On her way to the hospital to have Sam, Amelia's husband was in a fatal car accident. Take that sense of loss, combine it with a top hat-wearing monster that represents unresolved trauma and postpartum depression, and you get one of the most tortured mothers in movie history.
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Joy Newsome (Brie Larson) in Room (2015)

What's tormenting her? Before her son was born, Joy just had to keep herself together in the underground bunker where she'd been taken captive as a teenager. Then, her captor gets her pregnant. Joy has to build up an entire universe for her son, Jack (Jacob Tremblay), using only the objects found in her tiny bunker: a TV, a bed, a tiny window. When she decides she has to escape, Joy must somehow introduce the concept of the outside world to Jack.

Larson won an Oscar.
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An unnamed woman (Jennifer Lawrence) in mother! (2017)

What's tormenting her? Like several other women on this list, she lives in an old, creaky house that requires constant upkeep. But her struggles soon extend beyond housekeeping (which is tormenting for most of us). Her trouble stems from her egocentric, tortured artist husband, played by Javier Bardem, who frequently minimizes his wife's sense of self. As she's pushed to the sidelines of his life, she descends into a visually stunning, disjointed, nonlinear chaos only Darren Aronofsky could orchestrate. Oh, and she's pregnant.
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