Erin Lane is one of my writer/theology/she-just-gets-it kind of friends, so when she writes something, I want everyone to read it. This piece is vintage Erin Lane: she expands the way I think in a way that makes me want to think more about… well, about everything. On the surface, this piece is about the complicated realities of mothers and daughters and identity and family, but lurking just benath the surface, it’s about being a human being; the one you actually are, not the one you’re supposed to be. Enjoy.
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There is a war at the center of the new Maleficent movie, Mistress of Evil. But it’s not the war, as sold on the surface, between humans and fairies. It’s a war between “real” moms and “fictive” moms (i.e., those unrelated by birth)—and this “fictive” one is tired of the trope.
It was a brisk Friday night when I pulled up to our local theater with my 9-yr old daughter, she in her long puffy coat and I in mine. Did she mean to match me? It warmed me to think she might. We were still so new to one another, the adoption barely two years old.
Once in the theater, we squeezed each other’s clammy hand. It had been a long time since we were both this fidgety for a film. She is always rabid for action; I am always manic for meaning. Mistress of Evil was meant to be a meeting of our cinematic minds—equal parts warrior fantasy and female empowerment, served up by an all-star cast including Angelina Jolie (Maleficent), Michelle Pfeiffer (Queen Ingrith), and the ever-blushing Elle Fanning (Aurora).
Aurora, the since awakened “sleeping beauty,” is getting married we learn at the start. And Maleficent is loathe to accept it, not least because she is a Mama Bear for the child she once rescued from her own curse. The love between godmother and goddaughter, lest we forget from the first film, was deemed the truest of all. It was a sentiment I found sweetly subversive, at the time.
It’s not marriage itself that pricks Maleficent most, though, but rather to whom Aurora is betrothed; Philip is royalty from the human kingdom of Ulstead while Aurora is Queen of the Moors, a woodland of otherworldly creatures. The young lovers are classically naive to the consequences of their coupling. We viewers are baited by the impending battle royal.
A dinner is arranged by Phillip’s parents, King John and Queen Ingrith, to meet Maleficent. It’s here that the daggers between moms first appear. Queen Ingrith insinuates that it would be better for Aurora to make her new home in the human kingdom, amongst her own kind. Maleficent becomes enflamed by envy and seemingly curses the human kingdom once more.
Watching the war ignite, I squirmed in my seat and sighed. Here we go again.
It’s birth mom versus adoptive mom, right? The parallels aren’t precise, of course. Queen Ingrith did not birth Aurora, nor did Maleficent officially adopt her. But the war is propelled by a battle over what constitutes a “real” family. Is it who you’re most like or by whom you’re most loved by?
I know firsthand that there’s no easy binary when it comes to matters of belonging.
After being free from children for nearly a decade, my husband and I longed to be free for community. And so we got certified as foster parents, compelled by the concept of shared parenting and the goal of reunification. But when our first placement—a sibling set of three girls of which our now 9-yr old is the youngest—turned into the need for permanency, we traded the lives we knew for a life together.
Life together still includes the girls’ biological family. Judges, we were told, often terminate visits along with parental rights when an adoption is pending. The thinking goes that the absence of the old family allows the new family to attach. But we found another reality to be true: the more connected our girls feel to the love of their birth family, the more capacity they have to let our love in.
Parenting is not a zero sum game.
The war between moms—real or fictive—preys on women’s insecurities that there’s not enough love to go around. Even worse, though, it preys on children’s insecurities that it’s their job to reassure us. The loss of children’s ability to attend to their own life is the biggest collateral damage of all.
In the new Maleficent movie, Aurora’s wedding is ruined by her godmother’s self-doubt and her mother-to-be’s greed. Fairies and humans are dead. Bride and groom are wounded. Kingdoms are crumbling. In order to put a stop to Maleficent’s part in the violence, Aurora speaks to her deepest wound. I know who you are, she says to the winged creature. You are my mother.
Oh, God, I groaned, glancing over at my girl on the edge of her seat. Does my daughter think I’m waiting to hear the same?
I don’t discount that there are some women for whom being called mother would be as sweet as pie. But as a friend once said to me, Erin, love is not a pie piece. It’s the whole pie. And there’s always more pie. Mother is not a single flavor of woman nor is it the only flavor, and we don’t have to be called one to care well for our children.
We who follow the Christian tradition should be especially suspicious of the assumption that every woman wants to be a mother or that motherhood is the source of women’s most primal identity (or wounding.) Jesus was fierce that we are souls before roles: “of Christ” before “mother of” any other.
For their part, our girls don’t call me my mom. And I’m not longing for it. Like many of us who continue to share parenting, I am very much a fan of being one in a community of adults in my girls’ lives. (I am also very much a fan of my first name.) Adults, real adults who’ve done their own work, are a gift at any age. To know a grown-up is with you and for you but needs nothing from you is something rare.
Ultimately, it shouldn’t matter to Maleficent what she is called —only that Aurora knows she will never be abandoned. As our adoption moved toward finalization, we told our girls the same; it made little difference whether they ever called us Mom or Dad or something like it; we would always think of them as our daughters —forever a part of our spiritual DNA.
In the final act of Mistress of Evil, Aurora asks Maleficent to give her away at the newly resurrected wedding. Never! Maleficent replies, before understanding the request is to walk her down the aisle, not abdicate her care.
This was the true love I recognized from the first movie, and the love I hoped my 9-yr old knew existed for her: a woman who was so fierce for her kin, she was willing to let love multiply.
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Erin (@HeyErinLane) is author of Lessons in Belonging from a Church-Going Commitment Phobe and co-editor of Talking Taboo: American Christian Women Get Frank About Faith. She is currently writing a book on women who are kicking ass without kids at their center. Subscribe to her Good for You newsletter at www.erinslane.com.