Women

08.16.13

The Unbearable Lightness Of Motherhood

Jill Soloway's new film ‘Afternoon Delight’ film explores the sexual frustration and existential ennui of upper-middle-class motherhood.

Rachel has a very pretty life. The heroine of writer/director Jill Soloway’s new film, Afternoon Delight, lives in a gorgeous, light-filled Silver Lake home with thoughtfully curated items of mid-century modern furniture. She has a successful tech entrepreneur husband, Jeff, who is clearly devoted to her. She has an adorable son, Logan, who goes to a school with the right mix of community engagement and organic produce. She doesn’t work outside the home. She used to be a journalist, but she chose to give it up when Jeff started making megabucks. Everything looks sun-dappled and brilliant on paper. So why is Rachel so unfulfilled?

After that description, you might be inspired to take out the world’s tiniest violin for wealthy Rachel, played by Kathryn Hahn, and her mid-life crisis. When it debuted at Sundance, Variety described Afternoon Delight’s core potential audience for its theatrical release later this month as “smug marrieds and urban hipsters,” implying that those are the only kinds of people who could care about Rachel’s ennui. But scrape off the finishing on Rachel’s fine furniture and you will find a trenchant look at a problem that exists for a lot of women: when you become a mother, your behavior—especially your sexual behavior—becomes wildly circumscribed.

Rachel’s dissatisfaction with her life manifests itself in a sexual exploration. Her sex life with Jeff, played by Josh Radnor, is less than ideal. So the couple, along with another couple, ends up at a strip club. Rachel gets a lap dance from a stripper, and like many men before her, truly believes she is forging an intimate connection with the young woman named McKenna who is staring into her eyes. But unlike male customers who see strippers as possible girlfriends, Rachel—whose son is at school all day, and whose friends are all having second and third babies—takes a maternal interest in McKenna, played by Juno Temple. She ends up bringing the girl into her home and having her work as a part-time nanny to Logan. Through this bond, Rachel also finds out that McKenna does sex work to supplement her stripping, and, at one point, tags along with her to a john’s house.

If you have kids, you’re supposed to be a mommy. If you’re anything else, it’s trouble.”

There are two separate but intertwined reasons Rachel is acting out, and both have to do with our expectations of modern mothers. The first is that she believes that she should be entirely satisfied by being a mom, and it’s troubling to her that she’s not. It doesn’t matter that stay-at-home moms report higher levels of depression and anger than working moms (though low-income SAHMs have the roughest time of all)—there’s still the pervasive notion that it’s what we should all, deep down, really want.

Lauren Sandler, the author of One and Only: The Freedom of Having an Only Child and the Joy of Being One, and the author of a recent Time cover story on the growing number of childfree men and women, says that despite the fact that our culture has, at times, done a good job of telling women there are many different avenues towards fulfillment, “at the end of the day, there’s one message that gets hammered home.” That message? “If you have the guy, you have the house, and you have the kid, your adulthood will fall into place and make sense to you.”

Rachel looks like she’s in her early 40s. She was an adult for more than a decade and had a career before she had kids. It’s not surprising that spending her days at school bake sales and coffee klatches with other school moms isn’t making her happy. Men and women who have kids later have greater levels of dissatisfaction than parents of previous generations, who had kids earlier and did it on the cheap. In a New York magazine story, “All Joy and No Fun: Why Parents Hate Parenting,” psychology professor Jean Twenge says that these mature parents are the unhappiest because, “There’s a loss of freedom, a loss of autonomy. It’s totally different from going from your parents’ house to immediately having a baby. Now you know what you’re giving up.”

The second reason that Rachel is blowing up her life by pseudo-adopting a stripper is that she misses her old sexual self, which seems to have been sublimated by her motherhood. Soloway, the film’s writer and director, says that for mothers, “There’s a little square inch of real estate you can stand on,” and any sexual behavior outside that square inch gets you pilloried. She used the example of the tabloid treatment of Demi Moore after her breakup from Ashton Kutcher. “Us Weekly was saying, ‘She’s dancing at a club, drunk! She’s going off the rails!’” (To be fair, Moore was hospitalized for doing whippits, but her children were all grown at that point, and she was going through a messy divorce. That incident is more embarrassing than necessarily negligent.) The point remains: “If you have kids, you’re supposed to be a mommy,” Soloway says. “If you’re anything else, it’s trouble.”

Without giving away too much of the plot, I will say that neither Rachel nor McKenna are ultimately “punished” for owning their particular sexualities, in the way that women are often punished for being sexual in movies. In fact, Rachel manages to resolve her midlife crisis, in part, by seeing herself as a sexual person again after so many years cloaked in the frayed T-shirts and yoga pants of a certain kind of mommyhood. Much to the delight of the viewer, she manages to venture off of that one square inch of real estate and colonize new and satisfying territory.