The Single Mother Project: Marriage Story

It has been almost two years since I last posted a single mother project film analysis* here. What can I say? Single mothers are flaky, unreliable and very, very busy.

*Yes, analysis is perhaps an overstatement.

But I watched a film last night that moved me to the extent of wanting to write about it. And given that it features a single mother (and a single father), I thought it a brilliant opportunity to revive this very promising but sadly neglected editorial franchise.

Marriage Story (2019)

Marriage Story documents the separation and divorce of an American couple with a young son. I am currently in the middle of a divorce, so the timing of this everyone’s-talking-about-it Netflix movie feels serendipitous, and despite the fact that more than 40% of marriages end in divorce and more than 100K people get divorced in the UK every year, it’s a subject rarely explored in such detail onscreen. Granted, falling out of love is not nearly as cinematic as falling in love, but the documentation of Marriage Story’s Charlie and Nicole is about as relatable as big-budget love stories (or falling-out-of-love-stories) get.

And so, to the single mother on screen in question (discussed merely to keep this fragile editorial format vaguely afloat). Scarlett Johansson (who is brilliant) plays Nicole, a successful actress who wants to move back to LA following the breakdown of her marriage to Charlie (played by Adam Driver, also brilliant). We’re not given exact details, but it is implied that Charlie cheated. Nicole is not the hapless mess in need of rescuing that we’re accustomed to seeing onscreen. Nor is she the predatory vixen. She is not assured, but she is not lost. She is not wholly loveable, but she is not the ‘baddie’. She is layered. She is relatable. She is losing sight of herself in the process and upheaval of her divorce and the battle that ensues once lawyers get involved.

A quick aside on relationships here. The speech that Nicole gives to said lawyer in their first meeting is so very well-written and performed. She speaks about being completely lost in her relationship and lost in motherhood and it struck me how many mothers feel like this, are affected by the stripping of one’s identity on becoming a mother, and how many women end up as single mothers because of these very feelings.

“I realised I didn’t ever come alive for myself; I was just feeding his aliveness.”  

This line, for me, sums up almost everything that is wrong in 90% of dysfunctional heterosexual relationships. The ‘behind every great man’ effect: men expect their women to lift them up, and women are willing to do so at the expense of their own greatness or even identity. So, they deal with it, or they don’t.

Nicole didn’t and so here we are. Two single parents and their sweet son Henry. I defy anyone navigating co-parenting to watch Marriage Story without being moved to tears at the feelings being portrayed here. The constant back-and-forth, the wondering what’s best, the impossible juggle, the second guessing, the enormous guilt, the sniping, pettiness, the hatred. The incredible sense of loss. Because when you end a relationship, a marriage, when there is a child involved, the relationship itself becomes lost in the bigger picture.

Who’s to Blame?

Marriage Story

I’ve read several pieces discussing whether Nicole or Charlie is ‘to blame’ in this, who is right and who is wrong. And while I understand watching this film from this perspective, I would argue that any single parent, or any good single parent, at least, watches this film almost entirely from Henry’s perspective. How are these events affecting him? How does he feel when his stressed dad snaps at him? When he moves to a new school? When he hears his parents sniping at each other? When a stranger comes to assess his father’s suitability to care for him.

There is one scene that moved me to tears and I’ve been thinking about all day. Charlie has prepped a special Halloween evening with Henry and when plans change, Nicole drops him to Charlie (fully decked out in his costume) late on and he’s exhausted, but Charlie is keen to stick to their original plan and they head out on an unsuccessful trick or treating expedition. The shot of Henry falling asleep in the back of the car just broke my heart. Charlie is a good dad, who loves his son and is heartbroken that he’s missing out on these special moments. But Henry is just a kid. He wants to please everyone, and he’s caught in between two opposing camps.

And it is this scene that reminded me that however difficult co-parenting is, it’s just as difficult for our children. It is our job to ensure we put them first, that we continue to see things through their eyes and make decisions in this way.

Marriage Story

Single mother takeaway:

At this point I usually comment on the onscreen portrayal of the single mother but the takeaway here is all about the co-parenting. Of how when you lose sight of the love that brought your child into the world, you lose sight of what’s best for them. Try to see the good in your ex, even if you need to put on some seriously strong rear-facing, rose-tinted glasses, and remember that this is hard on you all. (And also, be grateful you don’t have the American legal system and lawyer culture to content with, if you’re mid-divorce and drowning in legal fees and paperwork.)

Always be kind. And if you can’t be kind, be quiet.

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