Mothers & Daughters
How History Plays Its Part
In Problems Loving and Letting Go

and Lady Bird begins with a Joan Didion quote splashed across the screen: “Anyone who talks about California hedonism has never spent Christmas in Sacramento.” Christmas is mostly for children or, at least, the child part of us. And, few come through childhood unscathed. Greta Gerwig’s charming, brilliantly written, funny, and psychologically real film has a lot to say about mothers and daughters. Being a mother has its challenges. Being a daughter means separating to have your own life. That has its difficulties too, especially when your mom has a hard time letting go.

For Christine “Lady Bird” McPherson (Saoirise Ronan) and her tirelessly opinionated, strong-willed, but (somewhere buried inside) loving mom Marion (Laurie Metcalf), separation is no easy task. To understand the all-too-obvious and painful struggles between them, we must turn to certain clues in Marion’s historical and psychological realities. What else can a psychoanalyst do?

A Mom & Her Teenage Daughter

Lady Bird and her mom have problems. As we enter the film we’re given a cameo view.  The closeness and connection are easily broken. The culprit is Marion’s need for control: “It’s nice to make things neat and clean,” she says when straightening out the motel room bed. This really means she can’t step into Lady Bird’s world with any kind of openness or curiosity because Lady Bird, with feelings and a mind of her own, messes with the internal “organization” of Marion’s own difficult feelings.

I say organization in quotes. It’s not an organization that works well or is good for either of them. To keep her feelings in check, Marion is cutting, sarcastic, tightly wound, with a tense and sour look around her mouth much of the time she and Lady Bird are together. Marion’s demeaning comments are complicated. They’re retaliation of sorts, for her daughter not being what she expects. But more so, her demeaning comments are an outgrowth of Marion’s early and deep feelings of hurt and distrust when it comes to love.

So, we watch them – Marion at the wheel of the car, driving home to Sacramento and Lady Bird in the passenger seat trying to take control of her life. Mother and daughter share a laugh at Lady Bird’s joke that the 21 hours and 5 minutes of The Grapes of Wrath book on tape that’s just ended is the exact amount of time they spent on their college trip. Lady Bird wants to listen to music and Marion has her own opinion about “taking in what they’ve just experienced” in silence. And this stirs the wrath between them.

A Mom Who Needs Her Way

Her mom’s need to have her way sets Lady Bird off. And it all gets worse when she asserts her own ideas, saying she “hates California” and wants to go to college in the East. Because Marion can’t tolerate any kind of separateness, she’s not able to enter into a conversation about Lady Bird’s feelings or thoughts. Her go-to response is anger.

One of their usual arguments begins: about Lady Bird, her future, and her sometimes too lackadaisical and provocative ways of being. (“Oh – you have the worst life, so you win.” “Of course you didn’t notice [that her father lost his job], you don’t think about anybody but yourself.”)

All teenagers are lost in their own worlds – it’s part of separating. But, when Lady Bird says she wants to go all the way to the East Coast, where culture is, where writers live and learn, Marion panics: “You couldn’t get into those schools anyway. The way you work or don’t work, you aren’t even worth state tuition. Just go to City College, then to jail; then back to City College. Then maybe you’d learn to pull yourself up and not expect everyone to …”

One Way A Kid Tries To Break Away

Lady Bird, claustrophobically trapped in this unending and demeaning fight, impulsively opens the door of their moving car and jumps out. Marion screams. Lady Bird breaks her arm. The epithet on her cast says it all: “Fuck you, Mom.”

For Lady Bird and many teenagers, “fuck you” express directly and rather unapologetically the tricky task of finding their own ways. Yet, for Lady Bird (and many like her) – that task of creating her own identity is made all too difficult by a mom who imposes her ways, beliefs, and demands onto her kid.

To break away – Lady Bird changes her name from Christine to “Lady Bird.” But, is this a “fuck you” – or is it an understandable attempt to define who she is apart from a mom that can’t let her go – trying to be free, as she should be, to fly?

Well, yes, Lady Bird is provocative. But, being provocative is the only way she can find some sort of personal voice. She frequently speaks her mind in both words and actions. And, this almost as often gets her into some kind of trouble.

One example is the school assembly on abortion where Lady Bird feels as trapped as she does in her mom’s car. When the speaker says: “I’m that baby my mother decided not to abort,” Lady Bird boldly asserts: “If your mother had had that abortion, we wouldn’t have to sit through this assembly.”

Lady Bird has had to sit through all too many of your mom’s trying-to-be-helpful but invariably critical “talks.” Lady Bird is a formidable match (she has to be). She’ll be who she is and no one will stop her. Yet, her rather clumsy efforts to get out from under her critical mom can sometimes end up just as thoughtless and critical. When a mom hasn’t worked out her difficult past, that past now resides in her kids.

Why Marion “Becomes” Her Own Abusive Mom

Marion’s history comes starkly into view when she and Lady Bird have one of their usual fights, this time about Lady Bird’s messiness. As usual, Marion tells Lady Bird the “right” way to be or, more to the point, everything she does is “wrong.” This particular fight is about throwing her clothes around:

“None of your friend’s fathers will give your dad a job if you make your family look like trash.” Weary, Lady Bird snaps back: “Didn’t you ever go to sleep without putting your clothes away and wish your mom hadn’t gotten angry?” Marion stops and something seems to register on her face. A little softer, she says: “My mom was an abusive alcoholic.”

Our moms live inside us. For better or worse. Marion’s mom quite clearly does. We see it. We see how she struggles with love. When her crusty exterior cracks, the love is there. Yet, openly and consistently loving the daughter who stirs up her own little girl self is impossible. With Lady Bird, her own childhood hurt comes all too alive.

Marion’s criticisms of Lady Bird are meant to deflect the self-demeaning voice in her own mind. Things get turned around. Marion “becomes” her mom, and Lady Bird “becomes” Marion’s daughter-self who could never do anything right. She didn’t have a place for her “child” feelings; so they got buried. Now, being a mom to a girl – they are uncontrollably coming out. We see over and over, Marion’s put-downs and scolding-s. She’s always mad. Her anger, though, is not about Lady Bird’s room or behavior – it’s about her past and all the old feelings inside her that she tries to (but can’t) keep under tight control.

What’s the worst result of this kind of negative demeaning attention? Marion’s constant disapproval, or, worse yet, her outright anger – makes Lady Bird feel that she is “bad.” Not to mention, terrified that she’s constantly losing her mom.

A Frightened Kid: “I’m So Sorry … I’m So Bad.”

Marion’s rage scares Lady Bird. Even though she can put up her own provocative, “could care less” walls, she needs her mom and can’t afford to lose her.  Marion discovers she’s “waitlisted” at an NYC school. And Lady Bird because desperate when subjected to Marion’s stony, full of rage, rejecting silence. Given the voice in her own head from Marion’s constant criticisms, she can only blame herself:

“I shouldn’t have gone behind your back. But, Mom, aren’t you sort of proud I’m so close to getting in? I’m so sorry, so sorry. I know I can lie and not be a good person. Please, mom, I’m so sorry. I didn’t mean to hurt you. I appreciate everything you’ve ever done for me … I’m so sorry I wanted more … I know I’m so bad, but please just talk to me, Mom, please talk to me.”

It’s a heart-wrenching scene. It’s terrible for a kid to feel she’s bad and selfish for wanting something purely for herself – something different. Worse yet: Marion can’t hear Lady Bird’s distress. She can’t put aside her own feelings for a second – to be there for her child. In fact, she believes Lady Bird is actually doing something wrong for “doing what she’s doing.”

 But, what is she doing? To Marion (caught in the child-self that has now taken over), Lady Bird isn’t just a child doing what a child must do. Lady Bird is leaving her, hurting her, rejecting her, abandoning her once again; just as her own mother left/or was never emotionally there.

Lady Bird’s Difficult Separation

Leaving home for the first time is always difficult. But, because she feels abandoned, Marion “retaliates” and abandons Lady Bird; leaving her all alone to negotiate one of the most difficult things a kid can do: leaving home after High School graduation.

Marion does the “dutiful” thing, laced with punishment. She drives to the airport, drops Lady Bird and her dad (Tracy Letts) off, but won’t go in, leaving them while she circles the airport “because parking is too expensive.” Lady Bird suffers, but sadly so does Marion. And, when she suddenly panics and drives back to the airport fast – leaving the car at the curb to run in and say goodbye – Lady Bird is already gone.

But, even more tragically, Marion can’t reach out and she and her daughter remain emotionally miles apart. Lady Bird is alone – just as motherless as Marion was – to bravely fly off to a new chapter in her life 3000 miles away. This is the cost of a mom’s blindness; Marion’s inability to say she’s sorry.

In NYC, Lady Bird drinks to drown her feelings; vomits, and passes out at a boy’s apartment. An ambulance rushes her to the hospital; her face stained with tears. There, a hurt little boy who has his mom stares right at her. Lady Bird needs her mom too.

Trying To Bridge A Motherless Gap

Not having her mom’s love is an emergency. Her dad gave her a cell phone for “emergencies only.” Lady Bird calls home:

“It’s Christine. The name you gave me. It’s the good one … Mom, did you feel emotional the first time you drove in Sacramento? I did and I wanted to tell you, but we weren’t really talking … all those bends I’ve known my whole life. I love you. And, thank you…”

In spite of all the twists and turns in her turbulent relationship with Marion, Lady Bird … Christine … 3000 miles away from home; beginning to own her real identity, is able (maybe for the first time) to feel gratitude. She couldn’t feel grateful when she had to rebel against a mom whose misunderstanding and old historical wrath got in the way of love.

This thank you is for Lady Bird’s hard-won independence; for family, familiarity, home, and, even, for the love that is there; sometimes hidden. Love she is trying to reach and feel from afar; in spite of her mom’s history, struggles, anger, criticisms, and her rejections.

It’s not the job of a daughter to bridge the gap between them, but when a daughter can; at the right moment, it just might make a difference. Maybe, just maybe, this “thank you” will.

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Dr. Sandra E. Cohen

I’m Dr. Sandra Cohen, a psychologist and psychoanalyst in private practice in Beverly Hills, CA. I work with creatives in therapy, story/character development, and entertainment consulting. If you are a writer, actor, or director and want help with a character – or a chance to do some of your own personal work - call at 310.273.4827 or email me at to schedule a confidential discussion to explore working together.

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