I'm still here, in D flat
Postcards from the Edge and the evil that mums do
DORIS: That was lovely, dear. I don’t know why you don’t sing anymore.
SUZANNE: I get so nervous.
DORIS: But you shouldn’t be. You’ve got a terrific voice, a terrific talent. A much bigger talent than mine.
GARY: Now Doris! Doris, sing something!
DORIS: No, no. I couldn’t. It’s my daughter’s night.
SUZANNE (knowing she wants to): Go on mama. Sing.
DORIS: You think I should?
DORIS (faux reluctantly): Alright. You sang for me, so I’ll sing for you.
DORIS (instantly, to the pianist): ‘I’m Still Here’ in D flat.
Postcards from the Edge (1991)
During the twelve years I worked in Mumsnet’s press office I found out how easy it is to get stories about mums into the papers. The problem was that they weren’t usually the stories we wanted to get in the papers. We were pitching stories about muddled priorities in childcare policies and post-maternity career dives and the under-supply of school places in Birmingham, but what the papers wanted was ‘Mum rant over hubby’s “sick” habit’, ‘Online mums furious over weird school rule’ and ‘Mum shares shocking secret’. These ‘stories’ - all essentially in the same vein as ‘Dog uses Oyster card’ or ‘Pig writes novel’ - could be sourced for free on Mumsnet’s forums, which sounded very sweet to cash-strapped section editors. There are interns in news organisations whose job it is to hang around on Mumsnet, clicking on high-ranking threads to see what they can C+P onto a webpage.
Mumsnet’s mentions on social channels were madly polarised, reflecting a quantum superposition of states in which mothers are mundane and fascinating, weak and powerful, cosy and terrifying, great and awful. Each check of our social media feeds revealed abusive generalisations (mums are stupid, fascist, vindictive, neurotic, hysterical, controlling) side-by-side with OTT valorisation (my mum is a legend, single mums are bad-ass, never mess with a mum, mums get it done, ohhhh boy he’s lost the mum vote!).
Young women were often the nastiest in the way they spoke about mothers; they had the most ungenerous ideas, and were the most vicious and unapologetic in their expression. (Older fathers - men who had seen their partners or wives wade through shit uphill for years - were the nicest. Actual mothers, hilariously, were somewhere in between.) With a few very honourable exceptions, young female journalists were astonishingly unpleasant about Mumsnet right up until they announced the birth of their first baby on Twitter, at which point they would start writing articles like ‘Birth injuries are unpleasant!’ and ‘I’m so tired I want to vomit!’ and ‘Oh my god I’ve just discovered that maternity discrimination is functionally legal!’ Jeez, if only there’d been an organisation trying to get journalists interested in this stuff.
Anyway. I was reminded of all this rewatching Postcards from the Edge, Carrie Fisher’s adaptation of Carrie Fisher’s book about Carrie Fisher’s relationship with Carrie Fisher’s mother, and how a lack of maternal attention and support really put the brakes on what could otherwise have been a great career for that little-known actress, Carrie Fisher.
OK, that’s a cheap crack. Because what I actually realised about Postcards from the Edge, rewatching it 30 years after its release, is that its treatment of the mother figure Doris Vale - who is based on Fisher’s mother, Singin’ in the Rain legend Debbie Reynolds - is much more sympathetic and nuanced than I’d noticed when I was 20. This nuance is partly a function of Shirley MacClaine’s enjoyable performance as Doris, all bustle and kick; but in fairness to Fisher, it’s in the script too. Doris is given a speech about the routine sexual assault she endured on her way to the top; that didn’t register at all when I was a young woman. Doris also calls out the egotism and limp self-indulgence of her daughter (Meryl Streep); I blanked that one out the first time as well. I just didn’t see Doris as a person. I only saw her as a target.
Overall, honestly, the film is a bit crap. Minor characters rush in and out of focus in a way that suggests wild hacking in the editing room, and Streep’s performance is quite odd (although it was the first time I’d heard her sing, and she’s wonderful.) My wandering attention became snagged on the inaccuracy of my own memory. If you'd asked me a month ago what Postcards from the Edge was about, I’d have said it was about a talented young actress whose career was nearly derailed by her mother’s neuroses and egotism. In fact, it’s about a mother and daughter who are equally neurotic and egotistical and have to get the hell over themselves, move on with their incredible lives in their massive Beverley Hills mansions and stop fucking whining.
Without even realising it, as a young woman I too had had a cloudy suspicion that everything is, if not your own mother’s fault, the fault of some mother somewhere. If Mumsnet and Twitter had been around when I was young, there’s every chance I’d have been on the latter posting mean stuff about mums. My perception - that Postcards from the Edge was about a manipulative, self-obsessed mother, but not a manipulative, self-obsessed daughter - had been a function of my own prejudice, which was a function of my life stage and a widespread societal twitch about what it means to be Mum. There are many conversations on Mumsnet about the word ‘mum’, with users wistfully wondering why the site’s founders chose that instead of something sassier; mama or ma or mother, just please, please not ‘mum’. Sophisticated boho types tend to instinctively dislike the word without really asking themselves why.
Our own relationships with our own mothers, whatever they might be like, have enough emotional weight to unbalance our perceptions. But on top of that, ‘mum’ has deeply-loaded associations that squat in everyone’s consciousness, and have a specific power for young women who think they might be catching glimpses of their future. On the upside, ‘mum’ holds the promise of drama, attention and eternal devotion. It’s also an anointment; being a mum means never having to wonder what you are for. It’s universally recognised and understood, like becoming a doctor or a lawyer except that you acquire the status before you embark on the expensive and harrowing training. (Mum joke!)
And then there’s the soft, secret egoism of it. Men tend to imagine that women want to produce mini-me’s, but what we actually want is to produce children who are better than us. Relatedly, we all think we will absolutely boss mothering (translation: we will do it better than those stupid mums). I used to daydream about speaking so thoughtfully and empathetically to my imaginary flock of tiny perfect genius Rowans that passers-by would be unbearably moved. I was reminded of this years later on a crowded bus when my three-year-old asked - really very loudly and à propos of absolutely jack shit - why I only shouted at him when we were on our own.
But while motherhood has these dreamy associations it also threatens to inter you in Mum, who's been a figure of ridicule for your entire short life. Mum is careful, nagging, constrained. She is rule-bound, and cautious as a cat. She is constantly immured in boring crap: dentist check-ups, grocery deliveries, birthday cards for people she sees once a year. She is old, she is tired and she looks terrible in her underwear. She cries at school plays and end-of-term assemblies, and gets feverish about everything from Christmas shopping to UCAS applications.
For young women raised on the capitalist-feminist legend of autonomy, freedom and a quicksilver lightness of being, this is unbearable. It can’t be inevitable; it must be that those mums - the kind of mother you will not be - lack intelligence or imagination. It must be that they never really liked being independent. It must be that they’re hidebound by nature. It must be that they are too conventionally-minded to carve a new channel.
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Underneath the clamour of young women shit-talking Mumsnet on Twitter you can hear the scratching of people checking for the exits. At the centre of all this is a fear that you, yourself will somehow be irretrievably lost; that the recoil of maternity knocks women flat. This is the fear that informs Rachel Cusk’s writing on motherhood, although I haven’t read her for years; I read her when my own babies were young - when I was outraged that the world had suddenly started perceived me as boring and stupid - and she seemed to me to have swallowed all the worst anti-mum prejudices whole. Now I wonder whether I misinterpreted her, too.
Of course, the truth is that motherhood does not reduce you to a querulous husk or obliterate your essential self. Like most life experiences it does not subtract, it can only add. You will find yourself being Mum at times, but most often you will simply be yourself. During the blurred years of wet wipes, permission slips and breaded goujons, the reality of motherhood becomes threaded through your experience; you find a way to make it fit.
My kids are young men now. I haven’t cooked a fishfinger for years, and the only forms that require my signature are for student finance. I’ll always be their mother, crazed by love, but Mum has something else, something with a useful psychological distance: a broad comic role providing cover for all kinds of necessary or emotionally satisfying behaviour. When I force packets of vitamins into my sons’ pockets and ask intrusive questions about their relationships, the universal caricature allows me to do physical comedy and actual mothering at the same time. When I tell them I’m extremely invested in the wellbeing of my as-yet non-existent grandchildren, I’m joking - but I’m also not joking. At all. I’ve spent the last 20 years surrounded by mums, both at work and in my daily life, and I haven’t met a single Mum because she doesn’t exist. We’re just people, and like Doris we’re all still here, cock-a-hoop.
Because this is the other thing I noticed about Postcards from the Edge this time around: how much Doris is enjoying herself. How much giddy, cackling pleasure she gets from titting about, being embarrassing, offering unwanted and sometimes very bad advice. How successfully she asserts her own right to exist. This huge, blowsy performance of Mum, this revelry, this sense of running riot with yourself: that’s what they ought to put in the papers.
From movie mothers to film fatherhood: