Jane's Greatest Strength On 'Big Little Lies' Is My Biggest Parenting Struggle
There is so much buzz around Big Little Lies. I had scads of friends who read the book and were then waiting impatiently for the HBO limited series. It seemed to be especially popular among my mom friends. I didn't read the book partially because, to be honest, I hate when things are labeled as "women's fiction," which isn't really a good reason not to read it. (But seriously, is there "men's fiction"?) When I saw the amazing cast for the HBO limited series, and once I had seen a couple ads, I knew I wanted to watch. I didn't think there would be much I'd relate to, aside from the fact that I'm a stay-at-home mom of a first grader like most of the moms on the show. I pictured it being a (more) fictionalized version of the the Real Housewives series. Here was a group of beautiful, rich women who cared way too much about PTA politics. But, surprisingly, I found that I relate to a lot of the mothers' storylines on Big Little Lies and thought a lot about the show long after I'd finished the first episode.
There was one moment in particular that stuck with me, and made my stomach clench in uncomfortable sympathy. That moment was when the new mom in town, Jane Chapman, played by Shailene Woodley, had to stand up for her first grade son when he is accused of bullying and hurting another little girl. Amabella (whose mother, Renata, is played by Laura Dern) tells her teacher that another child strangled her. She has marks on her neck, and so the teacher addresses all the children and parents of the class at orientation before the first day. Jane and her son Ziggy are obviously the outsiders, new not only to the school, but the community and the overall culture. I felt anxious for Jane when the victimized Amabella pointed to Ziggy when she's asked who hurt her.
When the teacher asks Ziggy if he hurt the little girl, he says adamantly that he did not. And then Jane did something that put me squarely on her side: She defended him.
It's such an uncomfortable moment to watch. Any parent could watch this scene and relate to the moms involved. Renata's daughter has been hurt and she wants an explanation. Jane's still just trying to get her footing in this clique-ish and drama-full crew; she doesn't know her friend from her foe, and she's knocked off balance by the accusation. The other parents are aghast, partially horrified, and partially intrigued to see how it will all pan out. When the teacher asks Ziggy if he hurt the Amabella, he says adamantly that he did not. And then Jane did something that put me squarely on her side: She defended him.
I really admired her in that moment. I could only empathize with how she was feeling: wanting to belong, not wanting to make waves, but being forced to either make the other adults angry at you or to let down your kid. I loved that she believed it when her son said he didn't do it. I loved it even more when she didn't make him apologize for something he didn't do.
As I've learned from the subsequent episodes, a lot of grudges and antagonisms stem from this moment. Probably a lot of heartache (and a murder?) could have possibly been prevented if Jane had mumbled an apology and sheepishly implored her son to do the same. But I really admired her in that moment. I could only empathize with how she was feeling: wanting to belong, not wanting to make waves, but being forced to either make the other adults angry at you or to let down your kid. I loved that she believed it when her son said he didn't do it. I loved it even more when she didn't make him apologize for something he didn't do. The reason this struck such a chord with me is that, to be honest, I'm not sure I would have had the guts to do the same.
While this isn't exactly a perfect comparison, I know there have been times when I've let my kids down in an uncomfortable moment, the most obvious of these moments is when I've encouraged them to do something they didn't totally want to do. Like when relatives they don't quite remember want to take a picture with them. Or when strangers touch them and I can tell they don't like it. For the sake of not creating a scene or not extending my child's discomfort, I don't say anything. Inevitably, because I haven't spoken up in the first place, it happens again, and I feel so guilty for my silence.
I am so fiercely protective of my kids. I school them on being assertive in their lives, and when I'm in a tricky situation, I don't always act the way I've taught them to. I know I'm one of their most important role models, but I crumble.
I firmly believe in my children's bodily autonomy and the importance of consent. We don't tickle in my family, because I remember feeling uncomfortable with being tickled as a kid and not feeling like I could tell them to stop. We ask before giving kisses or hugs. And, yeah, I've read all the articles about not making your kid hug or kiss grandma, and so I don't. But for some reason, with the request for pictures with elderly relatives, I have a hard time saying "no." I don't make my kids sit with Santa, but I have made them sit with their great-grandparents, and I'd feel absolutely wracked with guilt afterwards. Or, one time, an employee of a store was delighted with my daughter and picked her up. I was so shocked that I didn't say anything. Instead, I just found a reason to leave the store, but still smiled and told the employee to have a nice day.
Those moments have really bothered me. They've bothered me in part because I know I should be more assertive in a lot of areas of my life. Like many women, my learned state is one of smoothing things over and being polite and agreeable. I worry too much about what other people will think. In the past I've felt like friends and family have taken advantage of the fact that I have trouble saying "no" to a request, even if it means it ruins my day. But it bothered me more because I am so fiercely protective of my kids. I school them on being assertive in their lives, and when I'm in a tricky situation, I don't always act the way I've taught them to. I know I'm one of their most important role models, but I crumble.
As Jane's storyline has evolved in the story so far, she's continually in a place where she has to speak out for her son, and she does it time and time again, and somehow she manages to do it without ruffling unnecessary feathers. She resists the temptation to make any of the issues about her (like Reese Witherspoon's character Madeline surely would do). She lets water flow under the bridge because she knows dwelling on certain issues might increase her son's anxiety.
I'm rooting for Jane, rooting that she'll keep standing up for herself and for her son. The love she has for him is obvious. She seems to draw on that love to strengthen herself. And to me, that's really something to live up to.
Jane's the most relatable character to me on the show. She's not rich. She's a young mom. She struggles with a lot of anxieties. As more and more of her flaws have come to the surface, I still find Jane to be a role model to me. Next time some well-meaning person makes my kids uncomfortable, I resolve to stand up for them. I'm going to try not to freeze in indecision.
I am really looking forward to finishing the series. I'm totally hooked. But mostly, I'm rooting for Jane, rooting that she'll keep standing up for herself and for her son. The love she has for him is obvious. She seems to draw on that love to strengthen herself. And to me, that's really something to live up to.