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Film Lets Mothers Tell How It Really Was : Stories of Hardship, Pressure, Disenchantment Punch Holes in Stereotype

May 14, 1987|SHELDON TEITELBAUM | Teitelbaum is a North Hollywood free-lance writer. and

Rhyena Halpern's documentary about motherhood, "Things Your Mother Never Told You," is not the kind of film you'd want to see on Mother's Day.

Halpern intended it as an affirmation of the nobility of American motherhood as that institution evolved during the last 30 years.

But after watching 40 women between the ages of 32 and 77 talking about what child-rearing had been like for them, some viewers might begin wondering how the baby boom ever got booming.

"One of the things I learned from the interviews," said the 30-year-old Burbank film maker, who is neither married nor a mother, "was that whatever else it is, being a mother is \o7 hard."

\f7 Halpern graduated from California Institute of the Arts in Valencia last week with a master of fine arts degree, and "Things Your Mother Never Told You" served as her thesis project.

A native of New York, she has been in the film-making business for 10 years and has produced documentaries about deaf children, battered women, prisoners and their families, Holocaust survivors, handicapped women, the world of fashion fingernails, and gay families and their children.

She produced her thesis film with a $6,000 completion grant from the Women's Media Project/Funding Exchange in New York. The film cost about $7,000.

Halpern begins one section of "Things Your Mother Never Told You" with the results of a motherhood poll that Ann Landers conducted for Good Housekeeping magazine during the late '70s. In it, 70% of 10,000 respondents said that if they had it all to do over again, they wouldn't.

There is no question, insists Halpern, that the women she interviewed loved their children and were pleased to have borne them. But they now realize that, in a sense, they had been coerced by social pressures into having their children at the wrong time, with the wrong person or for the wrong reasons.

"Once I was pregnant," recalls one of the youngest among Halpern's subjects, a woman who appears to have been stunned by the whole business, "I was marked. I fasted and prayed and begged God to relieve me of this child.

"I became secondary to this entity I neither needed nor wanted nor planned."

Another mother explains that she had hoped to return to college for her degree after her first-born had grown. But her husband summarily decided it was time to have another baby. And, reluctantly, she went along with it.

One woman complained that she had expected during her pregnancy to be treated as reverentially as pregnant women seemed to be on TV. But it never happened.

"No one ever told me to sit down. I was always schlepping."

It would be a mistake, says Halpern, to conclude that these women enjoy complaining about their lives. In fact, the wonder of her film was that they were prepared to articulate any critical view of motherhood at all.

"Mothers aren't allowed to talk about this stuff. Because if they do, it means they don't love their children."

A Christmas Gift

She got the idea for her film during a visit with her mother in 1984, over the Christmas break. As her mother reminisced about her early years as a mother, Halpern picked up her video camera and set the conversation down on tape. Later, she filmed some of her mother's friends, women in their 70s.

"There was this incredible feeling of the wealth of information they had," she says, "this richness about their lives." Halpern brought the footage back to California and showed it to friends and colleagues.

"They were transfixed. It was so compelling, an abundant overflowing. It's just such a historical resource to hear these women talk."

In a sense, Halpern sees her film as a capsule oral history of the social institution of American motherhood during the post-war years.

Although she doesn't think that social historians will have to revise their view of the American family because of her film, Halpern herself was surprised by some of the things that came out of her interviews.

"I guess I was expecting more range in the responses--women who either loved being a mother or hated it. Instead, I found that most women--whether their marriages had been good or bad, their child-raising years easier or more difficult--had a great deal in common."

One of the things she says they shared was the conviction that, as easy as it may have been for some of them, men had it easier down the line.

Also, even those women who loved raising their children and who had few desires for a life outside their homes recognized that mothering was hard work, and that they had given up a great deal to do it.

Matter of Choice

But if being a mother has been something of a struggle for more than a few, it's getting better. Halpern says many young women are now making motherhood a matter of choice. They are timing it to suit their personal ambitions.

The entire family unit in this country is restructuring, and Halpern says many of the mothers she interviewed were heartened by this.

Halpern, who is now working as an intern on NBC's "The Today Show," hopes that PBS will buy her tape and set her to work on one of a dozen sequels she can think of. She'd like to make documentaries about fathers, children, today's mothers, single mothers--there's no end to it.

She hasn't yet screened "Things Your Mother Never Told You" for the 110 children whose mothers participated in the film. And she won't venture a guess as to how they might respond to their mothers' testimony. But there's a good chance some of them will find the experience mildly disturbing.

They should relax. As one of the women in the film said about being a mother, "It all came out all right. That's the amazing part."

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