Should I steal this baby? That was the thought that ran through my head as I contemplated the toddler I had been hired to watch.
I had just moved out to Los Angeles, and I was making a meager living watching rich people’s children at five-star hotels. Nightly I would pull up to the Four Seasons, The Beverly Hills Hotel or The Bel Air in my ancient Buick, make the valet crawl through the passenger side—because the driver’s side door didn’t open—and be handed a Prada-clad child as the parents drifted off to a meal that cost more than my rent.
In most cases it was a cushy gig. I would order a $30 burger from room service and hang out with a cute kid. But in this case, the mother was sprawled out on the bed, drunk, nude and covered in French fries she had attempted to eat before passing out. The toddler was dirty and diaper-less and staring up at me with baffled eyes. In my mind, it wouldn’t be kidnapping, it would be “rescuing.” I would take her for the night and return her the next morning. Or not.
This woman was a mess of a mother. While she could still talk, her drunken soul spillage made me feel more like her babysitter than her child’s. She came to Los Angeles to cheat on her husband. She only had the baby to save her marriage. Her ass and breasts were once amazing, but now her husband wouldn’t even look at her. Lonely and unloved, she wished she had never become a mother.
As far as I was concerned, she didn’t deserve a kid. I would do a better job than she would. I’d load the kid into my Buick. Sure, I didn’t have a car-seat, but I’d strap her in somehow. I’d feed her ramen and she’d live in my studio apartment, sleep on my Goodwill couch. Without any of the resources of this woman, I would raise this child beautifully. Kids loved me. How hard could it be?
Of course, I didn’t take that child. But I wrote a movie about it. It was a wish fulfillment, a “what if?” In its original version, Tallulah centered on a young rootless woman (named Tallulah) living out of her van, who after a chance encounter in a hotel with a wealthy, neglectful mom, makes a rash decision to take her child. The character was the last person in the world who was fit to be a mom, but in a moment of impulse, takes on the biggest responsibility a person can have. My thesis was simple: The nurture instinct does not live in all of us. Society has put all of this pressure on women, making them feel as though bearing children is an essential part of achieving ultimate femininity, when, in fact, certain women just shouldn’t do it.
I wrote Tallulah from a place of judgment. It was a clean narrative; Carolyn was the villain and Tallulah was the hero. It was, as someone said to me, “The first pro-kidnapping movie ever made.” Then my film took almost ten years to get made. As frustrating as the endless delays were, I am now grateful the gestation took so long. Because something happened in those years spent waiting. I became a mother.
When my daughter was born, she had terrible colic for the first six months. The nurse in the hospital after my delivery told me she’d never seen a baby cry so much and when I left, her parting words (delivered in a heavy Russian accent) were “Good luck. You have a difficult child.” All of my cockiness disappeared. I had my ass handed to me. My daughter wouldn’t sleep more then 45 minutes at a time, so then neither would we. My husband and I rocked and walked and bounced incessantly on a yoga ball, desperate to figure out what we were doing wrong. I was lonely. I felt helpless and trapped. My marriage felt strained. I grieved for my former self as though she was a friend who had died.
Facebook only caused me to collapse further into failure. Everyone else parented beautifully. Beaming moms, pre-pregnancy bodies magically restored, clutched perfect sleeping “sand-bag” babies in stark contrast to my wailing, red-faced, tiny Velociraptor. The self-doubt I felt was crippling. I had constant fear that it was my fault, that I was doing it wrong. Suddenly, I had fantasies of being that drunken mommy passed out in a hotel room, handing my baby off to a stranger. At least she had some good drugs.
I rewrote my script. No one was a villain anymore. Real life moms are not villains or heroes. Good people can make bad choices. I couldn’t go back in time and punch my cocky former self, but I could grab her by the pages she had written and shake her. By the time we shot Tallulah, I had a 16-month-old and was six months pregnant with my second child. I ended up making a movie about motherhood in the middle of living it.
The kismet of the life events that mirrored this project made it all feel almost like performance art. I made a movie about neglect and left my own child to go make that movie. I was wrangling toddlers on set all day and then would return home to wrestle with my own daughter’s sleeplessness. I would find myself hiding out in a separate room, ignoring screams of “Mommy, Mommy!” trying to get a meager few hours as my husband or nanny wrestled her down. It’s shameful to admit these things now. I had abandoned my own child to go pursue my dreams. The guilt was and still is intense. Then I went into labor the night I finalized edits. Delivered my movie baby and my human baby on the same day.
So who is the bad mommy? The mom who hires a stranger to watch their child in a hotel room? The mom who hires a nanny to watch their child while they go make a movie? The mom who hires a nanny period? The mom who breastfeeds too long or not long enough, who feeds their kid French fries or only raw food, who lets their baby cry or co-sleeps till their kid goes to college?
Mom-shaming is predominantly administered by other moms. Recently, “Gorilla Mom” was vilified when her four year-old crawled inside the gorilla pen at a zoo. Rather than empathize with a frazzled mother of four who helplessly watched her child be tossed around by a giant primate, other moms attacked and blamed her for the death of the gorilla, who had to be put down in order to rescue the child.
Shame is a powerful tool. Historically, shame has been used as punishment or to control people for betraying social and moral norms. Now we have Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. The worst part of mom-shaming is that there is no judgment the world can unleash on a mother that most mothers haven’t already unleashed on themselves.
Most of us don’t have a village anymore. So, like many new moms, the Internet became my village. When bathing my infant, I Google what temperature it should be. If my baby has a weird rash, I hit up Web MD. If struggling with potty training, I post on my Facebook moms group and wait for people to chime in. But the Internet is not only convenient. The Internet is mean. And the Internet lies.
Social media offers a platform to present the most filtered, edited and perfect version of our lives. I am guilty of it. I get to present myself as some kind of super woman. “Look, she directed a movie six months pregnant, with a 16-month-old in her arms. She’s doing it all!” Social media allows me to look like a superhero. But I’m not a superhero. I feel wracked with guilt all the time. I haven’t yet figured out how to juggle the career and the family without feeling like I am failing at both. My dream to direct films lives in direct conflict with my desire to fully parent my kids. The year that I just had was phenomenal but also debilitating and exhausting. I pulled it off by the skin of my teeth. And sometimes it’s comforting to have the world think I’m nailing it, because most of the time it feels like I’m drowning.
Read more: 10 Things I Wish My Mother Had Taught Me
After Tallulah screened at Sundance, I was cornered in bathrooms by women needing to confess their mommy transgressions. “I didn’t love my baby for the first six months.” “Once I accidentally left my kid under the table in a restaurant.” A woman wrote me that the “bad mom” hit too close to home, “She gives voice to my darkest, shameful thoughts; the thoughts I pretend don’t exist so I don’t feel like a horrible mother for even thinking them.”
It’s deeply vulnerable to be a parent. We only know what we know and most of us are flying blind, amalgamating how we were raised, and something we read and that thing someone told us. We all live with the pervasive fear that some decision we make will inadvertently hurt our child or land them in therapy. There are more decisions because there is more information, and the anxiety around many of these decisions is crippling.
So how do we stop mom-shaming? I would venture to say that judgment is natural and can be healthy if it starts a conversation, as it did with the writing of my film. But judgment requires nothing but distance and superiority. And the lesson I took from my own journey and the sudden perspective shift I experienced in regard to my character was a powerful one. We are all human. We are all deeply flawed, and that doesn’t magically change when we become parents. Have mercy. Have compassion. Offer to help. Smile at her sympathetically while her kid throws a tantrum in the middle of a grocery store. Share your stories of doubt and failure along with your moments of triumph. Understand that most people are just doing their best.
Sian Heder is a writer, producer and director. Her latest film Tallulah, which she wrote and directed, is available on Netflix now.