In most Hollywood representations, motherhood is depicted as fulfilling a label quintessential to the image of femininity. The reality that many women face is less pretty. Our society often imagines that all women desire to have children and that the best identity a woman can aspire to is “mommy.” Hearing Portia say confidently in the new movie Admission, “I didn’t want a family” was a dose of fresh air. For most women, saying “I don’t want kids,” is akin to moving to the island of misfit toys. You put yourself in the “other” category and it’s immediately assumed that something is inherently wrong. Society makes motherhood so intrinsic to female identity that those who chose to follow a non-traditional path face criticism and disenfranchisement.
Admission follows the identity crisis of a Princeton University admissions officer as she grapples with the decision of whether to let in a student whom she believes is the son she gave up in college. I was pleasantly surprised when the film, which seemed feminist in thought, was actually feminist in action as well. Not only does Portia struggle with her identity as an older, single childless woman in the workplace and society, but the storyline follows two other characters whose role as a parent threatens their personal sense of self.
John is a single father with an adopted son who’s constantly uprooting the kid to travel the world and Susannah is Portia’s radical feminist mother. John plays the role of sole caregiver and the contrast between his sensitive, caring fathering to Portia messy, panicked mothering breaks down the classic gender roles within parenting and reminds us that the parent gene is gender neutral. The dynamic between Portia and Susannah illustrates some of the fine lines women must draw between who they are as women and individuals. As the picture of feminism in the 1960s, Susannah is sexually liberated, independent and most-importantly undefined by her role as a mother, or by Portia’s estimation of her, as an unsatisfactory one.
Beyond the exploration of parenthood and identity, the film portrays Portia’s decision to give up her child for adoption as status quo. The fact that no controversy was awarded to her choice is inherently feminist because the films covers the topic as it stands: a choice she made. So many teens and young adults feel pressured to keep a child due to family or religious backgrounds, but the reality is that it takes more than ovaries to be bred for motherhood. This becomes clear through the many gaffes Portia makes in trying to prove to herself that she can cope with this new role professionally and personally.
Yet, much like in reality, her peers constantly question her choice to avoid motherhood. Whether it’s colleagues and parents asking her if she has children, or her coworker praising her own motherhood, the tone is clear that child rearing never seemed ideal for Portia. As she comes to terms with the fact that she may be face to face with her son, she tries to embrace the persona of a mother and each attempt ends in a punch line. The most feminist aspect of the film is the fact that Portia is never once labeled as one. Her mother tries to push the label, citing initiatives she took on in high school, but for the most part Portia shies away from the title. She’s just a female for whom motherhood is neither a natural inclination nor a label that she actively seeks.
While watching the film, I thought of my own mother and how defensive she gets when I talk about wanting to donate my eggs or suggest that I may never have children. My mother’s reactions remind me that regardless of age, the ideal of motherhood is placed on all women like a finish line to reach. So many female professionals focus on “having it all,” but at the cost of losing their identities and freedom as they balance brunt of the housework and child raising, despite working full-time jobs. As Jessica Valenti explores in her book Why Have Kids?, the reality of having children includes “ambivalence, joy, guilt and exhaustion.” Glamorized images of motherhood are doing no favors for young professional women trying to define themselves and find fulfillment.
In the end, Portia decides to accept her possible role and responsibility as a mother, only to find out that her son isn’t ready for the relationship. She resolves her lack of maternal instincts with the fact that never knowing her father had an impact on her upbringing. The movie ends on a feminist note because she doesn’t make this choice from a place of societal pressure, but from her own desire to explore that side of herself. The truth of the matter is there’s nothing wrong with Portia or her female counterparts for whom motherhood provides a source of happiness and sense of self. There needs to be more film and media representations of Portia and women like her to remind young women that pro-creating is a choice that not every woman has to make. Women should only have children if they have a genuine desire to. Deciding that on her own accord makes a woman a feminist in word and deed.