Motherhood is historically a symbol of nurturing love and sacrifice. If a mother is married, and her partner/spouse dies, as a widow her role as mother marches on. But does that mark an end to her shot at happiness beyond parenting? Doesn’t mom deserve romance… again?
As we approach the month of mothers’ special day (May 10th), I want to explore the notion that romantic love is attainable- yes, even for moms. It’s not just modern-day definitions that reflect the burning questions of what is or is not socially acceptable in the vast category of love. Even in the most socially conservative and traditional eras, two classic films debate this conventional norm.
The parallels between Curtis Bernhardt’s MY REPUTATION (1946) and Douglas Sirk’s ALL THAT HEAVEN ALLOWS (1955) are striking. At the center of both films, a widow/mother is essentially put on a societal trial of sorts, with all fingers wagging in judgement at her audacity to seek love a second time. In each story, the widow is relatively young (each actress was in her upper 30s) and attractive, with a good pal (Eve Arden and Agnes Morehead), and a swirling rumor mill of country club hens that condescendingly feign caring for her best interest while simultaneously whispering gossip behind her back.
Catherine Turney adapted the script from Clare Jaynes’ 1942 novel, Instruct My Sorrows, to guide the story of MY REPUTATION (1946). Starring the dazzling Barbara Stanwyck as Jessica Drummond, she’s a recent widow and mother of 12 and 14 year-old sons, Keith (Bobby Cooper) and Kim (adorable Scotty Beckett). In her well-appointed, upper-class lifestyle, she has endured 2 years of her husband’s lost battle to a terminal illness, followed by grief and loneliness.
As Jessica attempts to connect with old friends and succumbs to the pressures to date, she finds herself feeling even more adrift in a sea of gossips and wolves. Her only true friends are the Abbotts (reliably witty Eve Arden as Ginna and John Ridgely as Cary) and Anna her housekeeper (Esther Dale). During a ski trip chance encounter, she initially pushes away the charms of Major Scott Landis (George Brent). Soon enough, fate brings Jessica and Scott together again. To spite the overly-critical town gossips and her domineering mother (Lucile Watson), she ruffles community feathers by leaving a holiday party with Scott. Romance crackles.
As their relationship blossoms, the tight social circle tightens their chiding votes of disdain. Soon, even the children embrace the mob mentality with verbal pitchforks aimed at Jessica as the target. Guilt is a heavy weapon played out by small-minded small town. The jury demands she make a choice- her personal happiness via the spark of new love, or succumb to the well-worn comforts of miserable, peer-approved conformity.
Meanwhile, we momentarily leave this beautiful black-and-white beauty of famed cinematographer James Wong Howe with sweeping music of Max Steiner and zoom nine years into the future of the technicolor melodramatic dream world of Douglas Sirk’s ALL THAT HEAVEN ALLOWS (1955).
Here, we also see a widow in the cross-hairs of the judgements swirling around her. In ALL THAT HEAVEN ALLOWS (1955), Jane Wyman stars as recently widowed Cary Scott who falls in love with a free-spirited landscaper, Rock Hudson as Ron Kirby. The premise rests on the idea that Cary’s friends and family cannot accept their relationship because he is so much younger and due to classism. (Surely, he must be a gold digger!)
Truth be told, Jane Wyman was a mere 38 years old when filming ALL THAT HEAVEN ALLOWS in her portrayal of an upper class widow with two youngish adult children (old enough to go off to school anyway). Rock Hudson was only 8 years younger than Wyman, but his age appears appropriately cast. This was less of a May-December romance, and more of a May-July. But why quibble the semantics on the Hollywood standards for women and aging?
Cary’s social circle includes her good friend Sara Warren (Agnes Morehead) who wants to be supportive but feels the pressures of societal conventions a bit too much than a loyal friend should. Cary’s children are brazenly selfish. They repeatedly attempt to force their mother to date an older man of absolutely no interest to her and assume she should retire the rest of her life away, half-comatose in front of a television. When Cary finally succumbs to peer pressure to appease her self-absorbed children, she falls into a reclusive depression and after a short time realizes just how little her kids gave her needs and her heart any thought. In an eye-opening moment of betrayal, the son, completely unaware of his mom’s distraught emotional state, confidently announces his ambitions. He casually blurts out his assumption of selling her home (as it no longer fits his needs) in a stunning suggestion that his nearly forty year old mother must be ready to put out to pasture. In contrast, Ron has a diverse mix of friends who appear to welcome Cary with open arms and support his independence. I wonder, would they look upon Ron differently if he was a mother?
These two films tackle the core theme that unwed mothers (in this case widows, but one could make the case for divorced, single otherwise, etc.) continue to face this issue of their maternal identity in society. Can a mother be a good parent and have romance- after the father is out of the picture? Is the act as a mother, especially a single mother, a sudden acceleration of aging/ones station in life? Does expectation from society dramatically differ for other women? Or for fathers? How does guilt fit into these inequitable standards?
An honorable mention falls to Garson Kanin’s BACHELOR MOTHER (1939). And while Ginger Rogers as Polly Parish is not a widow in that film, and the role of motherhood falls into her lap accidentally, it was ahead of its time in tackling this issue, even if comedically. To throw a paternal twist into this debate, I find the widower role is viewed in nearly opposite fashion in Vincente Minnelli’s THE COURTSHIP OF EDDIE’S FATHER (1963), where Glenn Ford as widower Tom has an endless parade of beautiful women seemingly thrown at his feet as he attempts to balance parenting his son, Eddie (portrayed by an adorably young and talented Ron Howard). Looking closely at these cinematic comparisons, or not that close, it’s obvious the standards fall differently for the single mothers.
Circling back to our widows looking for love- Barbara Stanwyck’s Jessica and Jane Wyman’s Cary, these stories do take their conclusions in different directions. Part of Jessica’s obstacles to her romantic aspirations center on the younger ages of her boys vs. the essentially empty nest Cary faces. But I imagine the undercurrent wartime theme had a lot of influence in Jessica’s outcome, too. The novel that MY REPUTATION (1946) was based upon was written during WW2. By the film’s release, the societal pressures were intense in this freshly postwar era for mothers to be loyal to a stereotypical motherhood role, not to abandon their families, just as many families were torn apart by death and trauma and many women were transitioning from working the factories/other wartime jobs and back into a more traditional patriarchy again. This fear of ‘losing mom’ as the world began picking up the pieces of rebuilding families became a particularly sensitive message in the immediate postwar era. While the mid 1950s was still a Production Code-heavy timeline, audiences were by then ready for a glossier, colorful melodrama that allowed mom to face such identity crisis, while ultimately becoming the driver of her own life- and put more sizzle in the romance, too.
But to answer the question: do widows -and other mothers- deserve a second chance at love? Most definitely. Speaking from my own experience, I found love the second time around, at age 40, as the single mom of two beautiful daughters. Today, I’m happily married and the mother of a blended family of our four great kids, now all grown. I feel no guilt that I pursued love while I also worked hard to be a great parent during my single mom years, even though during that dating phase many weighed in with their opinions. Moms deserve romance, too.
6 thoughts on “Do Moms Deserve a 2nd Chance For Love?”
I’ve never seen My Reputation. Thanks for this… looking for it now. I can watch All That Heaven Allows all the time!!! Sigh… and must admit, still always ready to throw that blasted, confounded Ned off that cliff! I hate him so!! Guess that’s evident, huh? Awesome post, Kellee!!
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Thanks so much for reading, Tonya!
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I’ll let you know when I see My Reputation. 🙂
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Will have to watch My Reputation. LOVE All That Heaven Allows, Jane Wyman is simply magnificient.
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She really is! Very underrated.
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Great post, Kellee. Is this question still out there? Do people still maintain these attitudes with widows and single moms? I sometimes think so.