“Between Two Women”
I saw a movie once with Farah Fawcett and Colleen Dewhurst entitled “Between Two Women.” (1986) The movie centers on the relationship between a mother-in-law, played by Dewhurst, and her daughter -in-law, played by Fawcett. We all know Farah Fawcett but Colleen Dewhurst is one of those critically acclaimed actresses we all recognize but can’t remember the name of who made her bones on stage. She is most likely best known by my generation as the actress who played Murphy Brown’s mother on Candice Bergen’s hit show, Murphy Brown, and for her role as Merilla in the Anne of Green Gables series. Ms. Dewhurst seemed to make a career of playing strong, formidable women with complex and chaotic emotional underpinnings. Her character, Barbara Petherton, in this finely acted, made for television movie, is no exception.
The story starts sometime in the early 70’s with a young and lovely Farah Fawcett falling in love with and marrying Mrs. Petherton’s handsome and talented, but irresponsible and underachieving son. The son has had an on-going strained, then estranged, then strained again relationship with his mother since his teens, and chooses a woman for his wife that he sees as her polar opposite. Where his mother is cold and demanding, his wife is warm and adoring, and they build a world together filled with bright, precocious children and great passion for each other. However, the dark mark on their blissful existence seems, at first glance, to be the domineering, negativity of Barbara Petherton. From their first meeting, Fawcett’s character, Val seems crushed and wounded by the strong-willed Barbara.
The film portrays the ever increasing conflicts between these two women over the course of 14 years. Barbara’s constant interference, harsh but well-meaning advise, left-handed comments and unrelenting criticism eventually breaks down the underpinnings of the marriage and the couple separate. They ultimately come back together shortly before Barbara suffers a debilitating stroke and it is the long-suffering Val that ends up caring for her up until her death.
The movie’s story is told in flashbacks from Val’s perspective. This is important to note because what seems to be immutable facts about the character of Barbara bear themselves out to be somewhat skewed by Val’s perceptions. Barbara’s son is indeed spoiled, pampered and temperamental. The family is maintained by Val’s hard work and Barbara’s benevolence as he flits from position to position, never ever fully comfortable in his own skin or fully confident in his own abilities. Barbara blames herself but can never fully admit her own maternal short-comings to the warm and caring Val. As each flashback unfolds while Val cares for her incapacitated mother-in-law a bond develops between the two women that is seen through the poignant eyes of Colleen Dewhurst.
When the movie ended with Barbara’s death and Val and her husband looking at each other across her death bed, I found myself asking, “So what happens now?” Val no longer sees her mother-in-law as the constant protagonist in her life and now has no delusions about her husbands short comings. She has entered Barbara’s world and sees things as they truly are, with no rose colored glasses. I remember thinking that Val would never again be that warm-hearted, idealistic, emotionally fragile woman her husband married. She couldn’t be, she knew now that her husband was the talented, unfocused person her mother-in-law always said he was. Barbara’s constant criticism of Val and her continual interference in the marriage was really about trying to help and protect Val. She had no delusions about her son and saw Val as too soft, too gentle and too independent for her own good. Val now sees this as clearly as Barbara once did and knows she can never return to being the long-suffering adoring wife.
Those of you who know my mother-in-law, Margaret, may believe I see myself as Val and Margaret as Barbara. However, this is not true. Margaret is Val, 20 years after the movie’s ending. She is the child of the 60’s, with all the idealism and independence of that generation, who married the talented, charming, good-looking, unreliable and under-achieving son of a strong woman. She is the person who continued to care for her ailing mother-in-law even after separating from her husband. She is the aging baby boomer whose idealism has been crushed and whose independence is slowly being stripped away by age and economic instability.
What kind of son would Val have raised? How would she have chosen to live out the rest of her life? She was the caretaker, the giver, the warm-hearted generous woman who loved freely without counting the cost, but truly getting to know her mother-in-law had changed that woman forever. Val would have been Margaret, clinging to her hard fought for stability, afraid of being alone in her old age, wondering if her children will care for her as she did for her mother-in-law and her mother. She, like Margaret, would have fretted over her children’s trials in life and questioned the strength and stability of their marriages. She, like others of her generation, would be plagued with questions. Where did the time go? Did I do the right thing by my children? Should I have stayed with my children’s father? Would their lives be better if I had? Or should I have left him sooner, and spared them the suffering we had because of his irresponsibility? Should I have worked less, spent more time at home, cooked more meals, attended more school functions? This is not what the last years of my life were supposed to look like!
What I would say to Val is, you did a good job. You have raised creative, intelligent caring children who are stronger than you know, or even than they let you know. Their love for you runs deep and true, for you HAVE always been there, the one stable element in their lives. You are the one person they turn to when they fall down and the one person they ever get to cry with, because they never let anybody see them sweat. Your life may not be as you expected, but it is rich in love and care and concern for you and your well-being. As much as your children seem to resent you, they love you more, and that is the one thing in your life that is unchanging and exactly as it should be. Your children have something that you didn’t and that’s a realistic view of themselves and the world. They live under no delusions and they know that’s a good thing, because they learned it from you. Despite this lack of idealism, they face the world boldly and with arms wide open, and that is also because of you.
I understand Margaret and, despite our many challenges along the way, there is a grudging respect between us. We are both passionate about our children, we are both independent and opinionated – and a little bit crazy. We both are fiercely protective of those we love and when something happens we don’t like with our loved ones we blame it on “those other people“ in their lives. We are often out of focus and don’t see things as they are because of the fierce love we have for her son, my husband. We both waste a lot of time pointing the finger at each other and screaming, “It’s her fault” when life throws this lovely man a curve-bal and becomes hard to manage. And, often, in those times when we should be pulling closer together and supporting one another, we drive each other further away. I, for one, will do everything in my power to not do that this deployment. Margaret has earned and deserves the right to be kept close during this time Richard is away. She needs to hug her grandchildren often and hear the news on a regular basis. I have come to realize that the strength of Richard’s relationship with both of us rests in my ability to be understanding, tolerant and consistent. It requires me biting my tongue and ignoring the criticism. For his sake, as well as my own, I will be kind, I will be patient, I will be loving, I will be humble, I will be … better.