Trigger Warning: Domestic and emotional abuse
The Netflix series Maid deals with the story of Alex, a single mother balancing motherhood, a taxing job as a maid and an excruciating battle of emotional abuse with her partner. Adapted from Stephanie Land’s memoir Maid: Hard Work, Low Pay, and a Mother’s Will to Survive, this Netflix series has been critically praised for its gritty portrayal of gendered poverty in the Western world.
What strikes me the most however, is the intricate relationship shown between a mother and daughter with respect to Alex and her mother Paula. Quite interestingly, the characters are played by real-life mother daughter duo Margaret Qualley and Andie Macdowell which makes the relationship even more intense.
This article is an analytical exploration of the different angles of the mother-daughter relationship shown in the series and how its complexities succeed in driving the narrative forward.
Parenthood and responsibility
An undiagnosed bipolar patient, Alex’s mother is seen paying much less attention to her daughter her entire life. When Alex goes through her absolute low, Paula often ends up being her additional responsibility rather than trying to ease her difficulties. Paula is seen by the world as an erratic woman believing in blind spiritualism and chasing lovestruck boyfriends. She has often dragged her daughter as a child in all her artistic adventures which ended up risking severe harm or even death to young Alex.
Alex’s introspection of her childhood seen through flashbacks throughout the series proves how affected she has been by a parent who has ignored her. But parenthood involves two people and before it is too late, she realises that her father Hank, was an alcoholic and an abuser. So repressed was half of her childhood that remembering such a distinct fact did not come naturally to her.
She realises that it was not for another boyfriend chase that Paula left home years ago. It was in fact to protect herself and a young Alex from her father’s repeated abuse. Alex’s relationship with her mother becomes tricky with all these complexities taken into consideration as she could neither blame Paula for her behaviour, nor could she appreciate her enough for leaving her abusive relationship at such a tender age to protect her daughter, only to end up as a second hand responsibility herself.
At a certain point, Alex even remarks how she has seen no other way than taking care of her mother since she was six. She constantly requests her mother to act as an adult, and somehow, Paula often finds pleasure in behaving irrationally with her. As the series progresses, the brunt of parenthood and responsibility shifts from Paula to Alex as their roles reverse and Alex finds herself mothering not one, but two women: her 2-year old daughter Maddy, and her own mother Paula.
Convergence of disappointment and trauma
Alex’s relationship with her mother cannot be clearly demarcated by lines of morality as feelings of disappointment get mixed with her repressed trauma. It becomes difficult for Alex to differentiate her disappointment in her mother as a failing parent from her disappointment in her father from not just failing her but also being an abusive husband to Paula.
Throughout the story, Paula seems to overcompensate for her failed motherhood by trying to be a good grandmother to Alex’s daughter Maddy, but ends up disappointing multiple times by not showing up or adding further problems to the scenario. By allowing her homeless daughter to stay in her RV or by looking after her granddaughter while Alex works multiple shifts to earn a dime, Paula thinks she has done huge favors when these are quite the bare minimum a daughter can expect from a mother.
Alex’s childhood trauma of watching domestic abuse in her own home resurfaces when her partner Sean does the same to her. However, when Alex finds herself in the very same abusive situations as her mother, she finds respite in her mother and not in her father, irrespective of the compromise on stability and financial security that her father could offer.
Her choice of sticking around with Paula and turning down Hank’s performative help speaks great volumes of Alex’s resolution. She may have failed to recognise abuse during the early days of her own relationship with Sean but her determination to never back off from her mother despite repeated mishappenings lets her set definitive lines between disappointment and trauma. Although it took her time, she finally draws the fine lines between trauma bonding and reviving trust after disappointment.
Breaking intergenerational abuse
As Alex finds herself helplessly falling back in situations of emotional suffocation and abuse by her partner Sean, she gets flashbacks of her younger self hiding away from her father who used to do the same to her mother. The scene where Maddy hides herself in the cupboard is mind bending as it directly reminds Alex how she found herself hiding in a similar cupboard when her father hit Paula.
What strikes the eye however in this chain of abuse is how the degrees of it alter with each generation. Consequences are dealt with more rationally as we see Maddy securing a rather better future than what Alex could get for herself. Despite being emotionally vulnerable, both Alex and Paula leave their abusers with the hope of giving their daughters a safer space.
When Alex stays at the Domestic Violence Shelter, she says she was trying to piece together how she got ‘here’. What she did not realize back then was that ‘here’ is not a bad place to start. Alex’s decisions not only saves her and Maddy from a life full of control and entrapment from Sean but also paves the way for Maddy to make better choices for herself in the future.
It is important to notice how a child turned out to be a force of change for both the mothers. Intergenerational abuse is hard to recognize unless one realises what effect it could have on their child. Although Alex respected her mother for leaving an abusive relationship with her father, she was fully aware of how negligent she always was towards her.
Alex’s resolve in trying her best to not end up like Paula for her own daughter Maddy is a significant step she takes to break this systematic trauma and abuse. It becomes extremely difficult to navigate through familial relationships and the portrayal of motherhood in Maid is worth analysing as it not just breaks stereotypes of ‘the perfect mother’ but also drives the story ahead with its emotional complexities.
There is some sense of hope in the disappointing, failing relationship between Paula and Alex that proves safer than all the other relationships Alex shares with the men in her life. This relationship is one of angst and yet of such immense relief, that irrespective of an upsetting parenthood projected by Paula on her daughter, we root for their bond towards the end of the series.
It is worth noticing how Alex fights the entire world and even herself to find a better direction for herself as a mother for the sake of her own daughter Maddy.
Mrittika is a student of English Literature at Jadavpur University. She has always loved to express her emotions through her words and songs. She is often found binging series into the late night, travelling round the town or trying delicacies wherever she goes
Featured Image: Mix de Series