Why the Mother-Daughter Relationship in Lady Bird Feels So Real

Saoirse Ronan and Laurie Metcalf in Lady Bird. Photo: Courtesy of Universal Pictures/20th Century Fox

As I left the theater after watching Lady Bird, I heard a familiar little nagging voice in my head. “Call your mom,” it whispered.

I have a feeling I’m not alone in this. Lady Bird, Greta Gerwig’s widely lauded directorial debut, is up there with Terms of Endearment and Steel Magnolias in the pantheon of essential Call Your Mom Movies. Not because it’s tragic — although I do recommend having a Kleenex on hand — but because it’s the rare film that fully acknowledges the complexity of mother-daughter love, as well as how a parent’s best intentions for her child can be obscured or muddled by poor communication or personal hangups.

At one moment, Lady Bird (Saoirse Ronan) and her mother, Marion (Laurie Metcalf), are sharing a moment on a road trip as they weep together listening to an audiobook of The Grapes of Wrath; in the next, Marion is deriding Lady Bird as being “not even worth state tuition” and Lady Bird is throwing herself out of a moving car. The film is full of such scenes where moments of tenderness are undercut by moments of passive-aggressiveness and hostility, often resulting from Marion’s tendency to cut down Lady Bird as a result of her own insecurities (as we learn, Marion is the main breadwinner in a family facing financial struggles).

Lady Bird is a story of personal growth, but it’s also a story of attachment: of a mother and daughter struggling to navigate their boundaries at a time when a mother’s fear of abandonment and a daughter’s desire for independence are particularly at war with one another. In the language of attachment theory — which theorizes that our early relationship with our primary caregiver comes to influence our pattern of behavior future relationships — their relationship seems like a textbook example of an “anxious” attachment style. That’s the term used to describe caregivers who sometimes provide nurturing and attentive responses to a child’s distress, and at other times are overly intrusive or emotionally unavailable. An anxious attachment is characterized by the inconsistency of a child never knowing if his or her needs will be met, which can lead to abandonment issues as an adult.

While my relationship to my mother isn’t exactly the same as Lady Bird’s (thank God), there were some elements that really struck a chord with me. And so, just as I discuss my real-life tales of woe with a therapist, I thought, why not see what a psychologist has to say about this story? I spoke to Dr. Miriam Steele, a professor at the New School and an expert on adult attachment styles, about why Lady Bird felt so psychologically spot-on when it came to mothers and daughters, and how attachment theory can be a useful tool for analyzing works of art.

What was your first impression of the film?
Lady Bird comes off very well in the film in all kinds of ways. She shows such tremendous resilience and the capacity to be so much more reflective about her experience than her mother. We know in the film just a little of the mother’s own history, and it sounds like there was quite a lot of adversity with alcoholism and possible abuse. I think we see the mother struggling with all of that, and that she has difficulties in her being able to be open with her daughter about her own past. We see the mother really care about the relationship with the daughter and wanting what’s best for her, but it doesn’t translate into experiences that on the surface we would see as promoting a secure attachment.

What would you make of this duo if you encountered them in a clinical setting or in a case study?
I think someone would want to work with the mother on actually hearing Lady Bird and getting Lady Bird perhaps to acknowledge that her mother is bringing her own difficulties to the situation, and that she perhaps didn’t have the same kind of supportive parenting that Lady Bird had. To get the two of them to do a bit of putting themselves in each other’s shoes would be a good place to start. You see motivation on both their parts.

To what extent is their problem a failure of communication?
Their communication wasn’t great; one one really got a sense that the mother had difficulty being there for Lady Bird in all of the different ways we would have liked to have seen. It wasn’t because she didn’t want to or that it was all such a negative relationship; there was a wish there to do it, she just couldn’t get there. She has such a hard time expressing positive feelings.

We know children who are securely attached usually have mothers who can acknowledge times of distress and be available at those times. Most parents, if not all, find it much easier to join a child when they are in a joyful, happy place. When the child is angry with them or the child is hurt or in some other way that may trigger the parent to have more difficulty. And that’s what we see with Lady Bird. That when things are tough, the mother just can’t find the words. Can’t really face her daughter, look her in the eye, so to speak, and let her know that she’s there for her. And Lady Bird is the one who comes back and challenges the mother.

In some ways I think what is so impressive for us is Lady Bird. She’s quite good at communicating. There was a scene where the mother comes into her bedroom and is criticizing her for the messiness. And Lady Bird gives her this incredibly reflective response saying, “Okay, I’ll clean it up, but do you want to tell me you’ve never come home tired and left all your clothes on the floor?” Which I think is a real trigger for parents. But I think that the mother didn’t fight back — she heard her.

How would you characterize the attachment styles in the film?
If we did an assessment, we would do something called the Adult Attachment Interview, which assesses one’s experience of childhood — not whether it was good or bad, but one’s ability to speak about their childhood experiences coherently. Being able to talk about the positive as well as the negatives are the hallmarks a secure attachment. An avoidant attachment — which is more what I think her mother would probably fit into — is someone who has a great difficulty talking about the full aspects of their childhood experience or even ongoing, concurrent experiences, and are quite cut off from them and dismissive of them. We saw the mother kind of doing that, minimizing the amount of feelings she was willing to feel and express. Then we have the ambivalent, anxious, or resistant attachment, which is much more the flavoring of the mother-daughter dynamic, where you have often intrusiveness on the part of the mother, and anger on the part of the daughter in terms of feeling meshed and entangled in terms of her relationship with her mother. Then the father-daughter feeling is more in the range of the prototypically secure, where they have an ability to express their feeling states between one another.

What are some examples of the ambivalent or anxious attachment between mother and daughter?
There’s a mix of ambivalence and intrusiveness. There’s that scene in the car, where there isn’t really a back-and-forth over where Lady Bird is at and what she’s thinking about in terms of her work and college; the mother goes on this whole rant, like “That’s fine. Don’t do your work. You’re gonna flunk out, go to jail.” You have the mother going in so heavyhanded and intruding in every part of Lady Bird’s internal world that she’s struggling with, and projecting onto Lady Bird her own hopes and dreams that obviously weren’t realized.

I think we all feel for that mother in terms of how hard it is to apologize to someone, to say that you’re wrong, to reach out when your feelings have been hurt. And the mother felt this daughter was abandoning her and was not doing things in the way that she wanted them done; she wanted them to go to local schools so that they could be closer to one another. All of that was hard, especially for someone for whom maybe there was abandonment issues in terms of her own history.

One thing that I think people have really liked about the film, and that I really liked, is just how real all the characters and relationships felt. Why do you think that was?
I think in part because it wasn’t just one of those extremes where you get this really resilient story of this young woman making it out on her own without the support of her parents. It showed the nuance of relationships, that it’s not all black and white. Which is interesting because in adolescence people often initially see a lot of things as only black and white and they kind of transition to be able to see things from many different perspectives.

I also think that we get a feeling of authenticity from seeing Lady Bird in many different contexts. There was the relationship with the nun, which was really significant in terms of an alternative caregiving role. She played a big role in accepting Lady Bird for where she was, and not being punitive in a way that I think she probably experienced more her mother being. Some of the tenderness between Lady Bird and her father: they were just little minutes, but you really felt it. Like when he got the financial-aid package forms filled out — that was a huge gift. So I think that we get to see her in so many different contexts. We put her together and we feel like we know her.

Do you think that attachment theory can be a useful framework for analyzing fictional characters?I
think it can, because it’s a way of integrating what we know from over 50 years of research using a paradigm that’s been done in many, many different contexts with ages cradle to the grave. I think it’s an incredibly powerful conceptual framework to understand relationships that is then supported by empirical science. That’s why we like going to the movies or reading literature — for us to get to know a character, to have it resonate with us for own experience.

What Attachment Theory Can Teach Us About Lady Bird