Literary Mama writing about the many faces of motherhood
Three Small Documentaries With a Big Impact

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My Toxic Baby, Latching On, and Motherland

They say "Little kids, little problems; big kids, big problems." The expression really bugged me when I was the weary mother of little kids; who's to say my sleepless nights and my clamorous kids aren't a big problem to me?! But the tunnel vision of those baby days has broadened and I've gained some useful perspective. As my own children turn too quickly into big kids and I catch a glimpse of what's to come I try neither to sentimentalize the past nor fret about the future; three recent documentaries -- My Toxic Baby; Latching On; and Motherland -- remind us just to live these days with our children the best we can.

Min Sook Lee's short film, My Toxic Baby (2009), is an earnest and personal exploration of the environmental dangers to which children are exposed, some even before they are born. The project is inspired by the birth of Lee's daughter, Song Ji: "Holding her," the filmmaker comments, "felt like I was holding the essence of purity." But Song Ji's world is not so pure, and the film documents some of the more egregious hazards she faces: lead (which the filmmaker finds contaminating her own kitchen cabinets); chemicals in plastics (from baby bottles and toys to the IV tubes used in NICUs); additives in food and vaccines; plus the environmental problems to which the child inadvertently contributes, whether increasing landfill with disposable diapers or polluting with the bleach used to wash cloth diapers. Lee's film doesn't purport to offer complete information on any of these topics -- its 45 minutes would be overwhelmed in the attempt -- nor can she offer concrete solutions. Her expert interviews are with other parents like her, concerned with the toxic load their children's bodies carry. The "elimination communication" support group (which meets in a yurt) or the "pox party" (where a child with chicken pox shares lollipops with unvaccinated kids) are not for everyone. But for an overview of some of the big problems raised by little kids, My Toxic Baby offers an interesting start.

Like My Toxic Baby, Latching On: The Politics of Breastfeeding in America (Katja Esson, 2010) is another short film motivated by the filmmaker's personal experience. Katja Esson's sister gave birth in Germany and, Esson comments, "she breastfed for six months, anytime, anywhere. I thought it was as simple as that." But back home in New York City, where breastfeeding was protected as a civil right in 1994, she finds the act of feeding one's baby is not so simple. This won't be news to anyone who has ever tried to nurse a child. Esson's film concisely covers the individual challenges women encounter (difficulty in latching on; low milk supply; painful breasts; mastitis) and the ways we overcome them (lactation consultants; support groups; rest, rest, rest). But she grounds the film in clear and useful cultural and medical history, showing how the rise in hospital births led to a subsequent drop in breastfeeding, and her interviews and graphics examine the various economic factors affecting a woman's ability to breastfeed: formula may be expensive, but it's distributed free in hospitals and subsidized by WIC; breastfeeding is cheap and convenient unless you have to return to work six weeks (or less) postpartum, just when your baby's appetite starts to outpace your ability to pump. Latching On reminded me of how consuming breastfeeding felt when I was in the thick of it, how political I still feel about protecting a woman's right to breastfeed. It's a film for anyone interested in how children are fed in this country.

With Motherland (Jennifer Steinman, 2008), a feature-length film, we move deeply into sadder territory, with the stories of six women -- five mothers and a sister -- whose loved ones were just becoming big kids when their lives were cut short. Filmmaker Jennifer Steinman gathered the group and took them to South Africa, hoping that a volunteering trip to that country, where AIDS and poverty have created a "nation of mourners," might be a healing journey. The film is intensely personal, built simply out of beautifully-shot footage of the women's work in day care centers, where they sing and dance with the children, play alphabet games and go on picnics, alternating with interviews where we learn more about each woman and her loss.

We meet Debbie, a paramedic whose son was killed by a drunk driver; in the months after his death, she visited the cemetery every day: "the gardeners got to know me pretty well out there. . . I'd lie down and they'd mow around me." Kathy's son was killed in a motorcycle crash and she says of that first year, "There were days when taking a shower was a miracle, and I felt really good about that day." Twenty-two year old Lauren hasn't talked with anyone about the death of her brother and says, "I don't think I've had a grieving process. I don't think it's really hit." Barbara's marriage is breaking up since the death of her son, and Mary Helena, the quietest in the group, wonders how, when she always defined herself as a mother, to think of herself now that her only son has been murdered. Anne's daughter committed suicide, and Anne wonders, "If I heal, does that mean I'm going to forget Grace? Because that's the way it feels for me. So I don't think I want to heal.... I don't want to get over it."

When the women aren't volunteering, they gather in their South African homestay, hosted by a woman who has also lost a child; they talk and eat and play cards and occasionally laugh but also cry, grateful for the chance to be with other women who understand, with women who don't expect them to feign happiness. The contrast between the lively, energetic scenes with the South African children and the quieter interviews is intensely moving, and although the very idea of this film makes me cry, the documentary is not at all sentimental, but a quietly moving exploration of grief and healing. The mission of the women's volunteer work is to "make [the children] happy that they were born that day" and in doing that, the women each find some way to be happy themselves. Motherland shows that there is no orderly path out of grief; grief persists, but you can learn to live with it, even find some occasional grace in it.

There are some big movies vying for our attention this summer, celebrity-driven blockbusters backed by huge production budgets; Motherland, Latching On, and My Toxic Baby are all small, independently-produced and financed films, not likely to be showing at the local multiplex any time soon. But whether exploring ways to protect our children now or how to mourn the children we've lost, these documentaries are all worth seeking out, because their small stories have a big impact.


Caroline M. Grant served on the editorial board of Literary Mama for over ten years, including five as Editor-in-Chief. She is currently Associate Director of the Sustainable Arts Foundation, which provides grants to writers and artists with children.

She is the co-editor of two anthologies: The Cassoulet Saved Our Marriage: True Tales of Food, Family, and How We Learn to Eat (Roost Books, 2013) and Mama, PhD: Women Write about Motherhood and Academic Life (Rutgers University Press, 2008). Her column, Mama at the Movies, ran on Literary Mama for six years; she has published essays in a number of other journals and anthologies.

She lives in San Francisco with her husband and two sons; she writes about food and family on her blog and at Learning to Eat. Visit her website for more information, including clips from her radio and television events.

Caroline is former editor-in-chief for Literary Mama.


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