Ahead of Mother’s Day 2020, read Laura Dern’s beautiful and moving letter to her daughter Jaya Harper, published in a new book about motherhood this month.
Born to actors Diane Ladd and Bruce Dern in 1967 in Los Angeles, from the age of two Laura Dern lived with and was parented by her mother and grandmother. Having spent much time on the sets of her parents’ movies, it seemed natural that Dern would one day follow in their footsteps, and she did exactly that when she made her screen debut at the tender age of six, alongside her mother in the action film White Lightning.
Thanks to roles in films such as Blue Velvet and Jurassic Park, and the recent television series Big Little Lies, she has become a household name. In 2001 she became a mother herself with the birth of a son; three years later she had a daughter. In 2017, with womanhood on her mind, she wrote the following letter to her teenage girl.
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about what it means to be a woman today. A woman in her own skin, in her power, without any labels placed on her. And as part of that process, I’ve thought back to what I saw when I was your age.
The 70s were a very new time culturally. Unlike women in my grandmother’s generation, who were told to choose between just a few life options, my mother and her friends were part of the revolution in which women made clear that they were not satisfied by limitations – they wanted to do it all. Although society was beginning to accept this, it was assumed that those who tried to do it all were going to fail at everything.
So, my reaction, as I got older, was to decide that even though I could do all things, I was going to focus only on one at a time. Continually striving not to fail was the burden I put on myself. And I’m writing this to you because I want to make sure that you don’t limit yourself in the same ways.
I’ve spent a lot of my life going, “OK, I’m going to be an actress, but I have to give it everything, so I probably won’t be able to also have a successful relationship,” or “I’m about to be a mother, so I’ll give up my acting,” or “I’m married, so I’m going to put my career on hold and be ‘a good wife’ and support him.”
Most recently, you and I saw a woman running for president, and we were told, “Oh, yeah, she’s brilliant, she’s presidential, but she’s cold, so she’s probably not a good wife and mother. She’s not compassionate.” Why? Because she’s brilliant? I know that confused both of us. It should never be the case that defining yourself as one thing lessens your ability to be everything else. In this strange climate I started realising that focusing on one thing in an effort not to fail at anything else was a weight I was carrying. And I want to be a woman who does it all, no matter how it turns out.
Jaya, I’ve woken to something recently, and it has inspired me during this time in my life. Here it is: Life is scary, and it’s glorious. You’re never going to get it all right. You’ll get it deliciously messed up, and that will be part of figuring out who you are.
There’s a huge force that’s affecting your generation – it’s called social media, and it’s mothering you as much as I am. This other mother is very influential, and she’s telling you that your value is determined by how many people follow you. She is also deciding what beauty looks like and which extravagances add up to a fun life.
What social media is giving young girls right now are the two stories that keep us trapped – the black and the white. At one extreme, everything’s perfect and light, and everyone’s surrounded by friends. The other end of the spectrum seems to glamorise the darkest depression and solitude. But I want you to know that most of your life will happen in the gray spaces between bliss and heartbreak, between having everything lock into place and having it all fall apart. That’s where the grace is.
I want you to have faith and hear yourself when you’re just barely holding it together. I want you to be able to talk to friends about their grey areas and be open about your own without judgment. You will succeed and fail in equal measure. Both experiences are worthwhile. They will both define you. The truth is, the minute I surrendered to the flow of the mess of life, everything came together magnificently: my longing for art, my skill as an actor, and my capacities as a friend and mother.
The beauty of being a woman today is in savouring the minutiae of life, all the moments that add up to you. The joy you’ll find in being in your body, in sexuality and sensuality, in service, in art, in mothering. You have to get out of your own way and write your own story – and not be forced into the narrative that you think will give you the easiest path to success or the most likes. I want you to live in the space that’s your own, your own delicious mess. The story comes from within you.
Reprinted with kind permission of Laura Dern
Letter extracted from Letters of Note: Mothers, one of a brand new series of themed books collecting together the world’s most entertaining, inspiring and powerful letters. The first six books are out now, published by Canongate.