Stories Hinged on Raising Kids Gain Greater Heft in the Age of Coronavirus

Herself Pieces of a Women On the Rocks Never Rarely Sometimes Always Palmer
Herself: Pat Redmond/Amazon Studios; Pieces of a Woman: Benjamin Loeb/Netflix; Palmer, On The Rocks: Apple TV+ (2); Never Rarely Sometimes Always: Focus Features

Long ago, about a year ago to be exact, when COVID-19 first reared its ugly head and the United States was not yet the fiery petri dish of percolating viral plague it would soon come to be, friends and I gathered in our Los Angeles area homes, expecting lockdown to last three, four weeks, at most. It’s insane to think so now, but there was a faint haze of domestic bliss in the air as people envisioned not having to drive to the office, staying home cocooned in weighted blankets while baking bread and writing that long overdue Great American Novel as the children busied themselves with pastel paints, macaroni art and TikTok videos.

Even as Los Angeles was ordered to lockdown on March 19, with schools, restaurants and various other brick and mortar businesses shuttered, there remained this fleeting notion that by summer, all would return to normal. Kids would head to summer camps, and parents, their future best-selling manuscripts in hand, would again take to the freeways, to office desks piled with unopened mail.

All that “quality time” couples got to spend together quarantining at home would surely lead to a pandemic baby boom: infants with names such as Rona and Cove.

Nearly a year later, the opposite has proven true: the anticipated boom has devolved into a baby bust. According to the Brookings Institution, a nonprofit public policy organization based in Washington, D.C., rates have fallen, with an estimated 300,000-500,000 fewer births expected for 2021. Sexual activity is (obviously) also plummeting, any romantic notions of pandemic lockdown gone the way of toilet paper on the top shelf of Target.

But what these statistics do is make for an exceptionally interesting perspective through which to appreciate movies in which tropes of parenthood and childbirth provide the core thematic thrust. This awards season is pregnant (natch) with such films, from Sofia Coppola’s “On the Rocks,” which plumbs the twin concept of motherhood and marital identity, to writer Kata Wéber’s devastating drama “Pieces of a Woman,” which turns on the tragic home birth of a first-time mother (played by Vanessa Kirby).

Is parenting always challenging? Yes. But these challenges induce heightened anxiety during a pandemic year in which children and their families are awash in a world of chaos, tumult, financial insecurity and nerve-wracking uncertainty. It’s been an agonizing experience for parents and offspring alike.

Some might call this period of pandemic-era parenthood nothing short of a nightmare.

“I think children today must be struggling so much, especially for those kids who have exams or school events that have been canceled or postponed,” says Clare Dunne, the screenwriter and star of “Herself,” a Dublin-set drama that revolves around a mother who survives a brutal domestic assault to build her young daughters a home.

“It’s like all the things children were told before, that there are definite things in life — well, that’s gone,” she says. “Nothing’s definite now. Right? They have no bedrock, there’s no ground. At this moment, it’s just hard to know, OK, what can I control? And the answer isn’t clear. Right now, at this moment, I feel like the mirroring in the movie to what’s gone on the pandemic is that it’s all about embracing change, and showing kids what they can do for themselves. I think the other thing the film shows is the importance of community. Our power together multiplies infinitely. The collaboration together is key. And I think kids at this moment, they have probably been deprived of their sense of collaboration and community. So I hope kids together are able to seek that out more, and realize the importance and power of that. But, I think what I learned most in doing this film, is that children are resilient, and they are each unique in their own journey. This, right now, this is going to be part of their life story.”

In Fisher Stevens’ “Palmer,” this concept of children needing a village comes to the fore in the way of its protagonist (Justin Timberlake), an ex-convict sprung from prison who lands himself in the position of de facto (and, later, adoptive) dad to a young boy (Ryder Allen, in a breakout performance) whose mother is mired in serious drug addiction.

Not only does the film cast a light on fatherhood in the modern age, but debunks the idea that one requires a biological link in order to become the best  parent for that child.

“I’ve always had this belief that just because you give birth to a child does not make you a mother or father or parent,” says “Palmer” screenwriter Cheryl Guerriero, who was adopted, along with her sister. “I just always knew that this was going to be a story about a boy whose mother was a drug addict and who would come to recognize that she was not going to win this battle. And then do the most loving, unselfish thing any mother could do.

“And this is just my opinion, and it may be an unpopular one, but I feel like we live in a world wherein you have to get a license to have a dog — but anyone can have a kid,” she says. “This again is just judgment, but I see some people having kids and I’m like, you have no business raising a child.”

The philosophical debate over whether to have children, to push them into a world that is so fraught with tension, despair and a death, is a loaded one that’s emotionally charged for those on either side. The decision to have a child is a fragile one, as it always has been, but perhaps never more so than now, when the structure of American society as we know it seems to be dancing at the edges of complete and utter collapse.

Writer-director Eliza Hittman’s critically hailed drama “Never Rarely Sometimes Always” reckons with the reality faced by so many women today —wanting to have children on one’s own terms, when ready to undertake the joyful but also agonizing burden. In the film, Autumn (Sidney Flanigan) is a pregnant teenage girl who is in no way shape or form prepared to take on this life-altering responsibility. But she also lacks an adult support system to help navigate her way through, relying instead on her teenage cousin as they trek from rural Pennsylvania to New York City in search of a safe abortion.

“This pandemic has been like watching a collision between anti-abortion laws and a deadly virus,” says Hittman. “People faced nightmarish challenges trying to get an abortion during the pandemic. And obviously, because of stay-at-home orders, people have real fears about getting the virus going into a clinic. Additionally, there were anti-abortion government officials who were attempting to strategically enforce additional restrictions on reproductive rights. We had states like Texas, Ohio, Arkansas, Iowa restricting access to an abortion at various points during the pandemic, forcing people to take the journey that our character takes in the film.”

Loneliness is a prominent theme in parenthood—never knowing the exact right thing to do, mulling the infinite ways in which one might accidentally scar offspring for life. The pandemic has increased this sense of isolation tenfold, parents unable to gather with other parents, kids torn apart from their schoolmates and teachers.

But when a child dies, that isolation can be crippling.  In “Piece of a Woman,” Wéber crafts a portrait of Martha, a grieving mother whose psychic pain rips through an entire family. Viewed through the lens of a world in which people are separated by so much — disease, politics, socio-economic disparity — this grief feels as expansive as the size of the universe itself.

“I think, in these times, we often feel isolated, and we often feel that we cannot, or it’s hard to, talk about certain emotions,” Wéber says. “It’s difficult to break through the walls of isolation and reconnect with each other. With Martha, we talk about a stuck bereavement process. She is somehow frozen. She cannot relate to others.”

Ultimately, what “Pieces of a Woman” shows is that, not unlike one’s relationship with children that are alive, a parent’s quest to bond with offspring is in effect, a process of isolation, a solitary experience that no matter how many kids there are in the world and no matter how many caregivers, it remains an experience that is forever singular and unique.

“What I discovered is that sometimes people feel they do not want to go through the five stages of grief, because they want to stay connected with the one who they lost,” Wéber says. “It’s the strongest connection in their life. And so much of life is really about loss.”