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What ‘Lady Bird’ Teaches Mothers And Daughters About Love


A low-budget film with a rookie director and a surprisingly family-positive message snatched up two Golden Globe awards Sunday. “Lady Bird,” which was the most-reviewed movie to earn a perfect score on Rotten Tomatoes after its release, won both Best Motion Picture and Best Actress for a musical or comedy. It’s a fresh coming-of-age story, and one of National Review’s top movies of the year.

“Lady Bird” is successful in part because it’s not overtly political, but rather personal. The story follows high schooler Christine McPherson, who calls herself “Lady Bird,” through her senior year. The film, whose working title was “Mothers and Daughters,” features the typical teen-movie scenarios, but focuses on the relationship between Lady Bird and her mother, Marion. The two share emotions — from mutual sympathy to occasional disgust — to which every mother and daughter can relate.

The day I flew home for the holidays, I watched “Lady Bird” with my mom. We’d seen the hilarious trailer and read the raving reviews, so we planned to see it together as soon as possible. On the way to the theater, we anticipated a fun mother-daughter outing. But we didn’t expect to learn so much about each other.

“Lady Bird” felt like a love story, as my mother told me afterward. This love, however, is not about romance, but about the deep connection between a mother and daughter. After the film, we called my grandmother (my mom’s mother), and the three of us discussed what the relationship between Lady Bird and Marion had shown us about each other. Neither mother nor daughter was perfect — in fact, their lack of communication and empathy could be infuriating. But in the ways both Lady Bird and Marion tried, and failed, to express love to the other, we could see ourselves. As we considered how the characters related to one another, we uncovered our unique styles of communication and learned how to love each other better.

Love and Attention

Lady Bird calls her hometown Sacramento “the Midwest of California.” She can’t wait to graduate and move somewhere with “culture.” But after a nun at her Catholic school reads her college application essay about Sacramento, she tells Lady Bird it’s clear how much she loves the place. Lady Bird winces. She was just paying attention! The nun suggests that maybe they’re the same thing.

The scene cuts to Marion helping Lady Bird find another dress. Lady Bird doesn’t always appreciate her mother’s comments — and Marion could be gentler with her critiques — but she’s waiting patiently, and noticing. Maybe love leads you to pay attention, but paying attention also teaches you to love. “When you do for someone, or you pay attention to someone,” my grandmother offered, “the love follows.”

Affirmation and Outrage

Lady Bird constantly insults her mother, to her face and to others, but as soon as a friend calls her “scary,” she jumps to her mother’s defense. Overall, Lady Bird and her mother could show each other much more verbal affection. It’s not enough to love someone; you’ve got to tell them. Especially if your mother’s love language is words of affirmation.

My mother feels loved when she’s verbally affirmed. So when I think giving her a hug is cutting it, that doesn’t have the same effect for her as, “You’re doing a great job” or even just, “I love you.” Watching conflicts arise between Lady Bird and her mother simply because they forget (or don’t know how) to express affection for each other reminded us to dwell on what we appreciated about each other and say it aloud.

Conflict and Communication

When Lady Bird assumes her mother won’t let her apply to an out-of-state college and does so behind her back, she creates a rift that lingers until the movie’s last scene. If she had been upfront, asked her mother to respect her ambitions, and given her space to respond as she needed, she could have been able to minimize the conflict.

A roadblock to communication we all have to work past is what my mom calls our “scripts.” We assume the other person — be it the mother or the daughter — is acting some way for one reason, and we immediately react based on that assumption. When we expect that person to fall into old patterns, we don’t allow the person to change. My mother admitted that her relationship with her mom accelerated when she rejected her assumptions and changed her expectations. We won’t let our mothers (or our daughters) be the best versions of themselves if we expect otherwise.

Lady Bird and her mother love each other. They bond over frilly dresses and “The Grapes of Wrath,” but they have little else in common. In my family, my grandmother, mother, and I hold different views on everything from art to politics, but what connects us is our mutual desire for each other’s best. We, like Lady Bird and Marion, may not always be as kind or communicate as well as we’d like. But we’re always supporting one another.

After watching “Lady Bird,” we keep practicing how to love well — and pay each other a little more attention.