Rarely do I watch a series that renders me speechless and overwhelmed. After watching “Maid” on Netflix, I felt this lingering sense of pain that prompted me to message my therapist. I was simultaneously triggered, intrigued, angered, captivated, and validated by the show. The series, starring Margaret Qualley and Andie MacDowell as daughter and mother Alex and Paula, is poignant and depicts the very broken system we have in this country for victims of domestic violence. While that is an important discussion to be had, the focus of my own catharsis in watching the show was the painfully accurate depiction of a parentified and enmeshed mother-daughter relationship. It’s something that occurs more frequently than society wants to acknowledge and is seldom discussed or represented honestly in media, leaving those of us who have experienced it firsthand feeling isolated, guilty, and maybe even a little bit “crazy” for thinking that what we experienced was in fact traumatic.
Let’s start with the mother, Paula. For a moment while watching the show, I thought, “someone has literally been stalking me and created a caricature of my mother.” The similarities were so uncanny that I felt like I was watching my own mother. She’s a free-spirited artist with an undiagnosed mental health condition. She is inappropriate, obsessed with sex, constantly gets involved with unavailable men, self-harms, has a substance abuse problem, and is irresponsible financially. She’s also great with kids for short spurts, can be charming, is loving and has had her fair share of trauma. As I have experienced with my mother, those who don’t know Paula intimately see a charming, likable quirky woman who might say or do things that are cringe-worthy but who generally appears harmless.
But, from her daughter Alex’s perspective, Paula can be impulsive, irresponsible, and unreliable. Alex calls her “my problem” and says she has cared for her mother since she was 6 years old and her parents divorced. (I was 3 years old when my parents divorced and I began caring for my mother.) In one poignant scene, Paula says, “I’m not your problem, I’m your mother,” to which Alex replies, “No you’re not.” Because the truth is that in a parentified relationship, the roles of mother and daughter are flipped upside down and inside out. It’s frustrating, confusing, and can be an utterly helpless experience on the part of an adult daughter who has spent the better part of her life feeling obligated to protect her fragile mother whilst being completely ill-equipped to do so. Nothing can prepare a child to fill the void left behind by a partner, nor should it.
What’s even more overwhelming is that on any given day, you don’t know which mother to expect. There’s no sense of consistency or stability, which is something a child needs to grow up feeling secure in a world that can often be unpredictable and cruel. Not getting that as a child from a mother can create a dynamic that we see clearly within Alex. She is so used to just handling things on her own and not being able to trust anyone to help her that, at every turn, she rejects anyone who attempts to try to support her. It’s hard to watch and disheartening, but through my eyes as a parentified child, completely familiar. You become incredibly resourceful, hard-working, and perfectionistic almost to a fault when you are a parentified child. And when all of a sudden you can’t do it all alone, you deal with this deep sense of shame that you are somehow a failure because your entire identity has been built upon your ability to fend for yourself, solve problems on your own and not have to rely on anyone else.
In one of the most poignant scenes of the series, a woman who works at the domestic violence shelter where Alex is living is discussing her panic at not being able to help her mother. When Alex says she has to take care of her mom, the woman says, “But what if you don’t?” Alex just stares at her blankly, like she’s never considered that option before. Because the truth is you don’t consider it until someone you trust gives you the permission to get off the parentified child hamster wheel. I started sobbing when I saw this scene because the release of pent-up anxiety, self-flagellation, and guilt of feeling hopeless to fix your parent, combined with the sense of entrapment in the role of caretaker, is so stifling that even the mere notion that the onus to care for your mother isn’t your burden to bear is mind-blowing. I was reminded of the moment when I first had this epiphany and it was simultaneously liberating and terrifying.
Recovering from being a parentified child isn’t easy. It feels like betrayal at first — like you are being ungrateful for all that your parent gave you, even if what they gave you wasn’t enough. What this show beautifully illustrates is that an adult child who has been parentified isn’t rebelling against their parent because they don’t love them, are mean, callous, or indifferent. In fact, I’d argue that they love their parent so much that they willingly sacrifice everything they can in order to maintain the status quo with their parent. But at some point, life deals you with a set of circumstances that force you to put yourself first for once, the way it does for Alex. Learning how to navigate that and how to separate your devotion to a parent from your human right to live your own life fully without becoming consumed with guilt is where the healing has to occur. Enabling those who have never seen how damaging and soul-crushing being a parentified child can be to witness it depicted so accurately will hopefully provide perspective for people to reframe the cultural narrative of obedience to a parent no matter what, and create a more supportive climate within which parentified adult children can reclaim their lives.