Les Miserables: Before and After Motherhood

Les Miserables: Before and After Motherhood

Les Miserables came to America in 1986 (the year I graduated from high school). Thanks to my sheltered upbringing, I never even heard of it until the mid-90's when I saw it as a surprise when visiting a friend in London. Since then, I've seen it on stage three more times and now, the movie. It's funny, isn't it? How things speak to you differently in the ages BM (Before Maternity) and PM (Post Maternity).

It's funny, actually, that I didn't hear of Les Miserable in high school since I read the novel in the 11th grade -- all 1, 500 pages of the original work by Victor Hugo. In retrospect, it was kind of a racy novel for my extremely Catholic high school. The story, after all, involves pretty much all seven of the deadly sins as well as prison, evading the law, an illegitimate child, prostitution, drunken bar-fights, dishonest innkeepers, theft, child slavery, revolution, suicide, lust, gun fire, and death. I suspect that it was the deeply religious over-tones that appealed to the powers-that-were at my school. I'm sure they expected us get something out of it along the lines of "God works in mysterious ways and his miracles are wondrous indeed in the face of all this depravity." When honestly all I got out of it as a 16-year-old girl was "Marius was hot."

My first time seeing Les Miz was in London. I didn't know anything about it - remember we didn't have the internet back then so I wasn't awash in news about every little thing that caught my fancy. I was visiting a friend who kindly took me to a big-time theater production. The show happened to be Les Miz and I was captivated . I saw it three more times back in Texas where I was living in the 90's -- once I even drove to Austin to see it by myself. I didn't feel weird about this at all, in fact I really enjoyed sitting in the dark theater by myself, crying my eyes out. I was a weird kid. (Side note: other things I did and do enjoy doing by myself: going to movies, eating in restaurants. Weird kid.)

Back then, it was Eponine's solo On My Own that made me sob my guts out. Eponine, in case you don't know, is the cool chick with the short hair who loves a popular boy who loves someone else: A rich girl with blonde hair, big boobs, and a fancy hat. Ah, I felt that Eponine knew me. She was singing my life right there. Eponine wore a cool thrift-store coat and a boy's hat. Her parents were a hot mess. Eponine didn't want to grow up to be a thief or a criminal like everyone else on her street. She just wanted someone to love her. He doesn't but he feels real bad about it -- because really he does love her, just not in that way, you know? And then she dies. Cue sobbing while she sings Rain Will Make the Flowers Grow.

Oddly it was never Marius and Cosette's love duets that gutted me back then. What can I say? I'm a Virgo: a pragmatist. I have never believed in love at first sight. Lust, yes. Who hasn't felt that twinge in the lady bits at a cute boy in church/at the mall/in class/among your brother's friends? But falling in love without ever even having had a conversation? Marius, please. That wasn't love. You were just impressed with Cosette's fancy hat and you got lucky that it worked out. In fact, we don't even know if Marius and Cosette were lucky. We know they got married, but what about after that? No one knows if they ended up in opposite ends of the house, Cosette seething in silent resentment while Marius re-lived his days of youth in the revolution with a bottle. You never hear that side of the story. Ahem. Moving on.

Fast forward 17 years. I'm a mother now and I can't remember the last time I sang my way through Les Miserables, which I do own on CD somewhere. Living in Texas, you do a lot of driving. And I used to listen to my tapes (yes, tapes!) in the car with a Walkman and earphones. I did upgrade to CD's eventually. I listened to Les Miserables a lot while driving around. But it's been a while.

Nevertheless, I was interested to see the movie. I like Anne Hathaway and some friends wanted to go, so we went. And even though we got there late and had to sit in the third row where we could see every single one of Russell Crowe's nose hairs, I sobbed my way through it all over again! I couldn't believe, honestly, how much of the music I remembered word-for-word. You listen to something on repeat for a couple of years and the lyrics get burned into your hippocampus apparently.

This time, it wasn't doomed love that really hit me. And before you say the word Fantine, no. It wasn't. Although Anne Hathaway wins the award for Best Shaved Head. Of course I adore my children. I would sell my hair, dig out my own teeth with a blunt instrument, pawn my most prized possessions, and spread my legs for the whole town if I thought my child was dying and it would save her life. That's what you do when you're a mother. Thankfully I have never known that level of poverty or desperation. I was lucky enough to be born in 20th century America, post-feminism and with the benefit of modern medicine and technology. My career options range much farther than poor Fantine's and I have a college degree. Hopefully I'll get to keep all my teeth and my dignity until I, and they, are old women.

Nope. This time the one sentence that jumped out and slapped me in the face was Jean Valjean's dying sentiment: To love another person is to see the face of god.

Did I mention I'm an atheist? Agnostic, whatever. I am not a deeply religious, god-fearing, church-going type person (much to my mother's regret). And still I believe that truer words have never been spoken.

It isn't the lovers who sing these words. Jean Valjean never gets a girl and he's the one who sings this. He's the father-figure. The one who adopts Cosette after her mother dies, mainly out of guilt for the bad decision he made that led (sort of) to Fantine's death. In time he grows to love Cosette and not in an icky way. In a fatherly way. In the way that he wants her to be safe and loved, and to have every good thing in life, even marriage to Marius eventually although of course he tries to prevent that at first. When Valjean says "to love another person is to see the face of god" he's talking about a lot of different kinds of love, but primarily (looking at it with the eyes of a mother) the kind of love a parent feels for their babies. In his case, his baby is adopted and grown-up, but we all feel it for our babies. The way I love my children feels almost spiritual.

Not all the time of course.

When my seven-year-old slams the door to her room and screams "You're so MEAN! You never let me do anything I want!" it doesn't feel so spiritual. Wiping my three-year-old's bottom doesn't feel spiritual and being told for the 47th time that what I worked hard to prepare for dinner is "yucky" does not feel at all spiritual.

I can laugh at those moments though. Because I know my seven-year-old doesn't really think I'm mean, or at least not all the time. I know the day will come when I won't have to wipe anyone's bottom any more. And eventually they'll either eat real food or move out of my house and I won't have to hear their complaints.

The fact that these people exist is what's holy and mysterious. For the entire history of civilization they didn't exist and now they do! They're mine and their love is pure and uncomplicated (at least for now). Their feelings about my rules and my cooking are also uncomplicated -- just not in the way I'd prefer. I do see the face of God in them. There is something divine about the love you feel for a child, even when they are little devils!

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    Christine Whitley

    Texas transplant with short hair, 2 kids, and lots of ideas about family life. No promises about following my own advice.

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