Most of your life will happen in the gray spaces between bliss and heartbreak
Laura Dern writes to her teenage daughter
Today’s letter is taken from Letters of Note: Mothers, reprinted with the kind permission of Laura Dern.
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. She has since starred in countless films that include Blue Velvet, Wild, and Jurassic Park, and in 2020 she won an Academy Award for her role in Marriage Story. 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. 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. The women in my grandmother’s generation were told to choose between just a few life options, but my mother and her friends were part of the revolution in which women made clear that they wanted to do it all. Society began to accept this, but it was assumed that if you try to do it all you’re going to fail at everything.
My reaction was to decide that even though I could do all things, I was only going to focus on one at a time. 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 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 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. In this strange climate I realised that focusing on one thing in an effort not to fail at anything else was a weight I was carrying. And now I want to be a woman who does it all, no matter how it turns out.
Life is scary, Jaya, 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 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 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 glamorize 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 hear yourself when you’re just barely holding it together. I want you to be able to talk to friends about their gray areas and be open about your own without judgment. You will succeed and fail. Both experiences are worthwhile. They will both define you.
The beauty of being a woman today is in savoring all the moments that add up to you. 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.