Lincoln’s Replacement Children
There is so much to talk about after seeing Lincoln this weekend, but since I have my Replacement Child lenses adjusted, I can’t help but focus on one scene in the film that touched on Lincoln as a husband and father.
In the scene we discover that Abe and Mary lost a child to illness as Abe rails at Mary for her extended grieving, and she in turn admonishes him for putting their oldest son, Robert, in harm’s way by allowing him to join the ranks of the Union soldiers. When her grieving over the death of their son became too prolonged, in Lincoln’s view, he had apparently threatened Mary with having her committed to an asylum, (using the vernacular of the film). She tells him that if Robert dies in the war, he had better plan to really put her away, not just threaten it.
Two things about this scene, so beautifully rendered by Steven Spielberg and brought to life by Daniel Day-Lewis and Sally Field, struck me as I watched this relatively small scene in the epic film. First, Lincoln’s admission that he couldn’t allow his wife’s grieving to go on, because he couldn’t allow it in himself. And, that he feared he could be swallowed by that grief every day. But he went on with his daily routine, we are to assume, including his legendary presidential duties. His wife’s continued grieving, then, was an affront to his daily struggle to contain his own grief and fed his anger at her.
I saw that kind of difference in grieving, between men and women, and between individuals, in my own parents. As I wrote Replacement Child, I had to dig back into the evidence of my parents’ behaviors soon after the death of their eldest daughter, and then throughout the rest of their lives. As Mary Lincoln in the film showed, the grieving for a child really never ends. My own father went back to his work as soon as he could, never speaking of his lost daughter and going on with life by tucking his grief away. One of the few times I heard him utter her name was as he told me of his wishes for his own eventual remains, “to be cremated like my girl.” It was the only time I ever saw him cry. For my mother, she nearly disappeared into depression until she did have another child—who might be called a replacement child.
The other part of this relatively small detail brought out in the film was the realization that Mary’s other two children became somewhat replacement children after the loss of the other. She pinned her hopes on the other two, and knew she might not survive another child’s death. That, I reasoned, was why her response to Robert’s going to war was so intense. It’s a version of replacement children that I have not explored before this, that seems so obvious now—that it’s not just the subsequent child born after the death of a child that is a replacement child, but the remaining children that take on that role as well.