(In my opinion, this post doesn’t contain spoilers for Bird Box, but if you haven’t watched it and don’t want to know anything about it before you watch, go read someone else’s blog.)
I watched Bird Box last night despite my aversion to suspenseful movies. Maybe it was all the motherhood-themed memes on the internet referencing scenes from it. Maybe it was because I’ve loved Sandra Bullock since The Net. Maybe it was just that I had a rough day and I was feeling a little reckless and watching TV in bed and eating Ben and Jerry’s is my version of acting out these days. I dunno. But I stuck it out and watched it, flipping screens between the movie and Facebook during the really scary and more graphic parts.
I don’t want to be a Negative Nellie, but honestly, there were some themes in it that bugged me, and like a true American, it’s my duty to tell the internet.
For those of you who haven’t watched it, the basic storyline is that people around the world become inexplicably compelled to commit suicide. They see something invisible to others and they violently kill themselves, immediately.
Sandra Bullock’s character, Mallory, and her children manage to survive after they learn the key is to be blindfolded and quiet at all times. One of the opening scenes is her fiercely warning the children to stay quiet and to always keep their blindfolds on. She delivers it in a manner similar to orations I’ve given my children about how to behave while in the grocery store: Eye to eye, in simple language, telling them their life depends on their obedience.
Here’s where I start to have some issues.
The kids in the story have been raised since birth in an extremely stressful environment. They’ve never known anything other than blindfold-or-die life. Under such extreme stress, their mother, Sandra Bullock/Mallory, has seemingly failed to bond with them. She physically protects them and cares for them, but she was a reluctant mother from the beginning and nurturing took a backseat to survival. Understandable. I don’t want to spoil the movie, but the theme of a mother’s deep and sacrificial love is present. I can understand why people find it inspiring. Part of me does too. But a larger part of me, the part of me that has parented under extreme stress (not suicide-epidemic level stress, but nonetheless fear-of-losing-my children-and-the-aftermath-stress) takes issue with perpetuating the idea that experiencing trauma gives you super-human ability to do heroic things and persevere.
It just doesn’t. Not usually.
Life- and safety-threatening situations, particularly when experienced over a prolonged period of time, damage the brain. These situations don’t create steely resolve and fortitude, they heighten cortisol levels and create unhealthy neural pathways in children AND parents. They decrease one’s ability to self-regulate and stay calm under stress.
So when I see two children being told sternly to behave-or-die and they chose to behave, I call bullshit.
When I see a mother, who has only parented under brain-damaging stress, being depicted as having an invisible and innate inner bond to her children so strong she will do anything for them, I call bullshit.
Maternal (and paternal for that matter, but it’s a movie about a mom) bonding takes intentional work sometimes. A lot of it. We want to believe a maternal bond is innate and unbreakable. And under the best circumstances, maybe it can be.
But I also believe that perpetuating this idea that there’s an innate and ever-present, ever-flowing stream of maternal goodness and self-sacrifice is harmful to women. Just because we can do it, doesn’t mean it’s good for us.
I opened this post with a reference to me eating ice cream in bed while watching Netflix after a hard day. This is the type of “mommy breakdown” that is acceptable to share. “Me time” is all the rage. Self-care is the new black. Face masks and pedicures will heal our weary souls, Instagram tells me.
I’m calling bullshit on myself.
I’ve been told my vulnerability is a gift so here goes: No amount of Netflix or charcoal masks is going to fill the incredible internal deficit 12 years of stressful mothering has created in me. Endless self-sacrifice has not given me superpowers. It has damaged me. I’m tired and bitter and on “good mother” auto pilot most of the time. I do what’s right to look good to the outside.
There has to be a better way. We are worth a better way. I don’t know exactly what that way looks like. I am still working on it. My “superpowers” fail to create an easy solution for the weary and empty-souled mothers I encounter so often. All I can do is listen to their stories and offer mine.
All this to say, if you can relate to any of this please know: You are not blindfolded, feeling your way through the forest, children at your sides. I’m out here. We’re out here. Let’s sort it out together.