When Motherhood Is a Horror Show

“The Baby” is clever to convert this mode into comedy, though the mood soon darkens. At first, Natasha’s antipathy toward parenthood feels refreshingly specific, with its focus on the mundane degradations that can haunt the imaginations of the happily childless. A soiled diaper escalates into a scene of body horror; a struggle to collapse a stroller ends with a severed finger. But the murderous-baby metaphor assumes more and more of motherhood’s potential pitfalls with every episode. Soon the show is also about postpartum depression and forced birth and compulsory heterosexuality and intergenerational trauma.

There’s something frustrating about this relentless construction of motherhood as a horror show, and not just because mothers experience the full range of human emotions (some of which are more faithfully explored in a Hallmark movie). By breaking a taboo, the genre has created a new cliché : of the exhausted mother pushed to her psychological breaking point her. Though the lack of support for mothers is a structural problem, it is reframed as a personal one, with a narrative resolution that resembles a postpartum therapy session or an invitation to collectively scream. Mothers are made to suffer, and then they are flattened into a long-suffering mother persona.

On the internet, there is a cutesy horror-inspired term for this kind of mother: the mombie. This lightly ironic version of the overwhelmed mom persona is ascendant on Instagram, TikTok and e-commerce novelty sites, where the lobotomized stereotype of the mommy influencer is countered with a version of motherhood defined by bedragled debasement. In this exaggerated burlesque performance, motherhood is analogized to prisonor the feeling of a child’s scooter wheel repeatedly hitting you in the ankle bone for all eternity.

These jokes are often accompanied by sincere messages about how negative feelings about motherhood are valid, and that it’s important to speak out. But the persona can also seem curiously invested in feeling aggrieved, as if the conversion of suffering into content is itself a balm. A common joke format is to complain that men do not help, but that when they do help, they do not help correctly. If you can’t relate, perhaps it is because you are so smugly privileged that you can pay other women to perform the drudgery of motherhood for you. (A recent “Atlanta” episode actually mines great comedy-horror from this premise: When the Trinidadian nanny for a rich white boy dies suddenly, the parents are haunted by the dawning realization that she was more family to their son than they were.)

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I found relief from this narrative trap in “Everything Everywhere All at Once,” which unchains its overworked mother character from the limits of the domestic horror genre by vaulting her into a multiverse of thrilling supernatural possibilities. The film begins with Evelyn (Michelle Yeoh), a laundromat owner pestered by her aging father, her bumbling husband, her depressed teenage daughter and the IRS Her life has devolved, as she puts it, into the endless repetition of “laundry and taxes” — until she learns that a plethora of Evelyns exist in endless multiverses, that she happens to be living the most disappointing possible version of her life, and that now she must access her untapped potential in order to save the worlds. “Everything Everywhere” accesses familiar themes of fraught mother-daughter relationships and overburdened moms, but this time the film ‘s whole paranormal dimension is built around Evelyn’s powerful complexity of her.

After a numbing few weeks of watching mothers tortured onscreen, the absurdly funny “Everything Everywhere” is the one that actually made me cry. But even during this elevated viewing experience, I was reminded that I was still living in our universe. Before the previews began, the theater screened a KFC commercial where a family gathers around the table for a fried chicken dinner. We hear each of their internal monologues as they dig in: “Mmm, mac and cheese,” the son thinks. “Mmm, tenders,” thinks the father. Then we hear the mind of the mother, who is nourished only by a respite from her domestic burden her: “Mmmm,” she thinks. “Silence.”

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