It’s 10 pm and I’m working, feverishly attempting to fit a day’s effort into the remaining hours of the evening. The silence that fills my house this time of night is a welcome reprieve from the relentless noise that only ceases once my three children are asleep. But there’s always a preview of tomorrow’s commotion around midnight, when the baby wakes up to eat.
On flights, the attendants instruct you to place your oxygen mask on yourself before assisting others during an emergency. People often try to sell this metaphor to parents in the name of self-care. On its face, it makes sense — you can’t help others if you’re suffocating. Under the slightest scrutiny, though, it quickly falls apart: oftentimes, there is no mask. Others, your toddler is actively trying to eat it.
This setup exemplifies the classic ebb and flow of the parent-child relationship. I need to generate income and fulfill my creative pursuits; my children need attention and care. And sometimes, I can’t do both simultaneously. And as we all know, that’s all the harder on moms, who are raised in a culture that demands they drop everything for their kids.
I often think about a scene from Neil Gaiman’s fantasy novella for children, Coraline, released twenty years ago this summer, when I’m haphazardly attempting to strike the right balance in meeting those conflicting needs. The heroine, eleven-year-old Coraline Jones, is bored from exploring her new apartment alone while her parents work, and she bounces from room to room, enticing one of them to pay her attention. They’re both engrossed in what they’re doing, and so they brush her off.
It’s a familiar picture. Like many parents — especially in 2022 — I work from home, and I’m also the primary caregiver in my family. Even without the added pressure of work, the juggling act inherent in this role requires a phenomenal skillset to anticipate needs, organize and remember extracurriculars and appointments, delegate projects, and execute it all day after day. (This reality is even more pronounced for single parents.)
I’m sorry to say that none of these are strengths of mine, and my poor performance would have probably gotten me fired from an office job a long time ago. And so I worry that I’m just like Coraline’s parents. But mostly, I worry about becoming the story’s villain: the Beldam, the “Other Mother,” a replica of Coraline’s actual mom with black buttons for eyes who kidnaps Coraline and hides both her parents.
The evil stepmother is a common trope in fairy tales, preserving the “good” maternal presence while still allowing children to express negative feelings or beliefs about their moms. Coraline updates that old storyline: While Coraline’s real parents are disinterested, busy, and dismissive, the Other Mother is attentive and enthusiastic about her presence. She is also fragile and unpredictable, promising Coraline a world filled with unwavering attention, more appealing meals, and exciting toys. She is smothering and needy, desperate for attention. In Coraline, there’s the inattentive parents vs. the demanding, kidnap-friendly Other Mother. Splitting the mother identity into two distinct characters encompasses the real-life complexities of motherhood: we are not Good or Evil; we are simply human.
I find myself in a similar cycle of whiplash, oscillating between pouring all I have into my children and swinging back to sitting hunched over a computer or phone, uh-huh-ing and hand-waving them away while I try to steal a moment’s peace or complete a time-sensitive email. The Other Mother is desperate to be loved. Likewise, when the familiar guilt from failing to meet my needs and those of my children simultaneously creeps in, I take a page out of her playbook. I dote, overextend myself, and say yes to everything until I’m completely wiped out again.
Sometimes I think about the mist that Coraline discovers outside of the home where the Other Mother keeps her. She describes this mist as warping her view of the world; it makes her home into “only the idea of a house — and the person who had had the idea [the Beldam], she was certain, was not a good person.”
Is the world I’ve constructed for my children enough? Will they think I’m a good person when I’m busy ignoring them or shooing them away, even when it seems necessary at times? When I watch the clock for bedtime or my next break? While resisting and challenging are crucial in kids’ development, what happens if they reject our offerings altogether like Coraline does the Beldam — is it a rejection of us? How, then, do we make the relationship healthy and stave off resentment when the other person in it doesn’t have a fully formed brain yet?
As a child, the story of Coraline is frightening because of what it suggests: we might encounter a danger from which our parents can’t save us. As a parent, what’s scary is knowing that one day my children won’t need me. And while it’s exhausting and overwhelming now, I still ache for it when they sleep, worrying about the day it stops. I am both consumed with the unfulfilled desire to be left alone and a profound need to never fail these small humans I brought into the world.
I don’t have the answers to this conundrum; maybe my search for the elusive One Weird Trick that actually works or the inspirational podcast or book that clicks all the puzzle pieces together is for naught. Real life isn’t a fairytale; there’s no tossing Snow White’s stepmother off a cliff. The only thing I know for sure is that I am not alone; we’re all attempting to navigate this tension as best we can, and the more we talk about it, the better.
Molly Wadzeck Kraus is a freelance writer and mother of three. Born and raised in Waco, Texas, she moved to the Finger Lakes region of New York, where she worked in animal rescue and welfare for many years. She writes essays and poems about feminism, mental health, parenting, pop culture, and politics. She is usually late because she stopped to pet a dog. She tweets at @mwadzeckkraus.