Bird Box is the untold story of traumatic motherhood

Netflix’s mother-centered apocalypse story brings new life and healing to a cynical genre

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Pregnancy storylines in TV and films almost always bother me. I rarely find a character experiencing pregnancy who I can relate to. But then, there are a lot of mothers in real life I have a hard time relating to as well.

Mothers love their children immediately and unconditionally. That’s the whole bit with the human psyche, isn’t it? A mother’s love is arguably the most formative and impactful aspect of individual development. Society assumes mothers will love their children, and that nurturing and showing them love will come naturally — and instantly.

But what about when it doesn’t?

It’s a difficult thing to explain — except perhaps to women who have traveled the dark roads of postpartum depression — but it’s something which Netflix’s new feature length apocalyptic film Bird Box, starring Sandra Bullock, articulates beautifully. Which I find really, really refreshing.

It would be easy to fawn over Bird Box for the mere fact that it’s an apocalypse story both directed by and starring women, or to focus on the incredible glass ceiling-busting Sandra Bullock demonstrates by playing a female heroine who is hugely pregnant during half the film at the age of 54.

I know it’s rude to point out a woman’s age, but I think we should all take a moment to recognize what a landmark role this is, and how it shatters the age barrier women in Hollywood have faced for so long. In her 50’s, not only is Bullock playing a screen-hogging post apocalyptic heroine — she’s playing a pregnant heroine. And yes: she totally pulls it off. I think it’s her best performance to date.

But none of that would really matter if it weren’t for the story itself, and the skill with which it’s told.

It’s the story of survivalist motherhood — a fierce, primal kind that’s not so pretty. That’s outright jarring — and even terrifying — to our traditional sensibilities about motherhood. But more than your average apocalypse story, it’s also a story of healing.

The ironic survivalism of reluctant motherhood

When we meet pregnant Mallory (Bullock) at the beginning of the film, partnerless, unprepared for her baby, and largely in denial of its impending arrival, we might have been worried about her ability to be a good mother. Mallory clearly doesn’t want this baby. But we’re quickly distracted by the arrival of the unseen demon and the end of the world. And so is Mallory.

Unlike her compatriot in pregnancy, fellow survivor Olympia (played effervescently by Dumplin’ star Danielle Macdonald), Mallory was trained for struggle. She’s prepared to fight, because in many ways she’s always been fighting, whereas Olympia — who loves her husband and her unborn baby — is docile, and full of optimism, and soft. Normally, Olympia would be society’s model for motherhood, but here in the apocalypse, facing an unknowable terror, Mallory weilding a double barreled shotgun and tinkering with a walkie talkie seems like a much better model for successful motherhood. And, of course, this quickly proves to be the case, as Mallory is left with the responsibility of caring for both her newborn baby and Olympia’s, after Olympia’s soft-heartedness and lack of survival instinct gets herself killed.

Mallory is undeniably more equipped for motherhood in this world of survival, even if she does sneak in the occasional glass of alcohol while pregnant. As John Malcovich’s father-archetype character points out: in the end of the world, a few ounces of scotch aren’t so important. Mallory does what heroes in movies always do — she attends to her mental health by self medicating under safe cover. And shouldn’t she? Her being pregnant makes her ability to mentally cope that much more important. It’s survivalist self-care, with a bit of a Sophie’s Choice twist.

It’s this sense of self preservation that helps Mallory be strong enough to survive an impossible landscape — but ultimately it becomes the millstone around her neck.

Mallory, aided by found partner Tom (played by Trevante Rhodes), keeps the children alive. And that’s about all she seems capable of doing. She can’t afford to spend energy on nurturing, or play. She can’t even connect with them enough to give them names. She has to focus on keeping them alive.

I remember, when my daughter was days old, having a mindset that wasn’t dissimilar. My mom’s friends all clucked and cooed and fawned over the idea of maternal bliss they projected onto me. “Didn’t the meaning of life just change?” one of them asked me, doe-eyed. I blinked at her, and looked at this tiny hungry animal that sucked my sore nipples like a shopvac on reverse, and thought about my empty bank account and my mortgage payment, and I blinked at her again.

How could I explain to her that I had no partner to ease my workload, no driving desire to become a mother, and a strong need for independence and autonomy?

How could I explain to her that no, I didn’t feel an instant gush of love for this tiny helpless creature, but rather a crushing and exhausted resolve to make it thrive, at any cost?

I made formula from raw ingredients in my kitchen when my breastmilk dried up (due to stress), and kept her first year growth rate in the 90th percentile. I worked long hours to pay our bills, and I also took opportunities to be away from home as offen as I could. Because I just couldn’t afford more than pure physical survival. Emotional attachment would make things just too precarious.

As I was describing the movie, and Mallory’s journey and emotional detachment to a friend of mine — a white collar professional with a twelve month old at home — she interrupted me to exclaim,

“Oh, so it’s basically just like corporate motherhood, but on a river.”

Then she went on a brief rabbit trail about how happy she was that her daughter was beginning to self-entertain. “I’m focused on keeping her alive and healthy, and trying to keep myself sane, don’t talk to me about quality time,” she says, as I nod vigorously.

Mallory’s experience with reluctant yet diligent motherhood, and with the instinct to detach in order to survive, resonates with the experiences of women throughout the ages, from mine to the nomadic woman wandering across the ice 30,000 years ago. Not all women who become mothers WANT to do so, and many do it anyway — and do it well — under crushingly difficult circumstances. It’s not the story we usually tell, though, because it’s harsh, and contradictory to what society presumes motherhood should be.

It’s not a pretty story. But it explains a lot of what’s around us.

Learning to nurture from the divine masculine

The vacuum created by Mallory’s emotional detachment is filled, in many ways, by Tom, who eventually becomes her romantic partner as well as partner in childraising. Left alone with Mallory and two less than hour old infants, Tom dedicates himself to helping Mallory raise and protect them. He’s softspoken, lighthanded yet firm, and a former soldier — a beautiful archetype of all the most positive aspects of masculinity.

Tom is highly competent, both as a strategic partner and as a physical protector. He’s cool headed and doesn’t vy for power among the group, yet he steps up and takes intiative when it’s necessary to protect his small circle. And perhaps most poignantly, and I think appropriately, Tom is emotionally available — and by that, I mean he is in touch with his feelings for his family. His pregnant sister, out of reach and probably dead, weighs on his conscience, and he instinctively protects a pregnant Mallory, and subsequently two children, as naturally as he would his own blood. He provides a safe haven of love and connection for Mallory and the children. In one scene, he quietly recounts a story from his deployment about a father escorting his children to school in a war zone, and he echoes the father’s desire to give the next generation a better world.

Tom is, I think, an elegy to divine masculinity. He’s driven, not to power, but to support, protect, and nurture new life — specifically mothers and children. He empowers Mallory, and he acts as her true partner. Even in his death, when he sees the demon and madness seizes him, his instinct is to protect his family first — and he succeeds.

Mallory couldn’t have kept those two children alive, nor her sanity in tact, without Tom’s loving, nurturing strength.

Tom’s presence in the film balances out Mallory’s dark maternal archetype with a positive masculine counterpart, which makes the story less about female empowerment and more about the nature of true love, partnership, and family.

The eucatastrophe of hope

At the film’s climax, Mallory is separated from the children, and her daughter runs away from her in fear, as she’s trying to bring the three of them to safety. She’s afraid of Mallory, her brother says. And, after the harsh way Mallory has treated the girl — who did no less than show the kind of initiative and tenacity Mallory herself demonstrates — it’s easy to see why the girl would risk facing the unknowable demon, rather than her own harsh and disconnected mother.

It’s this revelation and the risk of losing her daughter that finally breaks Mallory. The emotion she carries for her children, which has quietly built up for years, erupts in a cascade of apologies and confessions of love.

“I’m so sorry, sweet girl,” she cries. “I shouldn’t have been so hard. I shouldn’t have stopped you from playing. I shouldn’t have stopped Tom’s story, because it wasn’t finished…”

It’s that moment when you suddenly realize that through your child’s eyes, you’re the monster. And that maybe you actually are.

It’s the first time, it seems, that Mallory herself has realized how much she loves these children she’s fought so hard to keep alive. And suddenly, she finds the hope her family needs, and allows herself to envision a bright future for the first time.

“Because there’s so much I want to show you, and so much I want you to see,” she sobs, “but we have to be together. So I just need you to come to me.”

She does, and when they arrive safely at their destination, they see exactly the future Mallory described. They set the birds free, and Mallory gives the children names, and tells them she’s their mother.

The fact that we never see the unknowable demon is, to me, not only appropriate to the story’s theme that the worst monsters take the shape of the content of our own fear, but it also serves to underline the point that the real battle at hand was Mallory finding the path to connecting with her children. Of allowing herself to hope enough to love. And of finding the safe haven of community and support she needed to be a successful mother. To be free to love.

It’s an analogy, in many ways, to the path so many women — and men, too — have to tread in the wake of traumatic birth circumstances, abusive relationships, and postpartum depression. Handicapped by the strength of our own inner fears, we fight impossible odds to keep our children alive, and to find safe haven. But the break doesn’t come until we allow ourselves to hope.

The solution for mothers like us in real life isn’t usually quite so sudden or dramatic. In lieu of an apocalyptic epiphany, it takes time, and stability, and support.

But it happens. Slowly. Until suddenly you wake up one day and realize that though you might not love motherhood, it turns out you’ve loved your children — and yourself — all along.