[Content Note: Murder, Apocalypse, Suicide]
I knew what he meant, of course. As a salesman, he was hoping to sell things to someone at my address, so he was really asking, "Are you empowered to make financial decisions at this address?" But that wasn't quite what he actually asked, and the question left me momentarily confused. I'm not now and unfortunately never will be anyone's "mom" -- I'm infertile and while I am a step-mother, I like to joke that I'm only a step-mother by marriage. Nor am I anyone's big sister -- I do have some (much) older half-siblings with whom I have a good relationship, but I've always been "the baby" or the only child at pretty much every family gathering ever.
So even though I knew the "correct" answer to the nice salesman was that I was "Mom", I stumbled a bit and said "neither", but we got past it. (I considered saying that I was Husband's love slave and couldn't stay to talk because I had to finish heating up eight pounds of baby oil before he got home, but you never know when people will realize you're joking. And even if he did, I used to be in a service job and I feel guilty making nice service personnel laugh at my admittedly poor jokes.)
But the question got me thinking, and the thinking got worse when Husband brought home The Road for us to watch with our evening dinner.
Now, if you haven't seen The Road, you haven't looked into the face of apocalyptic despair. I'm usually a big fan of apocalyptic despair, but I wasn't in the mood that night and ended up leaving halfway through the movie after eyeballing TV Tropes to get the ending in advance. (I'll probably still buy the book though, and read it at some point when I want to get good and depressed.) I thought the movie was well-done, but it reminded me too much of Blindness: by which I mean, if an author wants to make a deep statement about humanity but has to box humanity into a series of remarkable coincidences in order to get the result the author wants, I'm not sure that result says anything about humanity since it hinges on such an artificial situation.
The Road is about the end of the world and its effects on a man and his son. A world wide apocalypse -- probably human-engineered through war -- has destroyed most of humanity, and has taken with it all the animals, insects, fish, and plants. We're well after the 5-year expiration date on canned foods, so with no animals to eat, no insects to scarf, no fish to catch, and no plants to grow, humans have two choices: starve to death or become cannibals and starve to death slightly more slowly. You see what I mean about extracting meaningful results from an artificial starting point -- it's kind of hard to make cannibalism into a meaningful moral choice when it's the only choice available outside of suicide. (Of course, I'm pretty sure I'd pick suicide, but as I point out to Husband, that's my solution to almost every apocalypse movie. It's worth noting that I score very poorly in the Would You Survive The Zombie Apocalypse quiz.)
The point of view character for The Road is the aforementioned Man and Child, and it's worth noting in a post on identities and related crises that no one in this movie has a name. There's a man and a woman and a child that happens to be their biological child, or at least, it's the woman's biological child and the man is called the child's "father", so yeah. What do we call these people? Since the movie is at least partly told through the eyes of the child, it would be tempting to name them Father-Mother-Son, but is it right to characterize people as existing only in relationship to others? I finally settled on Man-Woman-Child, although then we're characterizing people by apparent external gender, but I suppose one must start somewhere in the absence of names.
The most compelling moments in the movie for me are the flashbacks involving Woman. Woman is not thrilled with the prospect of eking out a miserable existence in the cold apocalyptic world in which they live: they have no real future to look forward to except a choice between a slow, painful death (starvation) or a quick, violent death (murder). More than anything, it's clear that she just wants to die and end the fearful anticipation in which she lives. Man is at odds with this plan; he doesn't want to die just yet and he most especially can't bring himself to either kill Child or leave Child alone in this dangerous world.
Woman explains the situation patiently to Man: they have two bullets left in their gun, not nearly enough to hold off the gangs of brutal cannibals scouring the countryside. They have very little food, and as the winters are becoming more and more cold, they will have to leave their home and go on foot farther south if they want to survive. It is only a matter of time before they starve to death, freeze to death, die from an illness and lack of proper medicine, or -- worst case scenario -- before they are all raped, murdered, and eaten. The best thing to do, she argues, is to take the easiest death on hand and kill themselves first. Man is horrified; "You sound like a crazy person!" he pleads. Eventually, a particularly bad snowstorm picks up and Woman walks out into the night, fully intending to freeze to death. Man begs her not to go, "Not tonight! What will I tell [Child] in the morning?", but she ignores him and slips out into the darkness.
What are we to make of this act? I was surprised to see on TV Tropes that Woman has been assigned the "It's All About Me" trope, thereby labeling her as unpleasantly self-absorbed in her own pain and unable to see the pain of those around her. Husband was kind enough to explain to me why someone might think that: "It's because they don't think she should have left the kid alone." This caused me a moment's confusion before a solution presented itself to me: "Oh! You mean they think she should have killed the kid over the dad's objections?" Husband was a little shocked. No, he explained, it wouldn't be right to kill the kid over the dad's objections. But it wasn't right to leave the kid with dad to go off to die, either. She should have stayed alive to fight for the kid's chance to live a quality life, like the dad did.
And this got me thinking back to my afternoon: "Are you Mom or Big Sister?" "I'm neither."
Now, as I pointed out, I'm nobody's mom. Never have been, never will. I'd like to be, and goodness knows Husband and I spent a lot of money trying to be, but it didn't happen and I've come to terms with that. But it's possible that my lack of Mom-ed-ness means that I can't or won't or don't have a good handle on this topic. But. I don't think Woman is selfish. Or rather, I think she displays a level of selfishness that can be seen as healthy and appropriate. By which I mean: I think she's taking care of herself in a world where no one else will or can.
I can't imagine what Woman's life has been like over the years after the apocalypse. I can try to imagine with words, but I can't really understand the effect of those words. The pressure as you catalog your dwindling food supplies and try to come up with ways to find more. The pain when illness (and giving birth! and nursing! and god knows what else!) wracks your body and there's nothing to do for it except hope it will pass. The loneliness of having everyone on earth suddenly cut off from you except your most immediate neighbors. The constant boredom of having no new material to read or watch, and the isolation of realizing that there are events going on all over the world -- events that may very well affect you strongly -- about which you have no information or insight.
And that's just the immediate physical needs for food and shelter and information and stimulation. Beyond that, there's the emotional pain and torment. The haunting realization that everything you've ever known and loved is gone forever, and that the world is fundamentally changed from what you knew and understood and expected to something dark and dangerous and terrifying. The awareness that you have no future, no purpose, and no driving goal beyond existing as long as possible. The horror after killing your first invader, and the fear that never lets you rest -- the fear that at any moment looters will invade your home, rape you, murder you, and eat you... and possibly not in that order.
Now I understand that -- in general -- when you give birth to another human being, you become responsible for more than just yourself. There's another person on this earth that is directly related to you and is additionally almost completely helpless, so the decent thing to do is to care for the new person as best you can until which point they can take over and care for themselves. But, at the same time, as much as a parent has -- in general -- a responsibility to care for their child, I do not think that the birth of a child magically removes the responsibility that every person has to take care of their own self.
In the movie, Woman says "My life ended the day [Child] was born," and I find this a very interesting statement. The movie doesn't linger or dwell over the sentiment, so we're left to find our own meaning in it. Does Woman feel her life ended as a person, as an individual, when Child was born? Or does Woman feel that her last hope was extinguished when Child was born? Caring for another human being is an incredibly exhausting task. Caring for another human being in a world without help or hope or the slightest possibility for a future other than bleak starvation or violent death would, I think, be almost torture.
I don't feel like Woman is selfish for essentially saying I can't keep doing this. I don't feel like Woman is selfish for leaving Man and Child to make the decision for themselves whether or not they want to keep fighting while she gives up for good. I don't feel like Woman is selfish for deciding that she can't live with the constant fear that she will be gang-raped, that Child will be eaten, that Man will be murdered. I don't feel like Woman is good to make the decision she makes, but I don't feel like she's bad either. I feel like she's just taking care of herself the only way she feels she can. And I don't feel like the fact that she's a mother makes her a worse person for making her decision.
The Road follows the journey of Man as he tries to find a better life for Child. Man is good and kind and courageous as he constantly struggles to give Child a semblance of a future. It's a heart-warming tale (wrapped, again, in bleak apocalyptic horror) of the rare soul who is willing to lay down their life for another. All these things are good and admirable.
But having said that, I don't think that the opposite -- that not fighting a hard and impossible fight -- yields the opposite results. Man is good to be selfless and sacrifice himself for Child. But I do not think Woman is bad for being "selfish" enough to take care of her own needs when they became more than she could bear. At the end of The Road, I won't pass judgment on Woman for being Woman first and Mom second.