Keeping the Lights On: ‘Stranger Things’ and the Emotional Crisis of Motherhood

illustration by Brianna Ashby

“The human heart was not designed to beat outside the human body and yet, each child represented just that – a parent’s heart bared, beating forever outside its chest.”
– Debra Ginsberg

When I was a teenager, I had little trouble finding characters in film and television that resembled me. They were right there on the screen, always. There were the girls I idolized, because they were having a rough go of the whole adolescence thing too, but were braver and smarter and don’t-give-a-shit-ier than me. There were the girls that struggled awkwardly, that weren’t quick-witted or beautiful, that didn’t have a lot of friends. I felt such a kinship to these young women as I watched them struggle awkwardly through the transition between childhood and adulthood that it felt like catharsis.

When I was 24-years-old, I became a mother. At 25, it happened again. Life changed, in the fundamental ways that it does when you become a parent; I felt the responsibility of caring for my daughters so acutely that at times I thought it would break me. The desire to care for them, to protect them, and to love them often turned to fear when I imagined all the ways in which I could fail to meet those obligations.

These anxieties were only exacerbated by the daily struggle to make ends meet. I tried my best to hide every shortcoming I felt as a mother, but the truth was that on most days, at most times, I felt nothing short of frantic.

And when I looked around for women I recognized on screen I realized they had disappeared on me. It became very clear, by looking for some echo of my own experience in the stories I used to relate to, that my kind of motherhood—fretful, fearful, but still so full of love—wasn’t something I was going to find easily.

In the way that I’ve been able to relate to film and TV characters at all, I know that I am lucky. There are women who never see their likeness reflected back at them in our popular culture. That I did once and then did not, though, presented an existential crisis all its own; the onset of motherhood, and all the terror that came with it, felt so lonely so often. I would have given anything to find something familiar, but the landscape suddenly felt foreign.

***

The place where womanhood and parenthood meet is marked by a complex and intrinsically difficult set of rules and understandings. Motherhood is a biological and psychological experience, regardless of how you get there. It lights inside of you and changes how you see the world. It kicks every instinct into hyperdrive, and makes you second-guess even the most basic of decisions.

It also reveals a depth of love and hope that you didn’t know was possible, a ferocity of feeling that twinges and twists and makes you feel whole.

But even before you become a mother, there are signs and signals that show you how to behave once you get there. Theory and close study remind us that the social construct of motherhood is designed and taught in order to normalize behavior. The evidence in film and television so often supports that societal design. The mothers we encounter there tend to fall into very broad categories—and once I started looking for women whose parenting journey reflected my own, I realized that most of the mothers I saw on screen were virtually unrecognizable.

Maybe I saw some part of me in some of them—the type-A desire for of normalcy in Knocked Up, the what-the-hell-am-I-going-to-do insecurity in Juno, the melancholy ache to keep the love in my marriage alive in Away We Go.

So many of these films, though, end at the birth. The beginning of motherhood is the end of these women’s stories. We miss the post-partum exhaustion, the fear and uncertainty, the process of learning how to care for and protect another human being. We’re taught that we should become mothers, but not how to become them.

***

The experience of the mother—as a caregiver, as a woman in crisis, but most importantly, as a human—is often at the center of Netflix’s Stranger Things. And when I, like so many others, became captivated by it this summer, I felt myself exhaling as I watched Joyce Byers (Winona Ryder) navigate the mystery of her son’s disappearance.

I saw her frantic despair, her angry resistance to giving up, her aggressive need to find answers, and I thought, “Finally.”

Joyce isn’t the model of a parent that’s often reflected back to us as an example of what we should aspire to be. She is rarely home, always working, barely making ends meet. Her sons have become self-reliant in many ways. Jonathan, in particular, has assumed at least part of the financial and day-to-day caregiving responsibilities for his younger brother, Will. Her children are growing up too quickly.

And then, one goes missing.

Joyce’s behavior has, traditionally, been more aligned with film and TV’s examples of bad mothers. The bad ones are erratic. They’re negligent. They hurt their children, intentionally or otherwise. Or, perhaps even worse, they create an environment in which their children can hurt others. These women are branded not only as failures, but as social lepers that do nothing more than create messes for others to clean up.

As I tried to find my own sense of normalcy in motherhood, it terrified me when I saw glimmers of my own experience in these examples from time to time: the sadness and dissatisfaction that manifests as bitterness in Mad Men’s Betty Draper; the way that exhaustion and grief can literally create monsters out of shadows in The Babadook. In my worst moments, I saw myself in these women and wondered what was wrong with me.

***

Joyce Byers is anxious, and exhausted, and disappointed, and sad. She is still a decent parent in spite of all of these things. Joyce tries, and often fails, to be the kind of mother she is supposed to be. By extension, she is the type of parent we should all hope to become.

She can easily identify her son’s creative expression in a piece of art, even though she struggles to afford crayons. She knows what college her son wants to go to, even though she has no idea how she will be able to send him there. She knows where her son’s secret hideout is, even if she can’t get there that often because she has to work. She knows her sons—so much so that she can feel Will, even when he’s in another dimension.

In films or TV shows with stakes as high as Stranger Things—when a child’s life is on the line—mothers so often play a different role. They are rarely the focus, but instead tertiary emotional anchors; reminders that someone at home loves and is waiting for the person we’re really supposed to care about. Their love is often apparent, but quiet. When their children are missing, or dying, or hurting, they may shed a tear and appear shaken. But they often set raw emotion aside, because it is inconvenient.

There is nothing wrong with this kind of silent strength. But when I see these women on screen—Rose Byrne in Insidious, Viola Davis and Maria Bello in Prisoners—I find myself wishing they weren’t on the sidelines. I long to spend more time with them, rather than having their feelings compartmentalized for the sake of a tight narrative. I want to see emotions that I recognize.

***

At one point halfway through Stranger Things, Karen—a coiffed and almost always collected manifestation of the type of Mom we expect to see, both in stories like this and in suburbia at large—stops by to offer her support and condolences by way of casserole and awkward conversation. She is calm, even though her own tenuous hold on her children is spiraling out of control. She is what she is supposed to be.

Though they are of the same town, though they both have children who are closer than blood, Joyce and Karen clearly lived in different universes, even before the Upside Down.

It’s a testament to the Duffer Brothers that they don’t pass judgment on Karen, and her quiet and more careful love comes through, too, even in her limited screen time. But it is essential that they chose to tell Joyce’s story instead; that they let us live through her horror, and they let her be the one that saves the day.

Joyce’s grief at losing Will is uncomfortable. It’s unrelenting and unapologetic—not contained within a singular scene in which it pours out, but a present theme throughout the eight-episode series. It’s screaming and throwing the phone. It’s chain-smoking, and trembling and sleep deprivation. It’s making a scene in public. It’s stringing her entire house with blinking Christmas lights, aware that it looks like madness, just so she can have even the tiniest chance of communicating with Will.

Though Joyce is rendered frantic by the potential loss of her son, she isn’t defenseless, or passive in her grief. She refuses to accept that he is dead, even in the face of seemingly overwhelming evidence. She fights everyone who tries to stop her from finding out what really happened to him.

Because though Joyce never couches or compartmentalizes her agony, though she feels it so acutely that we feel it too, she also refuses to let it defeat her. Instead it drives her into the hellish Demogorgon’s lair, where she finds and saves her son.

This triumph at the end of the Byers family trauma is a large part of what makes Stranger Things more than just a satisfying nostalgia bomb. Joyce’s love for her children is loud and unkempt; it’s messy and imperfect. And yet, she is a hero in the story, not in spite of these things, but because of them.

When I was a teenager, Winona Ryder played many of the characters that I wanted to emulate. As Jo March, she was the exuberant creative soul I hoped to grow up to be. As Veronica, she was a larger-than-life entity that let me vicariously live out the worst of my angst in a dark fantasy. But Joyce is the first role Winona Ryder has played that I recognized. She reminded me that anxiety is a reality of motherhood—one that lasts far longer than is sometimes convenient, one that doesn’t just go away because a particular moment has passed. She reminded me that this unique brand of fear also carries an innate power.

It’s keeping the lights on, just in case. It’s protective. It’s eternal. It’s love.