The Multiverse of Motherhood
Many of these multiverse narratives centered on parenthood, and motherhood in particular.
In recent years, it seems like the multiverse has been everywhere.
Of course, the multiverse has long been a motif of sci-fi and fantasy but, starting with Disney+’s WandaVision and culminating in productions like awards darling Everything Everywhere All At Once, season two of Russian Doll, Netflix’s pregnancy caper Look Both Ways, Kaley Cuoco and Pete Davidson’s rom-com Meet Cute and the novel This Time Tomorrow by Emma Straub, 2022 was the year the multiverse went mainstream.
Another thing that these tales of alternate realities have in common is that they’re all centered on parenthood, and motherhood in particular. Which makes sense; after heading into year three of a hellish pandemic, in which parents bore one of the largest burdens, what caregiver wouldn’t want to escape into another dimension in which things are ~back to normal~. This isn’t to say that parenting was easy pre-COVID either, which is why many Millennials and Gen Zs are delaying or forgoing it altogether.
But for our pop cultural products that do depict parenthood and, again, motherhood in particular, the multiverse serves to explore all the ways mums coulda woulda shoulda lived their lives. For those with kids, this seems like a supremely relatable coping mechanism for the never-ending deluge of responsibilities that comes with having them.
When WandaVision landed on Disney+ in those halcyon days between lockdowns in early 2021, much was speculated yet little was known about one of the streamer’s first forays into serialized television besides the fact that it combined the names of Elizabeth Olsen’s Wanda Maximoff and her paramour Vision, whom Wanda sacrificed to save the world in Avengers: Infinity War. Set within idyllic sitcoms throughout the decades, each episode reflects the mood of its time: newlywed bliss, groovy family life and modern family mockumentary.
We come to learn that this is a coping mechanism dreamed up by Wanda to deal with her grief over the loss of her husband and children, through the American sitcoms that brought her comfort during her childhood in a fictional Soviet country. American sitcoms certainly have their problems, like glorifying the nuclear family and normalising stereotypes of abusive men and harried, nagging women, but at least Wanda has her family within them, however dysfunctional.
Contrast that with 2022’s best movie Everything Everywhere All At Once (and, let’s be real, WandaVision isn’t even close). Michelle Yeoh’s Evelyn, Everything Everywhere All At Once’s protagonist, is dealing with the drudgery of running a laundromat, her distant daughter Joy (Stephanie Hsu), caring for her elderly father, being served with divorce papers and doing her taxes. Only this time, instead of the mother creating a multiverse to escape her family, it’s her daughter who’s created a magical mystery tour of parallel universes in an attempt to get her mother’s attention.
Hsu truly steals the show in a sorely underappreciated dual role as Joy and Jobu Tupaki, her rageful and intergenerationally traumatised (or trowmatised) alter ego. This is quite an impressive feat considering the other heavy hitters in the cast: Yeoh, Jamie Lee Curtis as the accountant from hell (or an equally terrible universe) and Ke Huy Quan as Waymond, Joy’s dad and Evelyn’s long-suffering husband. All Joy really wants is for her mother to see and accept her, something highly relatable that makes the movie emotionally resonant amidst all the sausage fingers, everything bagels and butt plugs (you know, everything, everywhere, all at once).
The multiverse saga that arguably started this trend premiered all the way back in 2019, before *gestures wildly* was Russian Doll. The series stars Natasha Lyonne as Nadia, a woman who finds herself stuck in a time loop on her 36th birthday in which she keeps dying in different ways, a plot structure it uses to explore inherited trauma.
This theme is also prominent in season two, released early last year, in which Nadia is turning 40 and becomes trapped in the body of her mother, played by Chloë Sevigny. It turns out that her mother died at the age of 35, thus providing a possible explanation for Nadia’s inability to move beyond that age in the first season. Not only is Nadia trying to re-parent herself, literally giving birth to herself in the subway (the original “sweet birthday baby”!) and spiriting baby Nadia away for a better life with a stable mother, i.e. herself, but she’s grappling with the intergenerational trauma of the Holocaust. At one point, she audaciously travels back in time to Nazi-occupied Budapest as her grandmother! Meanwhile, her partner in time travel, Alan (Charlie Barnett), inhabits his grandmother’s body in 1962 Berlin as she tries to tunnel under the Berlin Wall! Russian Doll is doing what those other girlies could only dream of doing.
Those other girlies, to clarify, are Meet Cute and Look Both Ways. Look Both Ways is the more obvious multiverse of motherhood. It revolves around a young woman (Lili Reinhart) who has a pregnancy scare on the night of her uni graduation. In one timeline, it’s just that — a scare — and in the other, she carries the baby to term. In no timeline does abortion exist, which is particularly egregious for an upwardly mobile woman with career goals in a post-Roe v. Wade America.
Meanwhile, Meet Cute centres on Sheila (Kaley Cuoco), who is aware that time keeps resetting itself, while the man she repeatedly dates, Gary (Pete Davidson; also, why in the year of our lord 2022 are the protagonists named Sheila and Gary?!), does not. Motherhood is not an explicit theme here, but internal anguish is. Sheila contemplates suicide right before she enters the time loop, using time travel as a substitute for mental health assistance. Like Alan in Russian Doll, whose attempted suicide triggers his time loop, here the multiverse is an allegory for all the different ways our lives could have turned out if we weren’t the products of our environments.
“Human beings have an amazing capacity to be physically in the present moment, but psychologically, we can be going over and over in our minds what has happened in the past,” says Dr. Marny Lishman, a psychologist and media commentator. “We also have the capabilities to be physically present but psychologically living dress rehearsals in our minds for a range of possible futures through our imagination. This can work well and we can create wonderful ideas about how we want our future to look, set goals and get excited about what’s to come. But the other side of this is that we can also worry about a range of things that can happen as well—and can distress ourselves in the process.”
Meanwhile, in literature there have been quite a few books of late that incorporate the multiverse, such as One Last Stop by Casey McQuiston, which shares a subway portal with Russian Doll, and winner of the Goodreads Choice Award for 2022, Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow by Gabrielle Zevin. But the one that (imho) explores the multiverse in the most interesting way is Emma Straub’s love letter to her father, This Time Tomorrow. Like Nadia, protagonist Alice wakes up the morning of what should have been her 40th birthday to find herself back in 1996, when her father was healthy and she was dating her high school sweetheart. Daughter of famed novelist Peter Straub, who died shortly after This Time Tomorrow was published, Straub uses the multiverse to grapple with ageing, health and parenthood, and how those things feel far more tangible in middle age than they do in adolescence.
Who knew the multiverse could contain so many meanings? Sci-fi fans, probably. But in a time when many consumers—and, crucially, creators—of pop culture are literate in generational trauma and all the ways our parents fucked us up, the metaverse has surged into popular culture. In its new cultural iteration, it’s a powerful metaphor, plot device, and method for creators to work though their issues via their art.