The Parent Trap: There’s Something Wrong With The Children (Roxanne Benjamin, 2023)

The Parent Trap: There’s Something Wrong With The Children (Roxanne Benjamin, 2023)
As if... she must choose.... between child and boyfriend!!! A subtle framing choice.

Welcome back to the Halloween Special! This year, we're doing changelings and bad fairies to celebrate the impending release of The Neighbors in trade paperback.

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I started to have very different fights with people when I had a baby. I’d come up in feminist circles, where a lot of us were vocally against compulsory motherhood, myself included, and many of the people I worked with were clear that they did not want kids. They could tell you that women were historically defined as mothers and nothing more. They could tell you that it was impossible to have a high-level career and do the lion’s share of child-care. They could tell you that women who didn’t have children were typecast as sad or selfish. With all of this, I could agree. I still do.

And yet: When I had a child, I noticed how often those stances came packaged with a quiet contempt for parents. There seemed to be the assumption that parents had “chosen” their lot in life, and that if they were ever overwhelmed, or in need of help, or if they complained in any way, they were ungrateful. These friends knew how unaffordable childcare was. They knew that not every mother is a mother by choice. They had all, presumably, read the same things I had about motherhood as a major vector of workplace discrimination. Yet, when the subject came up, the implicit assumption was always that those women had gotten themselves into that position by not being as smart or progressive or hard-working as women without kids.

It got really bad during COVID. Women were being pushed out of the workforce by the millions because they were saddled with the sole responsibility of childcare — even women who were married, sometimes especially women who were married, had this problem — and everyone’s big feminist issue of the day was that parents were being whiny on social media. Don’t you like your kids? Shouldn’t you be happy to spend time with them? One woman loudly declared that, since she was struggling with infertility, it was offensive for women with children to complain about them. Someone else thought it was rude for parents to suggest that non-parents didn’t understand what they were going through, because she knew exactly what they were going through, because she had a dog. No-one could understand why colleagues with kids were allowed to be slow or distracted during Zoom meetings, like, can’t you just turn the kid off and stick it in a corner? What do you mean, they “need to be supervised?” We’ve all got problems, Debbie, I have a toaster strudel that I’m pretty sure is getting burnt right now, but you don’t see me slacking.

I lost a lot of mutuals during the Parent Wars. I lost respect for people and people lost respect for me. People I’d known for decades would be complaining about women who brought their babies on airplanes, and even though I’d heard them doing this dozens or hundreds of times, all of a sudden, I was able to think, of course the baby is on an airplane with her! It’s a baby! What is she going to do, tie it up in the yard with a bowl of dog food until she comes back? Disaster ensued. 

There’s Something Wrong With the Children is not the best movie I have ever recommended for this newsletter. To be honest, it’s a bit of a mess, and it totally falls apart by the second act. The premise — a married couple with two children and an as-yet childless couple take a vacation together, where the children are soon replaced by changelings — is a lot more fun than the generic slasher it turns into. Still, it is smarter than most of the movies I have seen about how those fights work. 

My recommendation of TSWWTC (phew) hinges almost entirely on its first act, which plays like a fun little indie movie about a friend group that is coming apart. The character work is very good, if painful to watch: You’ve got the married couple who loudly, passive-aggressively despise each other, and the friends caught in the crossfire. You’ve got the people whose sex lives are getting weirder, and the people who want things to stay more or less the same. There are the dudes trying to outdo each other with beer and/or masculinity. (Is it more man to be Daddy, or not be Daddy? To find out, they must fight!) There are the women, who seemingly have a great relationship, until one of them accidentally says that the reason she doesn’t have kids is that she’s an interesting person with a fun life. 

Then the younger couple offers to babysit the kids, to help their friends salvage whatever’s left of their marriage, and obviously they immediately lose the children and get them replaced by evil changelings, because people without kids understand nothing! Nothing! about! life!!! For a hot second, the fractures in the group are revealed by an argument about (a) whether the kids are evil and (b) whether the kids became evil because this younger couple shat the bed on the whole “babysitting” thing, and you think you’re going to get a whole movie about this dynamic. I would watch that movie. I would like it a lot. 

That’s not the movie that happens. In this movie, the kids are giant bugs (???) and the mom dies first because she’s the least interesting or important character (of course) and there’s a lot of running around and screaming and an on-the-nose speech and some halfway-choreographed action sequences that never land quite as well as you’d hope. If you want to see a better version of this — and, I mean, it’s a lot better — you can check out The Hole in the Ground, an Irish movie from 2019 that plays its changelings very literally in the slow-burn A24 style. Some people rag on The Hole in the Ground, because they’re sick of the A24 style, but it will at least scare you. This movie will not. 

Even if the movie never quite delivers, though, I really do enjoy that first act. If the character work had extended into the kills, it’d be a lot of fun. Furthermore — just to be an asshole — I would say that There’s Something Wrong with the Children doesn’t actually know how interesting it is, and for a very familiar reason. It fumbles its core tension because it only cares to flesh out one half of the argument. By the end of the movie, it’s clear that smart people really, really, really do not want kids. 

The idea of a changeling — of a child that’s not what you thought it was, not what you wanted — has haunted us for centuries, if not millennia. It’s a core human fear. Most parents worry about being the kind of parent who cannot love or understand their children. Many of us were that kind of child to our parents, which is why we’re scared of passing down the injury to the next generation. 

It’s not our children that we fear, though. It’s failing somebody — and most of us will fail our children, at some point, just as most of us were raised by parents who occasionally failed their kids. Some failures are forgivable and some aren’t. The kid decides which is which, or they will, once they’re an adult. Until then, you’re living on borrowed time, hoping you wind up with the first set of problems. 

That responsibility is hard to live with, especially when all of your former friends are telling you that you’re a bad person if you don’t find it easy, or that it’s rude to ask for help or patience, or that it’s your job to be completely invisible and unobtrusive in their child-free lives. Changeling stories are about parenting, but it’s not the children who become different people. It’s the parents. It’s a wonder that we ever get along with the original copy’s friends.

I don’t get along with all of my old friends, and some of them were very important to me. It’s sad, but this is how it works: If you are alive, you change, and in every change, people fall by the wayside. I have created a new life — two new lives; hers, and mine — and there is a price to pay for that. I sometimes wish I had been warned about what would happen. If I had been warned, I would have done it all the same. 

There's Something Wrong with the Children is streaming on Amazon Prime.

At my other job: I'm leaving my other job. The program that pays me over at Medium is folding. Lots of that content will migrate over here, and I sure could use the money to support my own terrifying child, so once again, here's the button: