Mother-daughter relationships and social change: reflections from watching ‘Everything Everywhere All at Once’
Story by Madhumitha Ardhanari I recently watched the film ‘Everything Everywhere All At Once’ and realised how profound it was for my life and social change journey. For the uninitiated, it is an absurdist comedy drama where a woman jumps through various alternative universes to vanquish an unknown evil. I did not know anything about the film going into it — a friend gave me the topline and I joined her at the cinema because I really like Michelle Yeoh. It was absurdist and hilarious but also incredibly poignant, a tender examination into Asian immigrant experience, family dysfunctionality and intergenerational love. I could not stop thinking about it and the next day, could not stop writing and journaling about it because it so deeply affected me.
For some context, I have always had a tough relationship with my mother. My mother and I know we love each other in a stoic and deep way but have a challenging experience on a day-to-day basis — we were born in different countries and to different times, and we often clash on things important to us like marriage and partnership, femininity, purpose and notions of what ‘The Good Life’ entails. Sometimes, I feel like an alien in my family and often feel misunderstood. This has been a huge source of sadness for me, something to rectify or escape.
Pre-pandemic, I had a conversation with the lovely Surya Turner, then facilitator at the Atlantic Fellows Programme for Social and Economic Equity. We were understanding my need to step in to assuage, soothe and make people feel heard when someone in the group felt misunderstood or judged by others. As I spoke with her, I began to realise for the first time that my relationship with my mother was deeply intertwined with my social change work. Rightly or wrongly so, I had felt so deeply unseen by my mother that my social change work — be it about decarbonisation, human rights or food equity — was about seeing and defending parts of the world that are often unseen or marginalised. It was also the first time I clocked that beyond the challenges, my mother and I share many qualities that shape how I show up for social change: incredible stubbornness and optimism, a fierce sense of duty and leonine love for family, as well as a deep curiosity and childlike wonder for the world. This was important for me because I was acknowledging that, like it or not, both the beauty and challenge in our mother-daughter relationship was core to who I am and how I show up in the world.
Back to the movie and the now. Multiverse and absurdism aside, the storyline was rather straightforward with a simple and powerful message that was worth unpacking. What I took away from it was that better family for me (and anyone with challenging family dynamics, really) is not necessarily about fixing something that is ‘broken’ or running away but staying with what is difficult. Or as eminent ecofeminist academic Donna Haraway calls it, ‘staying with the trouble’. In the film’s penultimate chapter, the mother and daughter agree that they have a tough relationship, that they often don’t like each other but that this will not stop loving one another or wanting to fight to protect the other. The love is what makes the rupture in the relationship all the more painful. Nothing substantively changes in their relationship but there is a form of acceptance that things are tough, that it is not an uncomplicated Pollyanna-style of love, but this acceptance is not one of stoicism or about bearing one another’s company either. It is more of a softening, and opening — that is the fundamental transformation that Michelle Yeoh’s character goes through. And perhaps equally profound, similar to the mother character in ‘Turning Red’, is her realisation that she’s stuck in an intergenerational pattern of tough love and rigid parental expectations. That her need to escape the tedium of her life come stems from internalising her father’s expectations of her and not loving herself. Without loving herself, she sees her husband’s love as a weakness rather than what it truly is: full of gentle love and a yearning for greater emotional intimacy. When she grows into herself and accepts that love, she is able to accept her daughter’s homosexuality and embrace her daughter’s partner as part of the family. This softening and self-acceptance radiates out to different parts of her life that again, as I write, is not about changing mother-daughter dynamics but about staying with the trouble and growing into those fissures in the relationship. We talk about boundary setting a lot nowadays and I see how important that is. But I can also see that it is this softening and a greater self-love that I need to grow within and hopefully model for my future children. If I don’t break the pattern, I end up extending it.
The larger takeaway here is about what all this means for social change work, given how much my personal journey is tied to my relationship with my mother. As I watched the film, my friend and I were pondering about the role of absurdism and comedy. The raucous humour and silly absurdism personally had a softening effect on me. I was practically goo by the point of the climax, where the main character’s moment of breakthrough just destroyed me emotionally and awakened me in a way I had not really realised I needed.
Watching ‘Everything Everywhere All At Once’ and thinking about my own relationship with my mother, I could feel how breaking patterns of injustice in the world-at-large has to start with you and me. I knew this in an intellectual way but to experience it emotionally was cathartic. It is a necessarily emotional experience to see the world as is, embrace its cracks, bear witness to it and then soften to it instead of hardening our hearts or turning away from it. As the wonderful deep ecologist and zen Buddhist monk Joanna Macy says, “The most radical thing any of us can do at this time is to be fully present to what is happening in the world.” So much of the social fragmentation and polarisation is attached to dogma, with a hardening of our minds and hearts around ‘what is right’. Activism that comes from a place of hardness and stays that way risks making us see very narrow pathways to what can be, thereby being myopic and potentially extending harm. Softening, I think, is not being filled with a conceit that we can change the world through our actions but realising that we can show up differently and stay with the trouble, gently, gently, gently. I feel sometimes like that is the best work we can do.
About the Writer
Madhu Ardhanari is a Principal Sustainability Strategist at Forum for the Future, a sustainability and systems change non-profit organisation. She is an ardent wonderer of imagining what a better world could look like through leading projects such as ‘Protein Challenge Southeast Asia’ and ‘Shaping the Future of Responsible Recruitment’. Outside of work, she basks in the beauty of the world through hiking, nature immersion and writing.