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Deconstructing Coraline (Part Four)

If you never read Coraline and don’t want to know one smidgen about the book (I am being careful not to spoil it), don’t read these posts. They are about infertility, but they springboard off the book.

Willy Wonka: But Charlie, don’t forget what happened to the man who suddenly got everything he he always wanted.

Charlie Bucket: What happened?

Willy Wonka: He lived happily ever after.

When Coraline goes into the Old Man’s flat while looking for the lost souls, the voice inside promises her everything she wanted before she ever met her Other Mother.  The material items — such as the green gloves or the Wellies in the shape of frogs — but also a parent who understands her need for adventure and interaction and is able to provide it.

Coraline’s response:

Coraline sighed.  “You really don’t understand, do you?” she said.  “I don’t want whatever I want.  Nobody does.  Not really.  What kind of fun would it be if I just got everything I ever wanted?  Just like that, and it didn’t mean anything?  What then?”

It’s the familiar concept that the sweetness of the victory is contingent on the struggle.  Those things that we think we want that are easy to get really aren’t appreciated and might not even have been deeply wanted if push came to shove.  Coraline’s point is that humans don’t want life handed to them in a neatly wrapped package.  We want to work towards things, struggle — that’s what Coraline calls the “fun” part of the process.

Would you like to debate her right now?

I’m sure anyone who has really struggled with something such as … oh … let’s say family building might have a different view point about the benefit of struggle.

Yet there have been many posts up in the ALI community about whether infertility makes you a better parent; and if not “better” in the sense of knowing all the verses to “Wheels on the Bus” and being an expert diaperer, does it make you a more patient parent, a more appreciative parent in the same way that if you have food all around you, you may not stop to marvel at a meal in the same way that you would if you were once starving?

I think it’s a little offensive to think that the struggle makes you a better parent.  I can think of plenty of people who reached parenthood with ease and are kick-ass parents, and plenty of people who did multiple rounds of IVF that really suck as parents.  And I can think of the opposite too — those who didn’t struggle and suck, and those who did struggle and knock the figurative parenting baseball out of the park.  It all seems a little too much like a crap-shoot to look at this as a “if … then …” situation.

So what of the process?  What part of struggling is necessary in order to build us into who we become?  And where do you fall with life overall — are you closer aligned with Willy Wonka or Coraline once you get past the frustration of your current situation?  If given the choice between always receiving anything you ever wanted without working for it, or having to gather your own happiness, which would you choose? (Think of the big picture beyond the here and now.)

Disclaimer: I have finally reached the end of Coraline, and I liked it quite a bit.  Enough to start reading Good Omens when I finish reading the vampire smut novel I’m currently on.  Perhaps it’s more indicative of where my head is in how I read Coraline, but I couldn’t help but see all of us within this book; within her frustration for how what she wants is mismatched against what she has, and the struggles she needs to go through to reclaim what was there all along.


1 N { 12.22.10 at 7:53 am }

I think I’d like a little of each. I certainly wouldn’t want to have to work my ass off and fight for everything, but I do think there’s SOME truth to Coraline’s POV. Extrapolating it, I wouldn’t use the word “better,” I don’t think that the struggle makes people better parents, in the ways above, or the ways described in the various discussions found all around. I do think, though, that *most* of the time (there’s always an exception to prove the rule, don’t you know, and I know one or two of those exceptions) that it makes you a more AWARE parent. Aware of what you have. And yes, you can have that awareness without the struggle, but it does seem to be more rare, and you can have the struggle without the awareness, but again, in my limited experience, it seems to be rare.

To bring things around to my own experience, as we humans are wont to do, am I glad to have gone through the struggles that have happened in regards to my brother’s death? Certainly not. However, they’ve brought me so much knowledge and awareness that I wouldn’t have otherwise. I am not the person I was before he died. I wouldn’t want to be. Could that awareness have come without his death? Certainly, I’d have preferred it. But if it had come to me innately, without some kind of journey or struggle, then I probably wouldn’t even notice it was there. (And, more importantly, I’d probably flaunt it about and people would think I was an obnoxious git and I wouldn’t have any friends.)

2 Elizabeth { 12.22.10 at 7:55 am }

I loooooved Good Omens, but I’m also a diehard Terry Pratchett fan.


About the struggle – I think it’s a little more complex, like you say. What you do with the struggle, how you take it on, has a lot to do with the stuff you’re made of and with the person you become. I don’t know. Most of the time I feel like I suck at parts of the parenting process (establishing good habits, sleep and otherwise) and excel at other parts of it (playing, making crafts, responding to emotional needs). I don’t think that my struggle with infertility contributed much to either of these aspects of my parenting. I do think the struggle did color how I experienced my daughter’s birth, however, and shaded my love for her with a poignancy that is almost painful at times. Whether that has made me a better parent or not, I don’t know.

I think any struggle in life – like, say, abject poverty – can make you a better person or a worse one depending on a million different factors, including how you rise to meet it.

3 a { 12.22.10 at 10:16 am }

I’d like a mix of both, please. Because sometimes what you want (more than the supposed actual goal) is the challenge. Most of the time, I’d rather just have the goal, but the challenge does sometimes add to the experience – i.e. You get what you wanted plus a sense of accomplishment. I think, though, this should never apply to biological functions.

4 Journeywoman { 12.22.10 at 10:24 am }

If you’re going to read more Neil Gaiman read, Neverwhere, and read the Sandman series of graphic novels.

5 caitsmom { 12.22.10 at 11:58 am }

UGH. What a question. I wish to be normal sometimes, and just not have to work so hard to be happy with what is. Success in the face of challenges is sweet. Also the struggle is being happy with what has come easily and being happy despite other forces destroying my efforts to achieve what I want. I get tired.

6 HereWeGoAJen { 12.22.10 at 12:11 pm }

For me (and I only speak for ME), I think my wait did help make me “better.” Maybe not in anything I do, but there is always the tiny little thought in the back of my mind that she might not be here at all, so go ahead, throw up on me.

Or maybe this is a better way to think of it. I’m probably about the same parent that I would have been anyway, but I likely appreciate it a little more.

7 Kir { 12.22.10 at 12:27 pm }

I think that working for something is not the same as struggling. Stay with me here, if I go to school and work hard and make the grades etc to graduate I will accept that diploma with open hands and an open smile…I didn’t “Struggle” to get it, I just did the work.

with infertility it is always a struggle. Because you do the work, (take your temp, take your clomid, go to your appts, read your books, chart your graphs, learn the finer points of needle prep) but you also can not see the culmination each time. You are doing work and you might not be getting positive feedback every month. It’s a struggle to get to do it, you’re up against unforseen stuff every time.

I think that if it came to $$$, I have to be honest, I would want it handed. Being the person I am I would rather someone just hand it over. Make it easy, let me have the safety and security of it.

but the other stuff, some days I am glad for the struggle of my family, my marriage , my “Self” because it taught me things. It has me GRATEFUL and AWARE..APPRECIATIVE. I wouldn’t trade those feelings and I don’t know if I would have them in the way I do if I didn’t have to struggle to get here.


8 Rebecca { 12.22.10 at 3:52 pm }

Good Omens is amazing. Srsly.

9 TasIVFer { 12.22.10 at 7:31 pm }

A friend and I were having a similar discussion last night, but in regards to gift-giving holidays and birthdays. We were talking about how when we were children neither of our families had much money, so Christmas and birthdays were these amazing holidays where we received gifts – things we’d never get during the normal course of the year. And how when we both started earning money how much it meant to finally be able to give our parents gifts gotten with money we’d worked for.

However ‘those kids these days’ seem to get everything immediately. To be honest my husband and I have most things we want (not a nice house or amazing car, but certainly not just scraping by). And if we see something during the year that’s the perfect gift for the other, we just get it.

It’s taken the magic out of Christmas. It feels like an obligation to give gifts to people who really have all they need. There’s so much stress about finding the perfect gift that people just give up and give gift certificates, which though they can be nice are sort of a bizarre idea.

The part that should be essential to the holiday is the getting together with loved ones – a scheduled pause from normal life to just be together and be gluttons on holiday food. (The food is essential because it highlights the specialness of the event; as does being a glutton.) I think what used to make presents good was the struggle and rarity – and I think that’s gone.

10 Emby { 12.22.10 at 9:07 pm }

I’ve really enjoyed your Deconstructing Coraline series. I’ve not read the book or seen the movie. Maybe I’ll do both now. I was a little creeped out by the button eyes so I never watched the movie.

11 Bea { 12.23.10 at 4:30 am }

I think we’re built to need a certain amount of “striving”. A bit like a dog is built to need a certain amount of running around and chewing on things. Uh, unflattering as that analogy may be… But think how being unemployed – even on generous benefits – can sap one’s happiness.

But I don’t think all forms of adversity are equally good, and I would prefer to be in control of what I strive for/where I direct my efforts. Daisygal made a distinction between working and struggling – both are effort, but one can feel good and the other can be horribly discouraging. Studying towards a degree appeals to my nature and (although sometimes nerve-wracking or frustrating or whatever) it is the type of effort that feels good. Perhaps, for others, academic pursuits feel awful but physical effort feels right. IVF is the type of effort that runs dead against my nature and feels absolutely shithouse and I could really do without it. If I could only control what type of effort I wanted to put in to life (and the amount).

As for making a better parent – I once heard someone (who had their first easily and their next hard-won) say there’s a “different feel” to parenting after infertility. Not that they love their children differently or that they were lesser parents to one than the other (apart from basic experience, I guess?) or anything like that, but it is a different ball game, in their experience. It sounds like a fair way to put it. And as someone else above said, infertility isn’t the only way to come by certain insights or attitudes, neither is it a guarantee of change, but I think there are common threads for the “average case”.


12 Bea { 12.23.10 at 4:35 am }

Oh, and, P.S. Speaking for myself, I think I have definitely gained something from the infertility experience. Did the gains outweigh the losses? That’s a whole ‘nuther topic 😉


13 Shana { 12.23.10 at 11:53 am }

That quote from Coraline reminds me of the concept in Kabbalah teachings of Bread of Shame. The idea is that no one wants everything handed over to them on a silver platter. Getting everything without working for it and feeling deserving of it brings a certain amount of shame to the recipient.

Have you ever seen a small child try to do something, and have trouble doing it, and when you try to help the child yells “No! I do it!” Same kind of thing. The child doesn’t necessarily want the task completed so much as wants to accomplish the task and know that he/she can do something through their own effort.

Applying the concept to fertility is certainly more complicated. I suppose it might make a difference whether all the work and effort and pain ended with the goal achieved or not. Ask me in another year if my perspective is changed.

14 Bea { 12.23.10 at 3:19 pm }

Ooh, I have just come back here and I think Shana has it.

The thing with infertility is you work and you strive and at the end of the day, even if you’re successful, you know that it was mostly just dumb luck after all.

Which is very different from studying towards a degree or training for a marathon where you know it was “10% inspiration, 90% perspiration” and therefore you deserve the result.

Infertility has this rare place where it’s shitty work and still leaves you feeling like you didn’t deserve your good result! The best of both worlds. And at the same time – frustratingly enough – even the breeziest pregnancy can be viewed as deservingly-hard by those who lack any other perspective, and a whole host of people congratulate themselves on their fertility because “they didn’t leave it too late” or “they researched the right time to have sex” or “they lead a healthy lifestyle” as if that makes all the difference. Sometimes it seems as if you have to go through infertility to really get how little control you have over reproduction and so, paradoxically, the infertile patient can end up feeling less deserving of the result of their efforts than the one-hit-wonder, despite having gone through so much more struggle.

Actually, I wonder how widely that one can be applied? Struggle can often lead to humility, and it can often lead to pride, surely, but what amounts in which circumstances and why?



15 Amy { 12.26.10 at 2:01 pm }

As others have mentioned, I don’ t think it’s an either/or question. Certainly working for a goal is a valuable human experience, but struggling is not the same as working. As has also been pointed out, when an infertile couple conceives, they are lucky—they didn’t necessarily work any more or less hard than any other couple.

I would say I learned a lot about giving up the illusion of control, and a lot about patience, over the course of my IF struggle. While those lessons probably lent me some maturity or something, I can’t say I’m glad I had fertility problems. I think my husband and I would have raised children conceived easily much the way we are raising our IVF conceived children. I don’t think we are better parents than other people whose children were more easily conceived. Might we be better parents than we would have been? I don’t know.

I want my sons to have strong work ethics, and to be ambitious men with reasonable goals. I want them to learn the value of money and not take things for granted. But I don’t want them to struggle with infertility or some other health problem, or poverty.

16 Grace { 12.29.10 at 3:51 am }

Both, of course. You assume that you have to gather your own happiness. You work harder at it than you ever imagined you would have to work at anything. And when happiness comes out of nowhere you appreciate it so very much more than if you’d expected it to come that way.

And Good Omens is brilliant. I rarely reread anything and I’ve been craving this one lately.

17 Cherish { 12.30.10 at 1:45 pm }

I think you grow from struggles, but maybe not in the expected way. I don’t think IF will make me love my children more or be a better parent. It has helped me make close friends and become closer to my husband and God. It has helped me learn that everyone is struggling with someone even if they don’t look like it. I know that we are all blessed and challenged in different ways. I have learned to redefine myself so my success as a woman is not dependent on my status as a mother.

(c) 2006 Melissa S. Ford
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