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Deconstructing Coraline (Part One)

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.

People have often told me that I would enjoy Neil Gaiman’s books, so I started two this week during my stint at the library.  And they’re right, at least insofar as Coraline. (It’s taking me much longer to get into The Graveyard Book, which I checked out on the Wolvog’s account, and I’m hoping this doesn’t screw him up when he goes in this week to take out his umpteenth book on care of guinea pigs — do you think he’s trying to send me a hint?).  It is wonderfully creepy in the usual wonderfully creepy sense — rats crawling over bodies, neighbours with invisible mouse circuses, and — of course — doors which sometimes open up into strange, dark worlds.

It is also making me squirm in the not-so-creepy sense.  In the hitting-a-little-too-close-to-home sense.

Take, for instance, the premise of the book.  Coraline, pretty much ignored by her parents, finds a door in their new house which leads to a similar-yet-different world where her other mother and other father are waiting with good tasting food and lots of toys and love galore — waiting for a little girl just like Coraline to heap on all of their love.

Do you see what I mean by discomforting?

“We’ve been waiting for you for a long time,” said Coraline’s other father.”

“For me?”

“Yes,” said the other mother.  “It wasn’t the same here without you.  But we knew you’d arrive one day, and then we could be a proper family.”

I’m not sure what Gaiman’s experience with infertility has been if at all (according to Wikipedia — and I take everything written on Wikipedia as incontrovertible fact — he has three children; but you never know how families come about), but these first encounters with the other parents feel very familiar to me.  As in, they feel like me, perhaps without the button eyes.

There is a scene where they show Coraline a false memory of her real parents being thrilled that they are rid of her and can finally do all the things they wanted to do but were held back by having a child.  The other mother says,

If they have left you, Coraline, it must be because they became bored of you, or tired.  Now, I will never become bored of you, and I will never abandon you.  You will always be safe here with me.

Back when I was a teacher, I had a conference with a student’s parents that I was told by their child were fairly absentee.  During the conference, I mentioned the tiny comics the boy always drew, and they looked at each other blankly.  I kept saying, “the comics, the illustrations, the ones he does in that notebook that he carries around.”  They had no idea.

I went home and cried to Josh, “they have a kid and they don’t even know him.  They’re not even grateful that they have him in their life or interested in who he is.  And we’re the ones who can’t have a child?  And they can procreate?  If he were my child, I’d know about the comics.”

I said this hundreds of times during my years as a teacher.  I would see parents who I deemed unappreciative.  And it’s hubris to think like that; to think that you’d be different if you were the parent.  That you’d be perfect and never get bored and never yell.  You’d appreciate every single day you had with that child and always know what is important in their life.

After all, I was a damn fine teacher and babysitter.  Everyone commented that I had infinite wells of patience.

I wanted a child so badly, that I started looking at all other parents as the people who took my child, my space at the parenting table, as if there were a finite number of parents in the world.  I would look at their tantruming child and think, “if they were mine, they’d be happy.  If they were mine, they wouldn’t be lying on the floor of Target, sobbing loudly.  So how come that person can be a parent and not me?”

There is something about the other mother in Coraline, her insinuations that she would be different if she could move into the spot of real mother, that hit a little too close to home.  Because I’ve thought these things before.  And while this book may be labeled a tale of horror because of the crawling rats and blank, button eyes, for me, it’s scary to take a step back and reexamine the thoughts I had back when I was sitting behind the teacher’s desk, conferencing with parents, and coveting so badly that I would make any promise to get out of that pain.

Those promises are unkeepable.  Most parents are doing the best they can do.  And even grateful parents grow bored sometimes or angry sometimes.  Even parents who care a great deal miss the fact that their child is drawing tiny comics during school hours if their child chooses not to show them the notebook.  That infinite wells of patience can dry up when the right conditions present themselves.  And the world can’t all be pancakes-for-breakfast and lullabies-at-night forever.  That real life gets in the way of the fantasy, and that most parents are just trying to balance it.  As best they can. Under the circumstances.

This post is for everyone who is at their wit’s end today.  This post is for everyone who wonders if they could really do any better if they were the parents.  This post is for everyone who is still waiting; still coveting; still hoping that a child walks into your life.

Disclaimer: I am midway through the book, and these are my thoughts midway through the book.  I may have a very different reaction to the other parents once I get to the last page.


1 N { 12.08.10 at 2:52 pm }

(note: I haven’t read the book, but have seen the movie several times, and Neil Gaiman speaks VERY highly of the movie.)

I’ll be interested to hear your thoughts when you get to the end. There’s a scene in the movie (I keep meaning to check out the book and failing) that made me WEEP. Still does a bit. Anyway, I’ll be interested to hear.

(and recommend that you check out Good Omens, and American Gods)

2 BigP's Heather { 12.08.10 at 3:15 pm }

Neil Gaiman’s book Stardust (also a movie) is fantastic!

3 Journeywoman { 12.08.10 at 3:29 pm }

Coraline is great, but seriously, pick up Neil Gaiman’s graphic novels–The Sandman.

Start with Preludes and Nocturnes


4 kim { 12.08.10 at 4:22 pm }

Haven’t read or seen it, but I will now. And this post rocked me to the core. I’ve said those things. And I constantly question my assumptions that I would BE that parent, the one who was infinitely patient and kind and team mom and everything. Because I’m not. I work and it’s hard and I’m impatient and dammit get in your room it’s 10 freaking oclock at night.


Thank you. Looks like I’ll have a post brewing about this one too.

5 a { 12.08.10 at 4:36 pm }

I’ve never read Coraline (but I did read American Gods, which was good), but it sounds intriguing. I think I was very lucky to have come from a mildly dysfunctional enough family to realize very early that parenting is hard. I’ve not been one to make assumptions about relationships – if you asked my sisters, they had an entirely different set of parents than I did. I got those dream parents…according to my sisters, anyway.

My daughter is a delight, but lately she is a practicing comedienne who won’t stop talking. She does goofy things that are absolutely not funny and then asks if it’s funny. So I get to be the humorless Bringer of Doom, who tells her to stop the nonsense before she hurts herself or me or something. That’s very tiresome. Also, I like silence. And really, she does not stop talking. She even talks in her sleep. I bet she would like to find that door most days…

Can’t wait to read Part 2…

6 Nelly { 12.08.10 at 4:59 pm }

During the custody battle of all custody battles which lasted, what…9 years?? His step-mother (aka the other mom) is a nut. I won’t even go into the details (having to do with a restraining order). My son and I watched this movie together. This movie HIT HOME about wanting something so bad but never being as loved as you thought you were going to be. I hope someday my son realizes this.

7 Christina { 12.08.10 at 5:18 pm }

Whew- that movie/ book…..it’s deep….it’s a bit creepy…..I’m SO interested to see how your thoughts change when you get to the end of the book!!!! (Though I’ve only seen the movie and it’s very possible that the book varies greatly) I actually LOVE the name Coraline and thought about choosing it….but this movie creeped me out a little bit too much and I fear if I do, my eventual child will be cursed with button eyes! Juuuust kidding

8 Kristin { 12.08.10 at 5:26 pm }

Wow, it sounds fascinating. I have, of course heard about Neil Gaiman, but I’ve never read anything detailed about his books. I’m going to have to add them to my reading list.

9 tara { 12.08.10 at 5:48 pm }

i love neil gaiman’s stuff. i thought some of the same things when I first saw the other mother in the movie… your post also makes me feel a bit better about having my son having a complete tantrum in the hospital parking lot this weekend right after the tour of the family birthplace. i kept thinking, everyone must be looking at me & saying “why are they getting to have a child, another child- it’s not fair” and wondering why i couldn’t make my child happy all the time.

10 Annie { 12.08.10 at 7:17 pm }

I love Coraline, though it was a bit dark for my kids. Funny, I’m working on a post based on Coraline as well, about how I’ve become the Other Mother.

11 Delenn { 12.08.10 at 7:34 pm }

I have not read Coraline, but I loved the movie. I have read the Graveyard book and enjoyed it. (My son actually had it as a summer reading list option, so he read it first)

I like your point and I know what you mean about “other parent” symptons…had them too before.

12 Heather { 12.08.10 at 9:24 pm }

I’ve had the other parent thoughts before too. Although I do think I’m a pretty good mom now that I have my children, finally that 12 year relationship with my RE has provided me with 3 kids, just that the last 2 came at once. Whew!

My 10-year-old daughter loves the movie Coraline. She’s in a phase where she does like dark, ironic kind of stuff.

And I don’t think I’m a perfect mom, and I don’t think my kids are always happy, but I do think that 99% of the time, I’m doing what’s best for them and that’s different.

13 kylie { 12.08.10 at 11:27 pm }

It’s been a while since I read Coraline, but my lasting impression was the idea that what you want/think is better for you is not necessarily so and may come with higher costs than you are prepared to pay.

Apart from Stardust, I also really enjoyed Anansi Boys which is about discovering that you have a family that you were never aware of in adulthood and the problems that can arise.

One of the traits of a good writer is that in telling a story that may seem so fantastical they manage to capture and reflect something in the reader that is connected to their life.

14 luna { 12.09.10 at 1:39 am }

never read it but did have an odd sense of unease that I couldn’t quite articulate while watching the movie. it wasn’t so much how I coveted as much as how desperate and manipulative the other mother was. I did not want to feel like that character.

15 edenland { 12.09.10 at 7:02 am }

My sons teacher at school has infertility. She has tried for so so many gut-wrenching years, suffered countless miscarriages (one very recently) … as well as the full-term stillbirth of a child.

My heart aches, weeps for her. I’m not supposed to know all this, she would be mortified if I knew. (It’s a small town.) Once, I went in to have a rant about Max not being able to go on camp because it was full … and I saw her sitting there and just left, without saying a word. How the fuck can I complain about camp – about anything – when she has the deepest pain inside her?

– Sorry for the long comment, Mel. And thank you for the space to vent it. I hope she has friends to talk to, about it all. Friends that people find here on your site.


16 Anna { 12.09.10 at 8:47 am }

Neil Gaiman is great! And I adored Coraline, even if I am a bit of a total scaredy cat and spent a few extra minutes (read: hours) shivering under the covers listening to the random creaks in the house while my family slept.

Your post reminds me of and instance awhile back, Christmas season 4 years ago. I was 24, he was 22, we had been married and off birth control over a year and had found out that May that he was infertile. We had been treated pretty harshly by many adoption agencies, had been down right turned away from several programs, had just had a horrific homestudy experience in which we were treated like crap and talked down to, and we were really, really hurting and just praying that by next Christmas we could maybe, just possibly, have our child in our arms. I was at a bookstore waiting at the information desk for service behind a mother and her children. The children were laughing and playing and running and just generally being cute and boisterous. The mother was frustrated beyond all reason and kept snapping at them. Finally the staff got to her and I don’t know what they asked but her response was something like, “no, I wish I could do that, but I have these two children!” And she literally snarled as she said “two children.” They helped her and she kept snapping at those bouncy kids and all the while I wanted to scream “Do you know what I would give for two bouncy, happy, laughing children? We’re in the process to adopt what will probably be a highly traumatized and developmentally delayed child and here you are with two perfectly happy, sweet children and you have the gall to speak about them like this? In front of them no less?”
The next Christmas we were celebrating with our new son, just home from Ethiopia. And I’ve been back to that bookstore a million times, because it’s close and has a train table my older son loves. And sometimes when I’m there I do snap or raise my voice or get frustrated. It happens. I have no idea what that woman was going through. Perhaps the children had been awful all week and she was just trying to survive? Perhaps she was going through a tough time, like a divorce or being laid off at work? Perhaps it was just a single bad moment in the middle of a good day? I don’t know. What I do know is that those children were really smiley and happy, and that couldn’t have happened if their mother was 100% resentful and bitter. And now as a mother myself I know that while I love my children with every fiber of my being, they can really get on my nerves sometimes!

17 April { 12.09.10 at 11:34 am }

I’ve read Good Omens and American Gods, but not Coraline. However, we do own the movie and it’s wonderfully fun and creepy to watch. I hope you enjoy the book.

As for the watching and thinking about how if I was a mother, my child would never do (insert bad behavior here), I find myself doing that as well. Thank you for the reminder that sometimes the parents are doing the best that they can and that we as outsiders don’t know what is actually going on in the family.

18 loribeth { 12.09.10 at 11:58 am }

I haven’t seen the movie or read any Gaiman, but I can see why that would freak you out a little. I can see the infertile would-be parent’s perspective, of course (“I could be a better parent than she is!”)

But it also sort of makes me think of all the times when I was a kid that I was mad at my parents, & wished I had someone else’s Mom & Dad. Of course, the older I get, the more I realize how great they really were (& still are). ; ) Even without children of my own, I have a much better appreciation for the things they were dealing with at the same time they were trying to parent my sister & me, and how hard it must have been for them.

19 Keiko { 12.09.10 at 3:25 pm }

Really excellent post Mel. The creepiness of the Other Mother is quite palpable when you put her words in the context of the IF experience. Just a really great post with a lot for me to roll around in my head and digest; looking forward to your thoughts as you finish Coraline. I might go have to pick it up myself now.

20 Bea { 12.10.10 at 7:12 am }

Hm. Kind of feel like I should read it now.

I don’t know if I had too many of the same expectations. My own mother was too imperfect, and yet I still tended to think she was one of the good ones/better ones. Plus she spent a great deal of time trying to deconstruct both sides of the child/parent relationship in the hopes of getting us all to understand each other a little better (maybe it worked in the long run, or at least for her in the short run, or whatever). But in a situation (infertility) that doesn’t give a damn about desert, it’s pretty easy to make those sorts of claims. I wonder what Neil’s experience with family building was?


21 Barb { 12.11.10 at 9:53 pm }

Awesome post.

And I agree that Good Omens is fabulous. American Gods is an amazing concept, well written and very interesting, but just a little bit over the “different” edge.

22 Kir { 12.13.10 at 9:46 am }

Oh Mel, you have NO IDEA how much I needed this post today…and lately. I am at my wit’s end, thinking that I could do it SO MUCH BETTER..why won’t they listen, why do they make me cry every day, why am I not better equipped??? and then I read this and I know that I am doing the best I can. That all those years of wondering and “Knowing for sure” that I would be “better than those other parents” were just the way to keep me going. That all of us (Well MOST OF US) are really doing the very best we can. And are so happy for the children in our lives.

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