What “My Octopus Teacher” Says About Parental Paid Leave, Child Care in America and More

It has become socially acceptable for women to be torn apart by sharks if that is what is required for modern families to function.

What "My Octopus Teacher" Says About Parental Paid Leave, Child Care in America and More
“Instead of focusing on the magical connection between octopus and human found in the film,” writes Jennifer Fischer, “we could focus on the fact that only through a mother’s demise was a father able to connect with his own child in a new way.” (Netflix)

Watching My Octopus Teacher with my two children as part of their homeschooling during the pandemic felt like one of those rare and beautiful moments of this crazy time: the magical underwater world we rarely get to see captivating our collective attention, my 9-year-old crawling into my lap to snuggle as we let the mesmerizing effect of aqua blue water take hold of us. Vivid green kelp forests, translucent jellyfish, a dizzying array of sea life pulled us in and culminated with the discovery of a curious, intelligent octopus amidst it all. She is deep red at times, blends with the sandy seabed at others, wraps herself in algae for camouflage and protection or—as in Craig Foster’s initial encounter with her—covers herself in seashells so as to be almost invisible, effectively hiding her true self. 

This was a world so unlike our own and yet this octopus’s life and Foster’s personal growth experiences as he interacted with her, offered audiences something they could relate to. Quickly, the film’s praise came, and many lauded it as “the antidote to our pandemic year.” This felt true. A story of connection that we all needed, a visceral reward at a time when most of us were only connecting with our loved ones and friends through screens. 

For 90 minutes, I was enthralled, as were my 9- and 11 year-old children who currently identify as boys. The Oscar-winning documentary did what all great films do, sitting in my bones and brain for weeks after I watched it. The beauty of the world we take for granted, the world our lifestyles threaten, the reminder to take better care of it, the reminder of life that exists beyond ourselves. 

Yet, something else about the film kept pulling at me. A thread dangled in the back of my mind. I let it be and ignored the itching it brought. Then, the end-of-year jobs report for 2020 was released: All 100,000 lost jobs in the month of December were jobs held by women. Women were exiting (or being extricated from) the workplace in staggering numbers. When I saw those numbers, I pulled the thread, and the web of tangled thoughts in my mind came unraveled. 

Sharks in the Water

At the end of My Octopus Teacher (spoiler alert), the octopus that our protagonist has befriended becomes a mother. For an octopus, hundreds of thousands of eggs will be laid, and the mother octopus’s strength goes toward tending them. Her weight and strength diminish drastically and once the babies release into the ocean, she knows the end of her life cycle is near. She crawls out of her den, no longer a vibrant red, but now white and gray, pale and lifeless, small. This time, when the shark she has evaded successfully twice before comes to find her, she makes no attempt to hide, to protect herself with a covering of shells. Other sea creatures have already pecked at her lifeless body and now it is the shark’s turn to finish the job and bring her short life to an end.

Foster watches, feeling it would be inappropriate for him to step in and it would probably not matter anyway, given what little strength she has left. He mourns her, yes, but also sees her selfless act as beautiful, commenting that she is “sacrificing her own life for her young,” expressing, even, some relief that he is free now of this being that became an obsession. 

Like Foster, I anthropomorphized the octopus a bit as well. The ocean, and the octopus, helped him “come alive” again. 

In my case, the octopus haunted me—specifically her tragic end. I saw her every time a friend of mine (a mother) passed on a freelance contract because her children’s virtual learning required so much of her time. I saw her every time a woman I interact with on social media downgraded their work, set their novel aside, quit a job or abandoned a workout routine to meet the needs of their children and the household tending that a family requires. 

I watched this happen consistently and constantly over the past year. I felt dips in attention to my creative projects, despite having a parenting and household partner who contributes substantially to childrearing, homeschooling and household chores. I noted that the majority of these women I saw passing on work opportunities, leaving jobs, deferring educational opportunities were not single parents as one might expect, but women who had partners at home, yet there was no expectation that their partners (men) would step in and assist with virtual schooling, household chores, meal preparation, and all of the rest. There is no data demonstrating that men were leaving the workplace to help teach their children or turning down freelance contracts or working less hours or skipping workouts because of increased responsibilities in the home. 

The Gender Pay Gap and the Cost of Cognitive and Emotional Labor

That’s not to say that some men are not making those adjustments, but that in heternormative families, those instances remain statistical anomalies. This outcome reflects not only gender norms, but also: the gender pay gap; our society’s refusal to honor the work of caregiving; and a lack of affordable, adequate child care in the U.S. It has become socially acceptable for women to be torn apart by sharks if that is what is required for modern families to function.

Additionally, even in households where the physical labor is equally divided, the bulk of the cognitive and emotional labor, the organization of all that the family needs, still rests on women with significant effect. The weight of these demands can leave women exhausted and depressed. 

Questioning Our Norms to Create Change

Recently, I’ve been researching early explorations of Antarctica for a novel that I’m writing. In my latest read, I came across some of the first scientific studies of the emperor penguin. In this particular journey to Antarctica, the men (and they were all men. Women weren’t allowed to travel to Antarctica until the 1950s) observing the emperor penguins found them astonishing on many levels. They nurse their eggs in mid-winter in Antarctica, in unimaginable cold and darkness. They nest in one of the windiest places in the world, and they take turns sitting on the eggs—mother and father, sharing in the task equally.

One of the men specifically comments on the “excessive mothering instinct implanted in the heart of every bird, male and female, of the mortality and gallant struggles against almost inconceivable odds.” 

What "My Octopus Teacher" Says About Parental Paid Leave, Child Care in America and More
In May and early June, the female emperor penguin lays a single egg, passes it to her mate, then heads back to sea. She’ll be back in two months to continue her parental duties. (Christopher Michel / Flickr)

In the emperor penguin stays, nature offers us an example of what is possible and what is necessary for a healthy and whole society. Parenting during a pandemic has felt, for many of us, like a “struggle against almost inconceivable odds” and a struggle that would benefit from a “mothering instinct” shared equally by women and men, including the cognitive and emotional labor of parenting. 

Perhaps the lesson, the antidote, that My Octopus Teacher is offering is not the one that was so easily seen. Instead of focusing on the magical connection between octopus and human found in the film, we could focus on the fact that only through a mother’s demise was a father able to connect with his own child in a new way. Perhaps, we can look at this film and push ourselves to question a set of systems that stretches women thin, pulls them apart, and demands severed tentacles in an effort to keep everything afloat. Perhaps it can inspire us to create a society of emperor penguins and to put in place the support structures (equal pay; adequate and affordable child care; adjusted gender norms; and the like) that would offer mother and father penguins the opportunity to thrive. 

When I asked my mom friends if they’d seen My Octopus Teacher, eager to discuss all of the feelings about mothering that the film stirred in me, the large majority replied that they simply hadn’t had the time. 

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Jennifer Fischer is a writer and filmmaker whose work has been featured by Vice News, ABC, Univision, NBCLatino, Fusion, NBCBLK and others. She has an essay forthcoming in the book What Is a Criminal? to be published by Routledge Press in 2022. She is the executive director of Journeys in Film. She can be found on Twitter @IndieJenFischer.