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This New Kids’ Movie Gave Me A Parenting Wake-Up Call

It hit hard me as both a daughter and as a mother.

Written by Laura Onstot
Originally Published: 
screenshot from Disney/Pixar's Elemental

When I settled into a movie theater seat to watch Elemental with my 5 and 7-year-old daughters, I assumed it would be a science-themed movie about the periodic table of elements. But He (helium) and Fe (iron) never showed up. I really should start watching the trailers.

Instead, Elemental is set in a New York-like city, populated by flame, water, cloud, and earth beings. The reviews have been mixed, and the movie itself is a bit of a mishmosh of rom-com elements and topical commentary on issues like immigration and xenophobia. But there’s another theme running throughout, one that really caught my attention and held it: the main character spends her life trying to please her parents, even though it makes her miserable.

The movie follows young flame Ember as she struggles to separate her path from the path her parents want her to follow. Her parents, Bernie and Cinder Lumen, immigrated to Element City when Cinder was pregnant and spent the years that followed working hard to build a business called The Fireplace. Ember tries her best to help, but her anger flares whenever she deals with difficult customers. Her flame gets larger and burns brighter, like an erupting volcano, or my youngest when she loses her sh*t.

Ember’s father is aging, often taking breaks to cough dark billows of smoke, and wants to pass the family store to her. But first, she has to prove herself by running the “red dot sale” by herself. When a customer removes the red dot stickers from every item in the store and asks if they can purchase just the stickers, her anger flares and she eventually erupts, setting parts of the store aflame and causing a water pipe to burst and flood the basement.

It gets worse as she frantically tries to fix her mistake before her parents find out. She meets a city inspector, Wade Ripple (water element), who informs her the store is not to code and must be shut down. But they join forces to save the shop after she shares the story of how her parents sacrificed so much to build the business. “Smells like love,” my 7-year-old whispered to me, who already has a firm grasp of genre tropes.

But the moment that really struck me came when Wade asks Ember what she wants to do with her life. She looks less than excited and tells him she’ll take over the family store. She returns to the story of her parents and says, “The only way to repay a sacrifice so big is to sacrifice your dream too.”

From my seat in the movie theater, I could see the flaw in her reasoning. But I could also relate to her. I personally traded many of my dreams as an homage to the sacrifices my parents made to raise me.

I wanted to be a neurosurgeon, but my parents convinced me I would be a better nurse. My GPA wasn’t high enough, and besides, didn’t I want a family? They didn’t like a guy I was dating, so I dumped him. They didn’t like my bangs, so I grew them out.

My parents worked tirelessly to raise me and my siblings. Though they never said anything, I believed I owed them something. Because they were my parents, I thought, they must know me better than I knew myself.

It wasn’t until I became a mother that I realized this was not a sustainable way to live. When it was just me, it was easier to absorb the impact of following a pathway that wasn’t mine. But when my daughter came along, it impacted her too. When I kept trying to be someone I was not, I was unable to be the parent my daughter needed me to be. But perhaps, most importantly, I was unable to be me.

In her book Untamed, Glennon Doyle writes, “A woman becomes a responsible parent when she stops being an obedient daughter.” I often think about that quote, and I think it can be expanded beyond parenthood. The discovery of true self is impossible if a person remains bound by the grips of remaining an “obedient child.”

I tried explaining this to our daughters over pizza after the movie. “Sometimes, you might not want to do something we want you to do, or might be scared to tell us about something you are excited about. That’s okay. We want to hear about it.” Six-year-old chimed in: “So… if we don’t want to clean our room, we don’t have to?”

Elemental hit me on two levels. It hit me as a daughter, revisiting my relationship with my parents. And it hit me as a mother, wondering how I can open space for my daughters to be who they are, while also teaching them life skills, like keeping their room moderately clean.

When Ember finally gathers the courage to tell her parents she doesn’t want to take over the store, her dad tells her that the store wasn’t his dream, “You were the dream. You were always the dream.”

Maybe it’s not about perfectly parenting, but instead, about recognizing when I’ve crossed the line, compromising who my littles are, or squelching parts of their personalities. And once I recognize it, to remind them (and myself) that my dream is not their dream, and their dream is equally important.

In the last scene, when Ember boards a ship to leave home, she bows to her dad and he bows back. I teared up over the beauty of his blessing for her to be herself. I looked over at our 7-year-old — she also had tears in her eyes. “I’m never leaving you,” she sobbed. And while I wish she never would, it will be the greatest honor when she does. When she pursues her dreams, when she lives outside of my influence, when she is her own unique person. That, I think, would be a great achievement as a parent.

Laura Onstot writes to maintain her sanity after transitioning from a career as a research nurse to stay-at-home motherhood. In her spare time, she can be found sleeping on the couch while she lets her kids binge-watch TV. She blogs at Nomad’s Land, or you can follow her on Twitter @LauraOnstot.

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