Independent video games have brought us bizarre protagonists, such as a turnip that commits tax evasion in Turnip Boy by Snoozy Kazoo (2021) and a goose who terrorizes a quaint English hamlet in Untitled Goose Game by House House (2019), so somehow, a game focused on a single mother is less absurd but more unusual. This groundedness allows Best Month Ever!, a game by Warsaw Film School (2022), to show us how our capitalist system takes mothers’ lives for granted.
Best Month Ever! is a narrative-driven game that uses dialogue choices as its primary mechanic. It is set in 1969 and focuses on a single white mother, Louise, with terminal cancer. This means that Louise, who has virtually no social support, must travel across the United States to seek care and shelter for her young Black son, Mitch before she dies. In the process, she makes choices that determine the person Mitch becomes.
As Best Month Ever! opens, an adult Mitch narrates that he didn’t really know his mother. Between the time Louise works for subsistence wages and all the slack Mitch picks up because Louise is away from home so often, they rarely talk. One day, Louise collapses. Not letting on that this is a much greater problem, Louise tells Mitch they are going on a vacation road trip. The adult Mitch explains that this vacation, which was the last month of his mother’s life, was his “best month ever” because it was the first chance he got to know his mother.
It took this life-changing event to provide time for them to catch fireflies and stare at the stars together, to talk about what it means to be a good person, and whatever else parents and their children should have the leisure time to do together in their normal lives. Before this “vacation”, Louise and Mitch, though mother and son, were virtually strangers, alienated from each other by Louise’s long work hours, which, given their circumstances, is virtually compulsory in their realistic capitalist society.
Louise and Mitch’s journey begins with a stop at the diner where Louise works as a waitress. She needs to pick up the cash they will need for their trip—wages her boss has withheld from her. Wage theft is still rampant in the United States, hitting those who make the lowest wages the hardest. A study by the Economic Policy Institute found that, among women who suffer minimum wage violations, about one-third of their wages are illegally withheld from them. An even higher proportion of those wages are stolen in cases involving single parents.
Her boss eventually relents, in a twisted way, conditioning her re-payment on a sexual favor. Unfortunately, this kind of situation is common—for example, about one in eight women employees in New York State report being subjected to quid pro quo sexual harassment by their employers. Single mothers feel more financial pressure and may be particularly vulnerable to such harassment. Louise could reject her boss’ offer, clear out the cash register, and set his car on fire. Unfortunately, working single mothers in real life do not have such an option.
Out of desperation, Louise seeks refuge from her long-estranged family. The family expresses “subtle” racism toward Mitch but seems open to taking them both in. This, however, is met with a condition: Louise’s grandfather tells her that she needs to apologize to a priest who attempted to molest Louise as a child. Mothers are often compelled to stay in abusive situations to provide basic needs for themselves and their children, like money, shelter, food, or access to health care. These extremely coercive forms of abuse are barely recognized by law in the United States. At every turn, Louise must “negotiate” for necessities that are rightfully hers.
We exist in the same milieu as Louise, where capitalism and patriarchy mutually reinforce each other, making the lives of mothers more difficult. Since the deregulation of several key industries, which began under Jimmy Carter’s administration (1977-81), and the transition from the post-war Keynesian consensus to the hegemony of supply-side economics under Ronald Reagan (1981-89), economic inequality has become more severe, and the gap between production and wages has widened. Though gender-based pay discrimination has been illegal since 1963, the gender wage gap has not narrowed since the early ’90s.
Arguably, the economic circumstances for single mothers are more precarious now than in the ’60s. Housing prices keep rising at rates far outpacing gains in wages. The Roe v. Wade-destroying Dobbs v. Jackson decision will make family planning much more difficult throughout most of America, introducing great uncertainty into mothers’ lives. Indeed, the landmark Turnaway Study by demographer Diana Greene Foster found that women denied abortions were found to be four times more likely to fall into poverty. Racism also motivates and is motivated by this capitalism, making matters no easier for mothers like Louise.
Sociologist Nancy Fraser articulates two approaches to addressing how economic factors and patriarchy create circumstances hostile to women who want to support themselves and their families in Fortunes of Feminism (2020). One approach, the universal breadwinner model, seeks to promote employment among women and, when achieved, promote equal pay for women. This approach has been the framework most liberals and feminists have been operating for decades. This is reminiscent of Betty Friedan’s important work from 1963, Feminine Mystique, which describes a lack of fulfillment in the expected roles of women as wives, mothers, and housekeepers.
The alternative approach is the caregiver parity model. Fraser notes that this model is more ambitious than the universal breadwinner model and, rather than prioritizing employment for all, it seeks to elevate those who perform informal caregiving work. The idea is, rather than making everyone breadwinners (regardless of their own needs and wants), to make it so caregiving and breadwinning roles are on par so women and men can enjoy similar levels of dignity and well-being. This would be achieved by using public funds to support caregivers. If put forward in good faith, such public support would render many dilemmas mothers faced, like those faced by Louise in Best Month Ever!, lesser or nonexistent.
This recalls the critique of Friedan’s Feminine Mystique by many socialist and Black feminists like professor bell hooks, who, in Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center (1984), described Feminine Mystique as catering to white, bourgeoisie women. hooks noted that, unlike their more privileged counterparts, many poor, black, and single mothers were obliged to work low-paying jobs to make ends meet and wished they could spend more time caring for their children.
The ongoing focus on the universal breadwinner has spawned a pernicious form of feminism articulated by Sheryl Sandberg, chief operating officer of Meta (known as Facebook by those of us not fond of shell games), and Nell Scoville, creator of the 1996 sitcom Sabrina the Teenage Witch, in their 2013 book Lean In, which places responsibility (and, implicitly, blame) on women for their successes and failures and emphasizes the need for women to assert themselves. This book, which cites Friedan as an inspiration, was roundly criticized by bell hooks as “faux feminism” that “packaged the message of ‘let’s go forward and work as equals within white male corporate elites’ in the wrapping paper of feminism.” “Lean In” feminism places blame on mothers in a society that does not support them.
The truth is that either approach if its ambitions were achieved, would substantially improve current conditions. Indeed, Fraser proposes the universal caregiver model, which combines both models and emphasizes the need for parents to do both kinds of work. Many poor mothers like the fictional Louise live in a society requiring them to be breadwinners, which hasn’t helped them. Lean In feminism, built on this same breadwinner focus, is far removed from the concerns of mothers like Louise (and, indeed, is probably hurting them).
The lesson of the cultural currency attained by Lean In in the mid-2010s is that we place too much emphasis on the need for everyone to produce (or, in the case of executives like Sandberg, exploit), even at the expense of themselves and their children. Under the material and social conditions of our place and time, we need to shift towards the caregiver parity model, which supports those mothers, like Louise, who need it the most and whose uncompensated labor props up society.
Mothers should be able to raise and support their children free from economic constraints imposed on them by artificial scarcity. If a mother wants to perform labor outside of being a mother, she should feel free to and encouraged to pursue that; if a mother does not want to perform labor outside of being a mother, that is more than enough. There is no “just” being a mother. Mothers should not have to work in an extra-maternal context to justify their being.
These suffocating constraints are captured in the player’s choices, as Louise is given Best Month Ever! These choices are hard. As the player, you do not know the correct choice. For example, should Louise take the pittance her boss is offering her or demand her earned wages, which she desperately needs for her and her son, and therefore burn one of the few bridges she has? Situations like this invoke the nagging feeling Louise is experiencing in the player. You, the player, and Louise, the protagonist, share the feeling of not knowing if you are making the right choices and not knowing if your choices matter. The gameplay in Best Month Ever! per se is not enjoyable. This tension inherent in the decisions made, however, makes the brief moments of respite especially poignant.
These include a stargazing minigame in which Louise describes the constellations to Mitch, which is one of only a few fleeting moments of peace for the two. There is also a brief driving section in which the player takes control of Mitch as Louise lets him take the wheel on an empty country road to teach him how to drive, which, like much of this game, has minimal ludonarrative dissonance; in this case, it is because the poor driving controls are consistent with the fact that Mitch is only a young boy who has never driven before. The tense choices make these moments of connection so much more meaningful and satisfying because, in the backdrop of this seemingly impossible situation, Louise and Mitch are experiencing glimpses of the mother-son relationship they could have had and, in the process, they are attaining some sense of closure.
In the most poignant advice The Best Month Ever!‘s Louise gives Mitch, she says, “The world shouldn’t change you—you have to change the world.” We should heed Louise’s advice and not blame mothers but create a society supporting them. If Louise lived in a country with universal healthcare, she may have been able to treat her cancer more proactively. If Louise had higher wages, union representation, paid parental leave, or a guaranteed income not tied to her extra-maternal wage labor, like caregiver support, universal income, or even extended unemployment benefits, she may have been able to spend more time developing a richer relationship with her son or in her community establishing social supports. If Louise had better access to abortion or birth control, she may have had more agency to plan her family as she saw fit and choose to be a mother.
Indeed, mothers everywhere would benefit from better public education or publicly funded daycares. We know what to do to create a better society for mothers. The underlying factor that stands in opposition is the profit motive; such changes conflict with profit seekers, whether from the healthcare industry, a charter school profiteer, or simply an employer trying to extract the most labor they can from their workers. Capitalism, the system that emphasizes capital accumulation over all else, is anti-mother.
Best Month Ever! emphasizes choice as its primary mechanic, but for Louise, most choices are already made. We live under a system that gives little breathing room for mothers to live or raise their children well. The many ways we could change our society to support our mothers better are clear, which poses the question: if we love our mothers, why don’t we show it? We know the answer.
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