Of Terminator and Motherhood: Why My Mom’s Franchise Fandom Finally Makes Sense

Terminator 2

The last Christmas I spent with my mother, we watched two movies of her choice: Casablanca (1942) and The Terminator (1984). Between rounds of chemo and radiation for the cervical cancer which would soon be declared terminal, Mum had little energy to do more than watch TV. Twenty-three at the time, I skipped the usual holiday revelries at the local pub to join her for a glass of wine and fill in some of the gaps in my cinematic history.

Casablanca made sense: the romance, the impossibility of love in the face of war, Humphry Bogart’s irrepressible charm and Ingrid Bergman’s timeless beauty. But The Terminator? For someone like my mother who swooned over anything featuring Hugh Grant, a sci-fi jaunt about time-traveling robots trying to kill a post-apocalyptic resistance leader seemed oddly out of character. While Mum gripped the armrest and squealed each time Arnold Schwarzenegger came close to taking out a barely grown Sarah Connor, I couldn’t help but roll my eyes at the gaping plot holes and paradoxes in the spacetime continuum. Mum teased me: “Aisling, can’t you just enjoy it?” After a turbulent adolescence during which I scorned anything my mother enjoyed as pop-culture fluff unworthy of my time, I put aside my cynicism and decided to give her movies, and this rare moment of calm between us, a chance.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, it was Casablanca that stuck with me in the aftermath of her loss. Over the years, watching it on her birthday with a glass or two of red wine became a way of feeling close to her and honoring the few moments of tranquillity we shared as adults. Fourteen years after her death, I might have forgotten Mum’s love for The Terminator if it weren’t for my favorite movie podcast, You Are Good. While recovering from Covid-19, I started listening through the archive and watching the corresponding movies, until I found my way to Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991) and hit play.

Finally, Mum’s Terminator fascination began to make sense.

The movie opens with Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton) telling us of the nuclear holocaust and subsequent war against the machines that’s fated to occur on August 29, 1997—and how once again, a Terminator (the T-1000) has been sent back in time to kill her son, John (Edward Furlong), now ten years old. Suddenly, Hamilton’s distinct, gravelly voice transported me right back to that last Christmas with my mother. Grief is funny like that, defying time and catching you out when you least expect it.

Immediately, I was enthralled by a rebooted and ever-so-butch Sarah doing bench presses in a high-security psychiatric facility. This is no mild-mannered waitress trying to come to terms with the imposition of pregnancy and the burden of mothering a potential messiah. This Sarah can free herself from restraints with a stolen paperclip and take down all the men who had tortured her during her imprisonment with a broom handle and syringe.

Faced with the T-1000, who tracks her to the institution, Sarah needs more than a broom handle to escape—and luckily, she’s saved by an exact replica of the Terminator that tried to murder her in 1984. Left with no choice but to trust him, she and the machine retrieve John and flee LA for the desert. By this stage, John and the Terminator have begun to bond, much to Sarah’s distaste. And yet, she muses: “Watching John with the machine, it was suddenly so clear. The Terminator would never stop, it would never leave him, it would never hurt him… Of all the would-be fathers who came and went over the years, this thing, this machine, was the only one who measured up. In an insane world, it was the sanest choice.”

Finally, Mum’s Terminator fascination began to make sense. The monologue captures what every child needs from a father, but also a mother’s hope for how her partner might fill this role; it’s laced with the disappointment of what happens when reality (too often) falls short of expectation. When The Terminator premiered in 1984, my mother, only a year older than Sarah Connor, was expecting her first child: me. By the time Judgment Day came out in 1991, she was a single mother with three children under the age of seven. It was rare to see any positive representation of single mothers on screen in the 80s and 90s, least of all a total badass with a secret cache of weapons who’s determined to save the world. Viewed through this lens, Terminator 2 is about far more than robots and post-apocalyptic messiahs; it’s an homage to single mothers and the difficulties with which they’re confronted.

What if motherhood is what gives Sarah Connor the drive to fight for the future of the human race?

My mother wasn’t battling time-traveling robots, but she was struggling to secure a minimum of child support through an unsympathetic court system in Ireland, where a constitutional ban on divorce remained enforced until 1996, and in which single motherhood was heavily stigmatized. Maybe she needed a hero, and Sarah had provided it.

It’s a bleak world that Sarah inhabits in Judgment Day, as she plots to save the world from the evil Cyberdyne corporation. Living on the edge, her main associates are a dubious collection of other outlaws, ex-US counter-insurgency operatives, and those living at the margins of capitalism. At her hideout in the desert, two children shoot at each other with toy guns. The Terminator, in a rare moment of insight, says, “It’s in your nature to destroy yourselves.” The movie seems to ask, why bother saving humanity at all?

In 2022, our world is also looking pretty bleak. We’ve had two years of governments failing to protect people from a debilitating and deadly virus, and many more years of world leaders putting profit and special interests above the increasingly urgent climate crisis. The present is a nightmare in which we remain trapped, and the future is shadowed by the growing probability of our planet’s inability to sustain life.

Watching Judgment Day, I cared far less about the paradoxes in the spacetime continuum than I did about Sarah’s own paradox—her choice to bring a child into a world whose future is terribly uncertain, even threatened. Her conflict is perhaps more relevant than ever to our current reality: how can we bring more children into this world while conscious of an impending climate catastrophe? Millennials and Gen Z are questioning the reproductive imperative more than any previous generation. As a queer, neurodivergent 37-year-old, I’m painfully aware that motherhood in the 21st century implies clashes of desire, fear, and the impossibility of denying that any potential child of mine will inherit a wounded, if not dying, planet.

The biologist and feminist theorist Donna Haraway invites us to ensure the earth’s ability to survive and heal, at least partially, by making “odkin,” not babies. Odkin is an invitation to deconstruct the nuclear family while cultivating kinship bonds between plants, animals, human, and cyborgs. This can mean including companion species within our domestic life, like cats and dogs, or working to protect species and ecosystems in danger of extinction. Odkin, queer kin, and multispecies bonds give me hope of finding other ways to create family beyond the configuration of mother, father, and children.

I also know that bringing children into this world has little to do with logic and everything to do with love.

And yet, in renouncing motherhood, a part of me would mourn this unfulfilled desire. Can individuals be asked to forgo our own futurity and bear the burden of planetary survival? In a fragmented, alienating, and quarantined social world, is making odkin enough to fulfill our basic needs for human connection, affection, and community? Or can we balance, as Sarah Connor does, these two contradictory positions: the desire to parent in the face of potential world-ending scenarios.

My mother never doubted I would have children, and she looked forward to having plenty of grandbabies to dote on into her old age. She died at 47, long before any grandchildren would arrive, and her death threw me into a tailspin, leading me to question all the assumptions of my existence, particularly my desire to become a mother. As I inch toward 40, my life is a millennial cliché of housing and employment precarity. A biological precipice, complicated by health issues, hovers in the middle distance, while the climate catastrophe becomes ever more concrete. Motherhood often feels like an imprudent—if not downright ridiculous—consideration. But I also know that bringing children into this world has little to do with logic and everything to do with love.

What if motherhood, and the sliver of hope embodied in her son’s existence, is what gives Sarah Connor the drive to fight for the future of the human race? Rather than the Terminator, who simply follows orders, Sarah’s quest to ensure planetary survival makes her the true hero, subverting the messiah narrative that drives the plot of both films.

Sarah closes Judgment Day with another poignant, brief monologue: “The unknown future rolls towards us. I face it for the first time with a sense of hope. Because if a machine, a Terminator, can learn the value of human life, maybe we can, too.”

Our planet’s future, though terribly uncertain, isn’t written in stone. There’s room for hope. Is there still room for motherhood?