You may not know that in my spare time (ha!), I’m also a bit of a film buff/reviewer. I’ve interviewed my share of A-list film stars and directors, and I’ll take you with me when I cover the Tribeca Film Festival for the Forward next month. I love the feeling when the lights go off and the screen lights up with other people’s stories. And one film I saw recently about parenting made me think, wow, you’ve got it all wrong.
Friends With Kids is the newest film which, like I Don’t Know How She Does It, “exposes” a deep dark parenting secret that in fact, everyone in the universe already knows. I Don’t Know How She Does It, (a poor film reflection of the terrific book of the same name) revealed the shocker that Being A Parent Makes Balancing Work And Life Difficult. I know…I should have told you to sit down first, right? Sorry about that. And Friends With Kids unveils the surprise that Kids Will Change Your Relationship.
Now, should you pay a sitter $15 an hour or so to sit in a theater and be told that by attractive people? There’s some irony to that (though not as much as getting a sitter to have a date night to go see Revolutionary Road in the theater. Come on–that is some depressing shit.). I did, and I have to say that the sheer novelty of being in a theater without having to take anyone to the bathroom seven times or to repeatedly buy snacks that the kids dumped by accident might have been worth it.
The film itself, though, was bleak and predictable–and hey, according to the film, that’s just like marriage with kids! Jennifer Westfeldt, who you may remember from Kissing Jessica Stein, wrote, directed, and stars in the film, giving a smaller part to her real-life long-term partner Jon Hamm (i.e. He Of The Perpetual Five O’Clock Shadow). The extremely good-looking real-life pair does not have children, for whatever reason, but it’s hard not to read this film as a bit autobiographical as a result.
In the film, Westfeldt’s character, Julie, and her best friend, Jason (Adam Scott), see their friends with kids locked in marriages that seem more and more like death throes, as what seems to be a direct result of having had children together. Ben (Jon Hamm) and Missy (Kristin Wiig), who used to be so passionate that they would slip off for quickies in restaurant bathrooms, now have a child and despise one another. Two kid parents Leslie (Maya Rudolph) and Alex (Chris O’Dowd), unlike Ben and Missy, seem unlikely to kill each other outright–their preferred mode is slow, painful demise by nagging, crankiness, and sloth.
Fun, right? Yeah, fun. So Julie and Jason decide to have kids without marriage, and that way they’ll avoid all the angst. Oddly enough, it doesn’t work out that way.
The movie is sort of superficial yet watchable in a Sex and the City sort of way, but as a parent, I want to address the underlying question: Do Kids Inevitably Kill The Romance? Having had two marriages worth of experience, I can definitively say that the answer is no.
Hold up, the more cynical reader will say. Spare us all the crap about how you and your new husband walk around with little cupids around you 24-7, despite having a baby and two other kids. Your first marriage ended in tears, Jordana, with you leaving the house with a 3-year-old and a 1-year-old. Sounds like they were two little romance-killers to me!
Well, incorrect, Sherlock. Don’t get me wrong: the romance of my first marriage is indeed extremely dead and has been for a very long time. But my two diametrically opposed experiences with marriage have effectively shown me that it’s not that kids kill passion or romance. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that my marriage now shows me that it’s just the opposite, but more on that later.
No, it’s really that kids are like truth serum for a partnership. Before you have kids, you may be married, but you retain a blissful independence. And that independence is emotionally synonymous–or at least a mood homonym–for youthfulness, for possibility, for potential, and for freedom. Before you have kids together, you can operate as you like. Of course, you’ve committed to be true to each other, sure (hopefully), but if you have to go to Stockholm on a business trip at the drop of a hat, or if he gets sick, or if your mother-in-law decides that the maxim is “house guests and fish stink after seven days” (it’s three!! Three days!!), it’s really not a big deal. You are rational adults. You can handle things together in a rational way. You can sleep hangovers off. You can go to the gym to blow off steam rather than argue.
But when kids come, the veneer of rationality and decorum is stripped away, leaving what is truly underneath utterly exposed. If you’re married to a selfish person, it’s suddenly far more visible when he opts to go away for the weekend with his buddies rather than cancel when you’re stuck at home with a vomiting toddler. When kids come, you are irrevocably tied to the child and your life is completely changed–the sun, the orbit point of your life, has shifted outside your own body and into someone else’s. And if your response to that is different from that of your partners, you are really (if no longer literally) screwed.
I’m not entirely sure people without kids can understand this on the visceral level that parents can, and perhaps that’s why the film fell flat for me. While it showed the bad and the ugly, it didn’t really show the good until the very end (albeit indirectly–because oddly, the kids themselves in this film are nothing more than smiley caricatures as opposed to real people).
And what is that good? It’s that having children can deepen you as a person and deepen your capacity to care and love another person. And that depth can inspire new and deeper love for your partner as well, despite all the bullshit about who folds the laundry or picks up the crayons. Children aren’t just mess and noise machines: they are our chance to taste a small part of the gloriousness of what it means to create a new world. I can’t think of anything more romantic. Okay, maybe a long weekend in Tuscany. But then let’s come back to reality. After all, it’s a great place if we let it be.