It didn’t hit me when, after seventeen hours of mostly calm and gentle labor, my baby, the child I was thinking of as Charlotte (or maybe Josephine), burst out with a splash, my waters breaking with the head’s emergence. I heard my doula exclaim, “Look at him!”
It didn’t hit me when Ben came to visit us in the hospital the next morning. I couldn’t take my eyes off my first born, so suddenly grown-up next to his baby brother, so proud in the button-down shirt Tony had chosen for the occasion. Ben didn’t even glance my way; he went straight for the plastic terrarium and hovered his hand over Elijah’s soft head, unsure about touching this unfamiliar creature.
It didn’t even hit me the day I was changing Eli’s diaper on the bathroom floor while Ben was sitting on the toilet, and Eli took advantage of the diaperless moment to shoot a pale fountain in the air, and Ben started laughing so hard he missed the bowl and oh, it all hit me. But it didn’t hit me.
It didn’t hit me until Tony and I went to see The Squid and The Whale (Noah Baumbach, 2005), several weeks after Eli’s birth. Watching the film’s mom talking to her boys, calling one Pickle and the other one Chicken, I leaned over to Tony and whispered, “Hey! I’m the mother of sons.” And Tony gave me a look that said, “Well, duh!” and ate another piece of popcorn.
I went home and wrote in my journal, “My boys. I’d been feeling ok about having 2 boys till out of the blue. . . a wave of real joy about it hit me. My two boys. Lucky me.”
It’s a surprising reaction to this squirm-inducing film, I suppose. After all, the film’s boys, reacting to the end of their parents’ marriage, couldn’t be more awkward or prickly. Frank (Owen Kline) is a nine- or ten-year-old who goes from innocently stuffing cashews up his nose to cracking cans of beer and spreading his semen on his classmates’ lockers. His brother Walt (Jesse Eisenberg), a high schooler who idolizes his novelist-father, makes a play for one of his dad’s writing students and plagiarizes a Pink Floyd song for the school talent show, explaining coolly, “I felt that I could have [written the song], so the fact that it was already written was kind of a technicality.”
Walt and Frank’s parents, Joan (Laura Linney) and Bernard (Jeff Daniels), are so wrapped up in the morass of feelings — guilt, jealousy, weariness, spite — that accompany her decision to divorce, they inadvertently treat their sons as accomplices. They manipulate them into taking sides, demand the kind of loyalty they’re unable to promise themselves, and share inappropriately detailed stories of past and present affairs. When Walt objects to hearing about Joan’s stockroom tryst — he’s only just learning how to kiss a girl, after all — she acknowledges her mistake and apologizes lamely, “I know, Chicken, it’s something I do; it’s a bad habit.”
Bernard was once a promising young writer; now he’s a bitter writing teacher with a chip on his shoulder as big as a stack of the “minor novels” he so frequently disparages. With his career on the wane and his wife’s on the rise (she’s got a contract with Knopf for her novel, and an excerpt running in The New Yorker), he’s reduced to firing his agent for bad-mouthing the Knicks, to trying to seduce one of his students, and to offering his wife edits, which she politely rejects.
Oh, it’s not an enviable family. And yet, despite the characters’ stilted, often misguided attempts at open communication and their frequently bad behavior toward each other, the film inspires surprisingly tender feelings toward them all. Jeff Daniels infuses the stereotype of the skirt-chasing English professor with real humanity; he’s arrogant, it’s true, but he’s often right (why do we make high schoolers read a great novelist’s lesser work, anyway?!), and more importantly, he wants to care for his sons. He’s pathetically proud of the dinner he cooks for them — veal cutlets that detour onto the kitchen floor before hitting the plate, accompanied by long, pale carrots, their tops only partially trimmed.
Meanwhile, Laura Linney’s Joan is pale and unglamorous, the very portrait of the weary mother-writer. She’s so surprised to find herself with this unexpected power — as wife, mother, and writer — over her husband, that she doesn’t know whether to laugh or cry when Bernard asks her how he can salvage their marriage. She doesn’t want marriage anymore, but she doesn’t apologize for what she does want: her home; her books; and most of all her time (with her kids; with her typewriter; with her lover), which she takes — not greedily, just matter-of-factly — whenever she can.
But mostly, of course, it’s those boys — Walt and Frank; Chicken and Pickle — with their too-grown-up names and their too-babyish nicknames, that get to me. They are skinny and pale, and I want to brush the hair out of their eyes. Walt is obnoxious, sure, and he wears his father’s arrogance like an ill-fitting jacket; he bluffs his way through conversations about movies and books, parroting his father’s opinions without troubling to acquaint himself with the work himself (he doesn’t get why a classmate laughs when he calls The Metamorphosis “Kafkaesque.”) But when Walt overhears his parents arguing, he stands listening for a moment, so delicate in just a white t-shirt and socks, then falls gently to the floor, deflated, and curls up in the fetal position. His little brother Frank is buffeted between his parents, a young boy still so uncritically attached to his mom that he insists on a resemblance between them; but when she points out gently that he has his dad’s features, he distances himself by insisting then that she’s ugly.
The film emphasizes the family’s vulnerable gawkiness by holding shots a beat or several too long — we may want to look away, but the camera never does. And so as Bernard stares at his wife’s bookshelves, searching for some sign of himself in his books on her shelf; as Joan and Walt stare at each other, shocked at how far apart they’ve grown; as Frank stares at himself in the mirror, a scrawny boy trying hard to see his mother in his own face, we come to see them all a little more generously, a little more sympathetically. They come to see each other a little more honestly, and that’s a step in the right direction.
I left the movie that night eager to return to my young and still relatively uncomplicated boys. But the glimpse of what my future might hold — I’m sure I’ll have some gawky adolescents — made me feel more protective of my little guys, and committed to looking for the sweet boys in them when they’re at their pubescent worst. I think I’ll remember this movie when none of us is quite so pretty anymore, and on days when we’re not behaving so nicely. Because although The Squid and The Whale doesn’t make any big claims at the end, doesn’t make any grand gestures of reconciliation or reparation, it offers some promising glimmers that people can survive, and even learn from, a family’s inevitable growing pains.