When my son Ben was a baby, I felt so isolated by new motherhood that I scheduled myself into a mom and baby group nearly every day, moving from Newborn Connections to Day One to Natural Resources, where facilitators listened to our stories of sleeplessness and crying jags and weird-looking diapers. Ben was fussy, but I generally returned home with a guilty yet useful sense of schadenfreude: at least I wasn’t feeding him with an eyedropper; at least he was healthy; at least he didn’t cry six hours a day (only two). Even better than the moderated groups, though, was the casual playgroup that developed among my friends with babies the same age as Ben; by the time he was a few months old, I’d settled into a good routine, alternating the moderated groups with a regular Monday-morning gathering at each other’s houses. We’d drink tea and nurse and let the babies roll around together as we swapped stories of frustrations and small successes. For years, even as second kids arrived and our older kids started preschool, no matter how long the preceding night (or weekend) had been, I could count on starting the week with a boost from this maternal companionship.
While that Monday morning group has dissipated, my circle of friends has now expanded to include parents from my sons’ schools. Recently a couple of them joined me to see the beautifully-filmed new documentary, Babies (Thomas Balmès, 2010) and because of the company, I found myself thinking more about the film’s moms than the babies, even though it’s those babies that sweetly fill the screen. The film’s focus is on the first year in the life of four kids: Hattie in San Francisco; Bayar in Mongolia; Mari in Tokyo; and Ponijao in Namibia. Spliced together from over 400 hours of film shot by a few fixed cameras in each location, without any commentary or dialogue beyond whatever conversation was picked up by those cameras (and without subtitles or dubbing for the three non-English speaking families), the film offers an interesting portrait of how kids in different parts of the world get their start in life. Although we don’t see exactly the same milestones or moments in each family, we do see most of the four mothers pregnant; we see where each of the babies is born; we witness some first words and first steps; and, most of all, we see each baby interacting with his or her mom, with other kids, toys, and animals. The filmmakers don’t always stack corresponding scenes from each baby’s life together but it happens often enough that, somewhere between National Geographic documentary and art film, Babies expresses a subtle point of view.
Establishing shots of the four locations are followed by the film’s title superimposed over an image of crowds walking a city street. From the global to the individual: we move into a dirt-floored hut, a title announces that we’re in Namibia, where two babies, one bigger and older than the other, sit pounding a couple of rocks and then start to struggle over a grubby plastic water bottle. The little one bites the bigger one, who responds by pulling at the little one, who throws her arm over her eyes, crying out dramatically at the injustice of it all. I expected an adult to lean into the frame and intervene, but the scene continues a beat or two more before, off-camera, a voice speaks and the little one toddles out of the frame. The baby remaining in the scene resumes pounding rocks. A title now announces we’re moving a few months earlier — notably, the film’s only jump in time. We see a woman grinding a powdery dye to rub on her pregnant belly and then, after the off-camera birth, we see baby Ponijao nursing, her skin the same rich brown-red of the dirt floor.
I’ve seen the movie twice and I can’t stop thinking about that first scene and the subsequent jump back in time. It’s a funny moment, this little struggle over the bottle, and it gains great significance from opening the film. We see quickly enough that Ponijao isn’t ignored or left to fight all her own battles; on the contrary, she spends most of the film in her mom’s arms, nursing, or crawling around to explore her world (water bottles, rocks, and all) in a group of other kids, never far from her mom’s — or another mother’s — reach. She’s abundantly well-tended, and her community looks like a very dirty, Purell-free (not to mention running water-free) version of my old playgroup.
So I couldn’t help but think of the opening scene when later in the movie we see another bit of sudden baby violence. This time it’s San Francisco’s Hattie, who lives a life not so different from the one my baby boys led: she rides in a shopping cart at the grocery store; she goes to mom and baby yoga; she attends music classes (and like Ben always did, makes for the door when the group begins to sing); her parents read parenting books and take Hattie to the same beaches and playgrounds I went to. It all looked very familiar and comfortable until I saw Hattie reach out and smack her mother, who exhales a quiet “Ohhh, Hattie!” and smiles just a bit condescendingly as she pulls a book called No Hitting! off the shelf. “Remember that one?” she asks.
It’s one of the few moments of dialogue in the film at all, let alone one of the few that will be understood by the film’s biggest audience, so, like the opening scene, gains extra emphasis. And it made me wonder, am I that kind of mom, the teachable-moment mom, with a book for every event? Or are we to think that all middle class, white, urban moms are? I don’t happen to own No Hitting! but I certainly read my share of parenting books back in the baby days; much as I might like to romanticize the Namibian life, I’m undeniably more like Hattie’s than Ponijao’s mom. A documentary filmmaker has to work with the footage s/he gets, of course, but with 400 hundred hours of film, it’s hard not to see the scenes as selected on purpose to make a quiet point, idealizing uncomplicated rural parenting over the interfering urban parent.
It happens again in a sequence alternating Tokyo’s Mari and Mongolia’s Bayar. Mari lives in a sleek modern apartment in a Tokyo high rise; sitting in front of her bins of toys, she plays with a wooden disk and stick, but she can’t get them to do what she wants, so she flings her arms over her head and rolls back in frustration. Meanwhile, Bayar sits in his rug-covered yurt playing with a roll of toilet paper. He’s got a rope around his waist to keep him from wandering off (his parents are herders who take similar measures with both animals and kids). He’s smiling and happy as he slowly unwinds the roll. We cut back to Mari, who tosses her toy away and, as the scene progresses, gives in to dramatic, gasping cries as she kicks her legs. Bayar starts chewing on the paper, a big grin on his face. The editing feels baldly judgmental.
Luckily, most of Babies just lets us watch these babies, without any hint of the critique implicit in these distinct scenes. The babies are funny, fascinating, and just a little bit boring — just like all babies! So it’s their moms I keep coming back to: Ponijao’s, who casually rubs baby poop off her leg with a dried corn cob; Hattie’s, who airplanes her daughter in a yoga class; Mari’s, who nurses her baby and smiles indulgently when the cat tries to get in on the milky action; and Bayar’s, who rides home from the hospital, her new son swaddled tightly and her toddler perched in front, on a motorbike (it takes her a few uncomfortable attempts to swing her leg over, and I could feel the other moms in the audience cringing with me). I wish I could wave away the gaps in time and geography to bring us all together with our babies; of course we would discover more than the obvious differences in our lives and parenting styles, but, as in my real baby group, I like to think we wouldn’t judge each other but instead learn one more way to get through the day. Because even just getting to know them on film, I felt great moments of connection with each of these nameless women, whose babies are cute, but would be nothing without their moms.