Ben Stiller’s character in While We’re Young has been having trouble with his wife Naomi Watts and finds himself on his best mate’s (Adam Horovitz) couch. He’s feeling a bit sheepish about this, having recently shafted his friend (who has a new baby), in preference for hanging out with indie kids Adam Driver and Amanda Seyfried.
In a vulnerable moment, unfolding linen for the fold-out couch, Stiller declares to his host that he could have been jealous of his friend having a kid.
His friend responds with the following:
“You know before you have a kid everyone tells you it’s the best thing you’ll ever do. And as soon as you get the baby back from the hospital those same people are like ‘don’t worry it gets better’. Well, like, what the f*** was all that before?”
We are fed this idea from our older relatives, society, friends, Huggies commercials, films, wives and husbands. The idea that birthing a child into our home will be a life-changing experience. One that will wipe away the doubt about our self-worth during our twenties; conceal our worries about ageing in our thirties; or validate us that we weren’t too late in our forties. We always worry that we’re behind the eight ball and all our friends are already married and having kids. We forget people ten years older, even twenty years older are having the same feeling. It happens at different times for different people. Still, there’s this expectation that any concerns we had about our esteem before the baby will be washed clean, because there will be no time left for naval-gazing.
It will be ‘baby-time’ and the only thing that will matter is that little bundle of joy. It will become the soul-focus of our attentions. Nothing else will matter. Everyone will want a piece of baby, and there will no longer be pressure on our own successes or failures, because no one will be looking. They’ll just be drooling and gawking at baby, looking into baby’s big glossy blue eyes.
I’ve not got a baby, so I’m not sure how much of this is true or untrue. My ramblings above are mere conjecture. But I’m sure of one thing, and that’s Ben Stiller’s friend was right having a go at all the people saying ‘it’s the best thing you’ll ever do’. He’s right. That’s what people do.
They pressure you into situations they drowned in. They rose-tint glass everything, as much for their own sake as yours. They’ve blocked from their mind the memories of the twenty hour labor, sleepless nights, aching bodies and projectile vomited milk products. Sure now their life may have changed for the better and have direction, but Stiller’s mate is right. One glance at a urine sodden nappy sagging from your own infant’s crutch and their quite happy to remind you ‘it gets better’, while they inch towards the door to return to their own offspring who are can now hold a conversation and an Xbox controller simultaneously.
And what of the existential level of this trickery and life-altering occasion. Should childbirth being ‘the best thing’ be reason enough for putting a bun in the oven. What about all our own unresolved life dilemmas, misspent youth and broken dreams? Shouldn’t we solve, spend and repair some of these, respectively, before shelving them in the top drawer to make emotional space for a child? How can we push the next generation, to live life to the full, when we still feel incomplete? Or is that the answer? Perhaps it is a chicken before the egg scenario, where we’re destined to have children to complete our puzzle. It certainly makes sense in terms of sustaining the human race.
The film doesn’t answer these questions, but we certainly see Watts and Stiller grappling with their childfree lifestyle to find completion in other spaces and places. The situations unfolding in the film, certainly suggest there are times in our lives when a child would probably be better left out of the picture.
As a close friend once told me, “I can barely look after myself, how could I look after a child?”
I didn’t understand at the time, his fear of placing all his own insecurities on another human being. But having taught children now, I can see that there are certainly some states of mind that are more beneficial to the healthy development of a small person. And, I would suggest, some people would be better spent being more cautious like my friend.
Yet I’m also an old romantic (when I’m not being a cynic) and still believe, perhaps ignorantly, there is an innate and instinctual part of our human condition that is maternal or paternal. And so whether or not we are glad to have children or are glad to not have children, it will be the urge towards parenthood that leads us to these decisions. If it wasn’t there, we’d not make a decision either way.
While We’re Young explores all these dilemmas deftly. It follows the complexities of parenting and being childless, from both sides of the fence. It at times treats both states as self-satisfying, while at others points both out to be selfless. It’s a trundle through the lives of baby boomers, generation x and generation y. Each generation self-reflecting their obsessions through different mediums of traditional documentary, social media and then viral video. The older generations turning their nose up at the new; a ‘documentarian’ is more credible than a ‘YouTuber’. But then again maybe not. But then again probably yes. The subplot becomes the main plot. Was this film about babies and youth? Or was it about narcissism and self-worth? I’m confused. You’re confused reading this.
The film appears a jumble of ideas at times, trying to intertwine all these things, raising as many questions as it answers. But all the while we see ourselves in it. These are the decisions we can’t make and the paths we can’t take without consequence While We’re Young.