I have this friend whose daughter can make him cry almost instantly. All she has to do is sing the first few bars of some song from her childhood and he just loses it. His reaction is totally involuntary; the memory evoked by that song resonates with him so strongly that he just can’t hold it together when he hears it. The daughter is in her thirties now, and for years I watched and (I admit) laughed as she turned him into a sniveling mess in about four seconds.
Boy am I paying for it now. I have two kids, aged seven and three, and sometimes all they have to do is look at me wrong (right?) and I just lose it. Not only am I constantly perched at the edge of some kind of invisible emotional tipping point at all times, but having kids has also wrecked the way that I interact with pop culture – especially movies – in two important ways.
One is obvious: I have a really hard time watching movies involving the mistreatment or death of children. I remember seeing a trailer for that Hugh Jackman/Jake Gyllenhaal movie Prisoners a couple of years ago and thinking, I bet that’s going to be pretty good; it’s too bad I’ll never, ever watch it.
I just can’t deal with it. Being a parent is frightening enough without having to suffer through fictional manifestations of my worst fears being played out onscreen. After my wife and I binge-watched the first season of True Detective, we watched New Girl every night for about two weeks just to stave off nightmares. One night, we decided to start watching the BBC’s Broadchurch while my son was out of town with his grandparents. The show is about the investigation of a young boy’s murder. We made it about six minutes before switching to Parks and Recreation for the rest of the night. Leslie Knope is a balm for the soul, after all.
The second effect is just as pronounced, but it doesn’t have the same kind of obvious 1-to-1 connection like the first. I tear up or flat-out cry all the time when I watch movies now. Sometimes, the tears make sense. Inside Out and Toy Story 3 (yes, my first examples are animated movies; what of it?) are movies about the end of childhood and the complexities of growing up. Of course movies like that trigger all my parent-y emotions. Same for stuff like Boyhood and Arrival.
But what about, like, Stranger Things (not a movie, but whatever)? Or The Office (and not even the Jim and Pam, tug-at-your-heartstrings scenes)? Or Chopped?
Ok, I haven’t cried while watching Chopped yet, which is not to say I won’t break into sobs the next time I watch it.
The reality is that having kids has pushed all my emotions right up to the surface, eliminating all the layers of abstraction that, in my younger days, would’ve allowed me to watch from a more detached perspective. All that’s gone now, replaced with nothing but raw emotion.
Which is fine, for the most part. It’s not as though I’m ashamed to cry at movies. But it’s also not as though I’m always eager to have my emotions put into a blender by what I watch on screen, either. Like, I want to see Moonlight and Manchester by the Sea and Fences because they’re both up for a ton of awards. But when reviews use words like “gut-wrenching” and “devastating” to describe them, I’ll confess that I hesitate a little. How long will it take me to recover from the beatings my already feeble heart will take while watching?
The long and short of it is that being a parent – which, yes, is an unmatched blessing or whatever – has made separating art and life has become more of a challenge. But that’s not entirely a bad thing. Sure, I miss out on the occasional movie that, in my younger days, I might have legitimately enjoyed. But on the whole, I have little doubt that being a dad has made my movie-viewing life richer. Like everyone of my major life experiences, parenthood has broadened my perspective and given me an important lens through which to view all kinds of art.
Even if that lens is sometimes all blurry ‘cause I’m crying while I’m trying to look through it.