Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Why 'While We're Young' Annoyed Me

Mike and I went on a Tuesday date night this week. He's recently completed his masters degree and is trying to reconcile himself with the fact that he now has something called "free time." It hasn't quite hit him yet, and he has to fight the impulse to worry about homework that he no longer has to do.

We had pizza and beer at Otto and then went to see the Noah Baumbach movie While We're Young at the Coolidge Corner Theatre. I picked the film because I liked Baumbach's previous independent films The Squid and the Whale, Greenberg, and Frances Ha.

Josh and Cornelia are a married, childless couple in their mid-forties living in New York City. They're both documentary film makers, but Josh has been working on the same film for the last eight years with no sign of completing it. Cornelia wonders why they don't travel more or at least go out sometimes, and Josh blames his film work. The couple befriend a younger married duo, Jamie and Darby, and for a while they revel in their relationship with their new, cooler friends, also childless and ready to go drinking and dancing at any hour without having to call a sitter. Under Jamie and Darby's hipster influence, Cornelia takes hip hop dance lessons and Josh buys a fedora and rides a bike with no hands (though inevitably he ends up hurting himself, then finds out he has arthritis. "You mean ARTHRITIS, arthritis?" he asks the doctor, dumbfounded. "I usually only say it once," the doctor tartly replies.)

There were definitely funny moments (and plenty of awkward-funny ones) in the movie and I could relate to a lot of the issues the main characters Cornelia and Josh grapple with: coping with getting older, wanting to stay hip but realizing your limitations, not reaching your full artistic potential by a certain age, and being childless in a child-centric society that won't stop reminding you how wonderful parenting is.

*SPOILER ALERT*: What bothered me about the movie is that it resolved itself in the same pat, conventional way that so many movies and TV shows do. Near the conclusion of the film, Josh, disillusioned by his young friend and purported-protege Jamie, tells Cornelia he's finally realizing he has the best day everyday because they are together, and they even talk of renewing their wedding vows. That's sweet and promising. I wish the movie had ended there. But later you see them at the airport and Cornelia has a stack of glossy magazines. At first I thought, Oh good, they're finally going to travel to exotic places and enjoy their life. But instead of finding adult happiness in the road less traveled, they have drunk the Kool-Aid. Turns out they're flying to Port-au-Prince to adopt a baby.

The audience gets their happy ending, assured in knowing Josh and Cornelia will be all right now that they're doing what everyone else their age is doing (even Adam Horovitz, aka rapper Ad-Rock of the Beastie Boys, who plays Josh and Cornelia's age-appropriate friend, is a stay-at-home dad!) Now Cornelia won't have to attend those Mommy and Baby sing-alongs with her friends and be the only one without a baby. This probably means she'll be dropping the hip hop classes, too.


Since I hit puberty I've been struggling to fit in somewhere, to find my tribe. I had the most success at this in my 20s, when I had time to make close friendships and my friends were easily accessible and had as much free time as I did. New York City was our playground and we made the most of it. Of course, I experienced a different kind of loneliness then--the loneliness of being single for most of the decade. In my 20s finding a long-term relationship was my goal, the gold ring I couldn't seem to grasp for very long. I often got in my own way, dating the wrong guys and thinking I could change them into the right ones. I was also dating in a city notorious for guys who were always looking to trade up.

When I finally did meet the right man, it meant sacrificing some things. I've written about this before. I left my friends and family to move to Brookline because my husband wanted to live closer to his aging parents, and after years of soul-searching I decided that even though he didn't want children I still wanted to be with him. I chose to be with the person I fell in love with over some future guy who may or may not have materialized and who I may or may not have had children with anyway. I don't feel (nor have I ever felt) that I settled--I fell in love and subsequently I made conscious choices that I believed in because what I was getting was more important to me than the road not taken.

I still feel that way--but that doesn't mean I don't get lonely for my friends back home or wonder how much easier my life would be if I was married to someone who wanted kids. I don't have a strong desire to raise a child, I just don't have a strong sense of what the alternative route can be. Everywhere I look I see messages that young women are prized for their attractiveness and sexuality and older women for their ability to have and rear children. I'm no longer young but I'm not a mother, so where do I fit in?

The ending of While We're Young left me feeling let down. It's one thing when all your friends have kids--that's their choice and I'm happy for them because I know they wanted children. But it's disappointing when you're watching a fictional story and the rare screen couple who you think is reflecting back to you the lifestyle you're living ends up rejecting it.

I felt the same way with The Thin Man movies. Nick and Nora, Nora with her fabulous outfits, Nick with his debonair charms, the both of them with their cocktails and witty, affectionate banter and their cute dog Asta made me feel better. It could be glamorous rather than pitiable to be child-free.  But by the second movie, Nora was pregnant and there goes that.

I guess there's always Auntie Mame, though I can't claim to be that adventurous (or well-off.) There's Hank and Marie Schrader from Breaking Bad but Marie's a compulsive liar and shoplifter--hardly someone to admire.

When I got home from the movie I was in a funk. I googled "celebrities who don't have children" to see if there was anyone besides Oprah and Dolly Parton. Jennifer Aniston. Cameron Diaz. Renee Zellweger.  Winona Ryder. Ashley Judd. Kim Cattrall. Helen Mirren. Some of the people on the list, like Zooey Deschanel and Eva Mendes, have since had babies. This exercise didn't do much to comfort me, either, because they can boast fame and fortune and great genes.

As we were walking home from the theatre, my husband and I talked about my reaction to the ending. Mike observed that even though child-rearing is hard work, it is also easier when you have a route set out for you, one that many others have traveled. You know what you are going to be doing for the next 20 years--your purpose is laid before you like a red carpet. I hate to belabor Frost, but the road less traveled is a lot thornier, with lots more trees and brush to hack through.

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