I just saw the movie Babies with my daughter and a good friend of ours, and while it was a wonderful movie, I grieved throughout it.
It’s a movie about the first year or so of four babies born around the world. One is in a village in Africa, one on the steppes of Mongolia, one in Tokyo and one in San Francisco. Clearly, the filmmakers were trying to capture a variety of cultures. It was also very interesting because there was no sound track, and no dialogue and very little attention paid to the parents or the interaction of the babies with the parents. The camera was entirely on the babies and their actions.
Cultural differences were evident. The baby in Africa did not have a diaper, played with rocks and sticks, and wore very few clothes. Food was scarce for others, but he nursed openly and easily. The baby in Mongolia had some “toys”, but spent most of his time with the roosters and the cows that were outside and inside his house. The child in Toyko started math activities before the age of one and had many, many structured activities. The baby in San Francisco had multicultural dolls and played on a “typical” (to me) playground. It was fascinating to my Western eyes to see what is considered “normal” in other places and to try not to judge when the baby in Mongolia got strapped onto a papoose board and hauled off on a motorcycle, hours after being born. There was a hilarious moment where the baby in Africa wass watching a toddler imitate grownup behavior by grinding dirt with a rock. The baby decided that he wanted the rock, reached over and grabbed it. A tussle ensued, with the toddler grabbing the rock back and the baby biting the toddler on the shoulder. There was much laughter in the theater at that!
And all of these babies, no matter where they were, had similar development. They all learned to sit up, danced to music, were included in their families’ social activities, interacted with siblings, found their feet, learned to walk and started talking at similar moments. The film was structured so that one cute moment from one child then cut away to a similar moment of another. The pet montage, where the baby in Mongolia is pulling on the cat, the baby in Africa is being licked by his dog and the baby in Japan is trying to get the cat’s attention is hilarious. Clearly, the universality of human development as a constant, independent of culture, was clearly a message.
Cute movie. Interesting movie. Movie I will use in my Human Growth and Development class. And yet, I walked out incredibly depressed. For in the “awww” of the movie, there were no scenes of colic. No scenes of meltdowns. There was one little scene of Mari from Japan falling over in frustration because she couldn’t put the stick in the hole of a stackable doughnut toy, but no scene of the hours and hours of crying that might come afterwards. No scenes of desparately trying to rock a child to sleep who wakens with a jerk, only to scream again. No scenes of trying to feed a child who will not- cannot- swallow their food because they’re so caught up in the anxiety, the fear, the screaming. There were no scenes of the babies going to round after rounds of doctors, all saying, “I don’t know. Let’s try this.” There were no scenes of a child, mutely pointing and pointing and then screaming with frustration because you don’t understand, and they don’t have the words. Certainly no scenes of teething. There were no scenes of parents carefully laying their hysterical child down and walking away, because to stay would mean that the child would be receive the end result of all of that parental frustration that is too much, too much. Child abuse is a tipping point that is well understood by most parents. And so we walk away. There were no frustrated, tired, sad, lonely parents in this movie.
Watching the movie was clearly a series of “awww” and chuckles as well as some cultural insights. But those children, regardless of cultural differences, were not my babies. They were not the babies of my friends. They were not the babies of other mothers whose blogs I read. The carefully choreographed visual impact of those developmental milestones all being met at the same time around the world served to further isolate me- and other mothers with children even more different than mine.
I walked out of the theater having received the message, loud and clear, that babies around the world are all the same. That all cultures share this human experience. Except for mine. Except for maybe yours. Except for those babies that don’t walk, talk, or socially interact the same as other babies. They are, apparently, not part of this human world.
I typically go to movies to be “taken away” from this world, not to be reminded, once again, how many of the children I love and work with are not included. How being a parent who is frustrated and sad means that there is something wrong with me, with my baby. The babies of the “different” create our own culture- a culture that was completely ignored in this film- and by so many others around us.