One of the phrases that affect theorist Sara Ahmed truly dislikes is the hackneyed plea of parents, “We just want you to be happy.” Though Ahmed’s books are like daily meditations for me (a paragraph a day keeps feminist anger at bay), I have disagreed with her analysis of this cultural cliché since I first read it, and not just (I think) because those hackneyed words have rolled, many times, off my own lips.
My disagreement is not with Ahmed’s careful analysis of homophobia and of the violence wrought by heteronormative parents who question and too often reject their children’s gender and/or sexual non-conformity. My disagreement lies in feeling, from my own orientation as a parent, a different correlation between words and temporality. As Ahmed knows so well, our lives pummel through non-teleological trajectories that we both do and do not forge. She puts it best when she talks about feet and paths:
“Take the phrase ‘a path well-trodden.’ A path can be made by the repetition of ‘being trodden’ upon. We can see the path as a trace of past journeys. When people stop treading, the path might disappear. On the one foot: we walk on the path as it is before us. On the other foot: it is before us as an effect of being walked upon. A paradox of the footprint emerges. A path is created by being followed and is followed by being created. We can use a path insofar as we do use a path. Can here is a consequence of doing. If we can because we do, then we do can rather than can do” (Living a Feminist Life, 45-46).
What this passage implies to me, though Ahmed does not stress it, is that a path spools out in front of our feet even as it is our feet that (re)make the path. The heartbreak of the generation gap is the expected but still painful heartbreak of your children veering away from the stories and rituals and principles and assumptions that have–quite materially–formed the spoken and unspoken walkways of family. It is a child’s rejection of the parents, of the past, of the old ways, and it’s ok, it’s expected. But it hurts. Sometimes, the phrase “I just want you to be happy” is a temporal band-aid, a cognitive scramble to bide time while the affects catch up. So much–so much–of being a (white, bourgeois) parent is training one’s bodymind into twenty years of hypervigilance on behalf of your child’s safety, material and emotional needs, and opportunities for the future. Because of this long duration, the hypervigilance becomes an unthought but deeply habitual path. It spools out into the future in ways that far exceed rational capture and yet are deeply felt. And it’s only after your child tells you that their path will be quite different–it literally is only then, when the geography of that path spooling into the future bursts into a million uncharted pieces, that its endearing and calming topography also comes into blinding, retroactive clarity. “I just want you to be happy” is a phrase thrown into that explosion, a phrase that, at least for me, attempts to clear the air of that bursting detritus, to perform a basic trust in my kid’s ability to step where they need to step, and to assert that come what may, I will be here for them. No matter what. My hypervigilance has to ease up and get redirected, but it will never not be the path that I walk.
Pixar’s latest short, Bao, screened prior to the new Incredibles II film, touchingly illustrates my reflection on Ahmed’s phenomenology of parental path-walking. The Chinese-American boy is imaged as a little dumpling, a bao who is carefully and tenderly cared for by his competent Chinese mother. She attends to his food, his growth, his play. She establishes rituals with him and protects him from harm.
Even so, of course, the boy becomes a teenager and pushes his mom out of his life. The emotional honesty of this short is intense and rare. The last shot–which I cannot find online–shows the mom and grown-up child sitting on her bed, sharing buns as they did together when he was young. They sit eating side-by-side, not looking at each other but looking out in front of themselves; tears stream down both of their faces. The healthy and inevitable veering of the next generation into autonomous adulthood is also sad, an irrecuperable loss of a closeness and tenderness that materially and affectively fed both parent and child for many, many years.
Adrián Orr’s Niñato (2017) is carved out of the same parental problematic, but in a temporally and affectively different part of the family path-making and path-walking, prior to the children’s break-away to a different orientation. Set in contemporary Madrid, Niñato is shot tightly in claustrophobic sequences that refuse to pan out to establish a room or a full body or even a two-shot of the characters speaking in the scene. The spatial suffocation so closely matches economic suffocation that the one tips easily into the other. A man, his parents, his son, his sister, and her two daughters all live in a small apartment. The man and his sister can’t afford to pay for school lunches, so they walk the children to school, then home for lunch and back to school. To be available for this to-ing and fro-ing, they must work at night.
Even this short description enforces too much linear narrative on a 70-minute film that dwells more on the long and futile morning battle of getting three kids up and clothed and out the door and the long and frustrating battle of getting the kids to do their homework than on any traditional story arc. There are rare moments when we see the brother/son/father smoking, snatching kisses with his lover and rapping on stage–and all of these moments are shot in tight, fragmented shots, in dark rooms, and often with the backs of the characters facing the screen. The film oscillates between long sequences of whining kids and little forward motion and these brief, almost stolen, moments of adult work, desire, and relationship. The oscillation cunningly conveys the affects of exhaustion, self-limitation, and open-ended obligation that are endemic to parenting during the precarious labor forces of the twenty-first century.
Niñato, then, shows the affective hardening, the embodied and emotional endurance, that forms the frame and ground of the tender paths of parenthood sentimentally imaged by Bao. Let me be clear: I am not romanticizing parental sacrifice. The brother/son/father is the title character, Niñato, the “little kid”, played by David Ransanz. He is as petulant and short-fused as his tween son and nieces. He still expects his mother do to his laundry! Yet, even so, he is there for the kids. He is getting them up, getting them dressed, fed, and off to school, getting them home for lunch and back to school, getting them through their homework. To do this, to orientate oneself primarily to the needs and obligations of the children in your life year after year after decade, is to find yourself on a sturdy path that you (re)make with every step and that exceeds and eludes your rational control. You cannot keep your affects from spooling out into a felt and unthought future. And often, you cannot help saying what is both desperate and obvious: “I just want you to be happy.”