This week The Bird took in her first visit to the cinema, and I made an exciting discovery. I found the line where parenthood stops being ridiculous. I don’t know how to put across how enormous this is for me. The whole purpose of this blog is to document parenthood as what I’ve generally found it to be: a dignity-destroying, self-esteem-defying, pretension-puncturing jet-ski ride through an ocean of emotion (and, frankly, of bodily fluids). But this week that wild ride skidded to a halt. I found the outer limit. The point where parenthood stops being ridiculous. The point where I stop being ridiculous.
Here’s how it happened.
I wanted to take The Bird to see Zootropolis for a few reasons. The trailers look great, for sure, but I had the ulterior motive of wanting to introduce some non-princess-based entertainment into our increasingly pink and sparkly lives. I hadn’t been to the cinema myself since 2012, when I had seen The Dark Knight Rises ten days after my due date and sat through the whole thing in a hormonal rage at the failure of the booming soundtrack to burst my waters. Anyhow, since she’d never been and can be pretty reticent about new experiences, I devoted ample time and energy to talking up the experience of cinema attendance. It worked like a charm, and by the day itself she was hopping from foot to foot in excitement. We were in. We were committed. And we had not booked tickets. All of which teed off the perfect first piece of ridiculousness for the day, which was of course our arrival at the cinema of a Wednesday lunchtime to find the screening sold out. The next one, an hour later, was sold out too. The prospect of a three-hour wait for the one after that made more than one of us suffer a lower-lip wobble. Then, the attendant said that actually there was one seat left in the screening that had just started, and would I like to just pay for one ticket and have The Bird sit on my lap? The fact that The Bird would probably have paid a premium for a special sit-on-someone’s-lap ticket made this an agreeable deal for us all.
So we went on in to Screen 6, where the trailers were already rolling, as was the ridiculousness. The reason for a Wednesday-lunchtime screening being sold out proved to be that in those nearly four years since my last night at the movies, cinemas have changed. The seats in this theatre had all been replaced with giant airline-style recliners bigger than our front room, meaning the entire audience for the film as we crept down the aisle was therefore lying semi-prostrate in front of the huge screen, like celebrants at some kind of weird Roman rite. But even as I thought this, another thread of my brain was observing: except it isn’t weird now, is it? This whole reclining seat thing presumably happened years ago. Would’ve been all over Twitter, except you were eyeball deep in nappies and missed it. Totally standard cinema practice nowadays. No one else bats an eyelid at the fact that films are now to be watched totally supine, with intravenous Diet Coke, as if everyone’s in some kind of surprisingly convivial Matrix incubation tank. Not that anyone else in this room is old enough to have seen The Matrix. Everyone else has got with the sprawl-before-Disney program, and you’re just on some kind of parenthood-induced Rip Van Winkle trip. Or, to put it another way, bloody hell you’re old. And that was, you know, kind of ridiculous.
Our one seat was at the wall end of an row near the front. The seats nearer the aisle were occupied by a clutch of tween girls, all lying in state in their reclining chairs. As I reached the end of the row, I stage-whispered apologetically “Sorry, we’ve got the end seat”, and pointed to our empty spot.
The tween girls stared at me.
“Sorry, that’s us,” I repeated, pointing to the end seat, and then gesturing toward their knees that I’d have to climb over to reach it.
The tween girls stared at me some more.
I squinted a bit in the dark, and abruptly realised that the new-style seats, even when fully reclined, still left a generous gap of about half a mile between rows. The days of trampling your neighbour’s toes to reach your seat are lost to history. I hadn’t needed to interrupt the tweens’ popcorn inhalation at all. “Oh,” I said, and steered The Bird through the ample gap beyond their upturned Converses to our seat. Feeling time’s winged chariot hurrying near, and all that.
We sat down. Our seat was the only one still upright in the house. At the left were two buttons. I suppose one was to recline our seat, the other controlling the seat to our left. It should have been very obvious which was which. But there’s always the possibility that I’ve missed a cultural memo and that one of them was to set off a deafening alarm and the other was an Eject button. I side-eyed the nearest tween. I decided very studiously to pretend that the buttons did not exist.
The trailers were amping up to hyperventilatory pitch. Animated space cadets doing something crass. The Jungle Book, but simultaneously both gritty and sassy. Something about it all felt very slightly … off. In the last four years, the visual vernacular’s shifted a bit, and I haven’t. Or possibly I just didn’t used to go to children’s movies. Beside us, the tweens crunched their way through a bag of Skittles. A trailer for the film we were about to watch showed a series of talking rodents exiting a bank named Lemming Brothers. I laughed, and no one else in the cinema did. Because 2007 was as remote to them as The Good Dinosaur. And then an advert for Sky came on. The Bird perked right up, because this featured The Octonauts, every preschooler’s favourite non-governmental marine conservation agency. It was a sweet and friendly advert, wherein characters from a clutch of toddler-pleasing shows gathered together into one place, explaining how the Sky interface now groups kids’ programmes altogether for ease of access. It was a system so simple, the jovial voiceover explained, that even parents can understand it.
And that was it. That’s where the jet-ski stopped. That’s where the brakes came on. That’s the outer limit of the ridiculousness.
As a parent, I get to call myself ridiculous. Sky doesn’t.
Because oh, the nappy leaks and the spit-up, the supermarket histrionics and the eye-bags, the leftover smiley faces for tea and the dystopian soft-play afternoons: these are battle tales. These are hard won. These are my choices, and my reality, and what the world turned upside down looks like for me. The last time I was in a cinema, I was in on it. I was sophisticated and urban and twentysomething and a key market segment. I was who the adverts talked to. I was who the cinema wanted to attract. And now I’m not, now I’m not the person whose eye the world wants to catch, now I’m a walking bankroll not even for my own tastes but for my child’s. Now I’m out of step with a world I used to inhabit. But I am not ready to have that painted as a capitulation, not ready to be a hapless stereotyped clueless parent type. This time, these years, when I fell through a gap in the world and jerked upright to find four years had passed, when everything has been primary-coloured and VTech-soundtracked and rendered in BPA-free plastic, when acronyms that once meant nothing to me — BLW, EBF, CIO — have mapped out the monoliths of my moral landscape, when I’ve measured out my life in spoonfuls of someone else’s fruit-flavoured fromage frais: this time has been immense. It has been transfiguring. It has been the horizon turned inside out and the future evaporated, with a totally different one behind it revealed. It has been bittersweet, and it has been funny, and it has been crushingly mundane, and yes it has been ridiculous — but I have not been ridiculous. Parenthood is ridiculous. Parents — we are not.
So back down, Sky. I do not consent to be your figure of fun. I am not a kindly but slow TV mum, too preoccupied with PE kit to really have a brain. No one is. I am old. I’ve missed four years. I’ll miss more. But in that absent time, life is happening. My life is happening. In that absence, here I am.