We watched Croods yesterday. Bravo, DreamWorks. You combined evolutionary science with well-timed cultural analysis of a historical shift in parenting styles as we know them. The distantly loving ‘cavemen’ dads of a previous generation are giving way to the protective but more permissive and more nurturing fathers of today – at least in the popular imagination they are. So it’s to be expected that I found myself awash in tears in the last half hour of the movie, holding my 7-year old daughter’s hand, as my heart ached for my own parents. When Grug finds himself unable to connect and communicate with his daughter Eep, I cringed as I recall the innumerable explosive conversations I had with my father (and to a lesser degree, my mother).
The saddest moment of the movie is probably when Grug resolutely steels himself, without hesitation, to toss all the members of his family into the distance over to safety, saying, “All I have is my strength,” accepting that he is just a caveman with few original ideas, little flexibility for changing times, and sparse emotional intelligence. But he loves truly and strongly, and his emotional illiteracy is reflected in his lack of narcissistic self-regard as he does not spare a single thought for himself. I see this in many fathers.
Naturally, as I write this, I am awash with tears again. I think of the stolid, strong, volatile-tempered father, who was absent from home through much of my youth because he was working two jobs and when he returned home, he was tired, sullen, and focused on his dinner. I think of how he was unable to exorcise his childhood nightmares of losing his mother, and thereafter perpetually negotiating access to his father via a difficult stepmother.
Even now, when he sees me off at Lahore airport, he turns away without a word after embracing me tight, unable to speak. No Disney speeches from my abbu. I remember the day when he vented his frustration at our complex relationship in words of hurtful anger and when I shouted that I didn’t understand why we couldn’t just communicate, why he had to always end up hurting me instead, why couldn’t he just say things without erupting like a volcano.
And then in 1993, my parents shuttled from office to office, negotiating with difficult bureaucrats, struggling to help me pursue my dream of an education abroad, even as I sensed their hearts breaking. My parents were now retired, no longer active, and they would suffer no late-in-life move to the West. Like Grug, my father picked me up bodily, and tossed me into the void where he could not follow me.
How does a parent have the strength to do that? As a parent, I don’t know. Maybe I will not learn until a very, very distant day in the future when my daughter, grown up, tells me she has to detach herself from Mama, that she is no longer “hooked” to Mama, and that she has a life to live, a life that is separate from my own. For now, I will plan on college down the street and a house next door (a la My Big Fat Greek Wedding). The Grugs of a previous generation have changed with changing times, and it has been painful. Who knows what changes lie ahead for the children of these fathers?