There’s a moment, early in High Life, that explains exactly what it’s like to be a working parent. Dad-slash-astronaut Robert Pattinson is on the outside of his space station, positioned directly next to a black hole, trying to do some repairs. Everyone else on his spaceship is dead, due to black hole problems, so he can’t get a babysitter. His infant daughter is parked in her playpen on board the ship, and she’s crying.
Pattinson tries to multitask, fixing the spaceship while feeding his daughter some soothing chatter over her baby monitor, but for the baby, not being held or played with feels much more urgent than the fact that she might get sucked into a black hole and die. Her crying gets louder, and Pattinson can’t focus. His grip slips, and the tool he needs for his life-or-death repair flies out of his hand — bam — right into the black hole.
You can see him take a second to register the fuck-up. It’s like he’s deciding what to be upset about: Is it worse that he’s bad at his job? That he might die? That the baby is definitely going to die if he can’t do his job right? That he’s a neglectful working parent who can’t give her his full attention during these, her formative years? The truth is that he can’t afford to be upset about any of it, because he has to keep it together for the baby. So he bites down on his anger and sadness and existential horror and goes inside to calm her down.
“Thanks for your patience,” was how I answered pretty much every email in my inbox after my daughter was born. People have been getting congratulated for patience since 2017. They will need to be patient with me for a long, long time.
Claire Denis does not have children. I wouldn’t normally consider this relevant, but I looked it up after High Life, because I was struck by the respectful attention the movie gives to the work of caring for a baby. She must have a kid, I thought, because no-one else would care.
To be clear: The reason people don’t care about childcare is that it isn’t interesting. It’s simultaneously high-risk and dull; you have to be one hundred percent attentive, or something terrible will happen, yet the tasks at hand are repetitive and brainless and involve cleaning up baby shit and spilled food. You spend all day doing nothing, and by nightfall, you’re so tired you want to die.
On the day I began this newsletter, I was solo with my kid. My husband had to work out of the house over the weekend. I realized, at some point, that I’d accidentally ordered two of something from Amazon. I wanted to cancel half of the shipment, but there was no button to edit the order. I spent maybe two minutes fucking around on my phone, trying to find the answer, and my daughter, angry that I wasn’t paying attention to her, seized the bottom of a vintage Monster-era REM poster that I loved and ripped it from the wall. Ripped it. I nearly wept. An incredibly intense story that is boring to everyone but me: This is childcare.
Yet parenting is an urgent human endeavor, one of the most urgent, and we ignore it because we associate it with women. Child-rearing is so heavily bound up in femininity that, for a long time, I thought I had to be female because I like doing it. I am, I’m told, Good With Kids, was the older sibling, the family babysitter, all of that; I relate to the directness of children, the enormity and simplicity of their emotions. Kids are clear and honest with the world in ways adults can't manage. All they want is to be heard, and hopefully liked, by someone who takes them seriously despite their small size and lack of experience. I want much the same.
So I also wanted to be a parent, from the time I can remember wanting anything. Yet the only people really allowed to build their lives around that need are women. As recently as my own childhood, the idea of a man who defines himself first and foremost as a parent, let alone a man who shares the work with another man, was a joke.
Robert Pattinson’s relationship with his daughter is not a joke, in High Life. He’s strung out and sweaty and unsettling, as Robert Pattinsons tend to be, and he is clearly unfit for the task of creating or guiding a human life, but those are all typical new-parent characteristics. He loves his baby. He is aware of, and terrified by, his own incompetence. He comes from a violent background — abusive parents, a life of crime; before everyone died, he was a convict, sentenced to work in space as a form of prison labor — and he is preoccupied with the question of how he can avoid passing that violence down to his daughter. At one point, when the baby is having a bad night, he picks her up, stares deeply into her eyes, and says, in soothing tones of deep and unconditional love, that she must stop crying or he will literally die. It might be the most faithful representation of my own parenting style I’ve ever seen.
To be clear, most of the movie is not about Robert Pattinson’s parenting style. It’s about how he came to be in this situation, and when I tell you that the answer involves Juliette Binoche trying to create a radiation-proof baby by fucking herself with a room-size dildo machine, well… that’s exactly what I’m telling you. Shit gets weird, and sexual, and violent, and there are eventually some rape scenes which (to my mind) go past the point of horror and into exploitation. I’m letting you know now in case it’s an issue.
Yet to see a man caring for an infant even semi-realistically, and to see that work taken seriously — as a challenge, an ordeal, a form of self-transcendence, a path toward grace — is rare enough that I can forgive the movie its other problems. I used to think I had to be female because I loved my daughter, which is another way of saying that we are teaching men it is a failure, and a shortcoming, to love.
Eraserhead is the great horror movie about fatherhood; so great, in fact, that it’s shocking to realize it’s nearly fifty years old. It came out the same year as Saturday Night Fever and Star Wars, and, at the time, Star Wars was thought to have the better special effects. It doesn’t. Other movies, even other great movies, have aged, but this one is so distinct and fully realized, in everything from the cinematography to the performances to the choice to make a puppet out of a rapidly decaying cow fetus, that it doesn’t feel like a product of the ‘70s. It doesn’t feel like anything. It’s just Eraserhead.
It is also wildly misogynistic. I say this with pain, because I love Eraserhead. So do most people with taste. Yet, although the movie is a perfect stress dream, with all the nightmare logic and portentous symbolism transported miraculously intact from Lynch’s brain to the screen, the stressor — the idea that some woman will trap you into marrying her by getting pregnant, and worse, that you’ll have to actually take care of the kid — is a profoundly sexist fear. It’s both depressing and unsurprising to learn that Lynch wrote the movie while his wife was pregnant with their first child.
Eraserhead’s sexual symbolism is not subtle — our doomed hero, Henry, spends large chunks of the movie watching women dodge three-foot sperm that rain from the sky — and its idea of sex is memorably gross. Henry’s original sin, deflowering his girlfriend, is conveyed via a date in which her parents feed him a disgusting “man-made chicken;” it waves its legs in the air and bleeds when he penetrates it, and it’s her mother, at the table, who appears to have an orgasm. Is Henry afraid that his girlfriend will turn into her mother, you ask? If so, could a less subtle metaphor possibly be found to convey this point?
Within minutes, David Lynch finds a less subtle metaphor, as Mom pulls our hero, Henry, into the hallway to sexually assault him and/or inform him that “there’s a baby.” His girlfriend Mary, who is now in hysterics (spoiler: Mary will spend the entire movie in hysterics) screams that “they’re not even sure it is a baby.” What it is, if rumors are to be believed, is a real, slimy, decaying cow fetus, and David Lynch has forever offended God by making it into a puppet. All the cow fetus ever does is cry, and puke, and rot, and Mary is not having any of that, thank you very much, so Henry is left alone with the disgusting result of his sexual urges, dodging both his desire to bang the neighbor lady and three-foot airborne sperm.
These fears are normal for new parents. Many pregnant people have stress dreams about giving birth to something inhuman; in mine, the doctors kept pulling creatures out of me that looked like a cross between octopi and bags of ground beef. Yet the women of Eraserhead have just as much to fear as Henry, and they’re confined to being temptresses or hysterics. Mary never even gets a moment to process the unspeakable thing that’s just come out of her body. She just nopes out, leaving Henry to face the true horror of Eraserhead: Not having a wife to do the childcare.
Pregnancy is something women do to men, in this movie. Babies are something terrible that women inflict on their boyfriends. The moment the baby gets sick, Henry escalates rapidly from “not knowing the pediatrician’s phone number” to “mercy killing,” because the most important violence in Eraserhead is not the baby’s birth, or even its death. It’s Henry being deprived of his freedom.
I admit: Those losses do feel violent. The frustration of dropping your wrench into the black hole is real. Every week, every day, I run up against something I could do faster or easier or cheaper or better if I didn’t have a toddler. Yet, for most of us, that sense of loss is complicated by the knowledge that the child in your care is helpless, and immensely vulnerable, and that they’re not taking anything away from you on purpose. Their needs are overwhelming, but they’re also the dearest person in your world.
Eraserhead is a primal scream, not a rational argument, and it does such a perfect job of being Eraserhead that I can’t ask it to be anything else. Yet I believe horror stories about pregnancy would be better if more men shared the work of childbirth, or became full-time parents, or even if cishet men were just a tiny bit more invested in raising the children they already do have, because it takes intimate knowledge of parenting to understand what’s scary about it. The love and tenderness within the parent-child dynamic don’t detract from the horror. They add to it. The nightmare is not having a child foisted on you, it’s failing someone you love.
I shouted “no,” when my kid ripped the poster, and then I realized I was shouting. I hate raising my voice with her. It reminds me too much of my father. So I walked away, into the dining room, and sat with my head in my hands, trying to cobble myself back together into a safe adult. I wondered whether I was going to cry. I hate doing that, too.
After a while, I felt the toddler’s hand on my knee, and I knew she was checking on me.
“I really liked that poster,” I said. “I loved it, and you broke it because you were angry at me. I’m so sad about that.”
“Am I going to get a time out?”
“I think it’s probably hard enough for you to see that you hurt someone’s feelings,” I said. “I know you don’t like to do that. You’re so nice to everybody.”
She stayed quiet, and her quiet is rare enough that I felt appropriately horrible for losing control. My father never had control. I broke things, I was inconvenient, I got things wrong because I was a kid, but he was drunk, and he lost his temper or dissolved into hurt in the immediate, overwhelming way drunk people do. Maybe sober people do, too. Maybe I would, if I didn’t remember being frightened by my father.
“It used to really scare me,” I said. “When I saw my parents cry or get sad about something. It felt really bad, because they were supposed to be stronger than me. Did I scare you?”
She thought about it for a while, and when she spoke, her voice was very somber.
“I won’t do it again,” she said.
She will do it again. She’ll be doing some version of this her entire life. Children make messes. They act out. They care more about their own needs than they care about yours, and so do you. You agree to take second place in your own affections, when you become a parent; you accept that some of your shit will get broken or lost, and you try to be a good sport about it, because those losses are the cost of all that you’ve gained.
But I told her I believed her, and I loved her, and that she was a very good baby. I asked her to use her words and just ask for my attention next time. For the rest of the weekend, every time she asked, I thanked her for her patience. It’s what I thank everyone for, these days. It’s what I always need. I keep my patience in hand; I remember what’s at stake here. For her sake, and for mine, I don’t lose my grip.
High Life is available to stream on Amazon Prime. Eraserhead is streaming on HBO Max.
This was a very parent-based week for me. At Medium, I wrote about the right-wing panic over "birthing people" and the idea of gender-neutral pregnancy. And at XTra, I spoke to trans parents about how they're weathering the current legislative attack on their trans kids.
If you have anything you'd like me to cover, leave it in the comments below or Tweet at me.