This piece first appeared in the Summer 2021 issue of Evangelization & Culture, the quarterly journal of the Word on Fire Institute. Learn more and become a member today to read more pieces like this.
Years ago, I found myself watching Ron Howard’s moving film Parenthood, starring Steve Martin. A winsome ride through the ever-trying vicissitudes of child-rearing, Parenthood centers on Gil Buckman (played by Steve Martin), who wrestles with what it means to be a good father. Forever grappling with his own cold and distant upbringing at the hands of his father (wonderfully played by Jason Robards), Gil is determined to be for his children everything that his father was not for him.
There is one inescapable question that dominates this film: In the midst of life’s messiness, how does one make sure that their children will “be okay”? It is a question every engaged parent asks him or herself, not just daily, but several times a day.
Understanding the insecurities that have plagued him since he was a young boy, Gil believes that through a sheer act of will (by way of his warmth, his presence, and his advocacy), he can help his children avoid the same angst from which he has suffered since his childhood. If only he can create the environment he never had, his children will feel loved and will “be okay.” If only he can mitigate or midwife them through difficulties, the softened blow will assure their future as well-adjusted adults.
Gil is particularly worried about his nine-year-old son, Kevin. Kevin is delicate and anxious, prone to self-deprecation and panicked outbursts when things aren’t working out. Wanting nothing more than for Kevin to “be okay,” Gil goes to the greatest lengths to “ensure” Kevin is fitting in, having fun, and growing in confidence. In one scene, Gil is (of course) coaching Kevin’s Little League baseball team and puts Kevin in at second base. When the game-winning pop-up is missed by Kevin to the chagrin of his teammates and unruly parents in the stands, Gil warmly (and sadly) approaches Kevin who has lingered, depressed, on the field. Once there, Gil is rebuffed with an angry, tear-filled accusation, “Why’d you make me play second base?!” As his son storms off the field, Gil, in his dread-filled mind’s eye, sees his future son (now a college student) as a shooter perched on the campus bell tower spraying students with bullets while yelling, “You made me play second base!” The only other commentary reinforcing the reason for the boy’s derangement came from a ducking professor insisting, “It’s Kevin Buckman! His father totally screwed him up!”
In another scene, Kevin becomes inconsolable over what has otherwise been a successful pizza party with friends at the arcade. As Kevin starts decompensating over a lost retainer, Gil sees another failed experience which, he fears, will contribute to Kevin’s ever-darkening future. Talking with his wife while digging through the pizza parlor’s trash to find the retainer, Gil furiously scrubs and scrubs and scrubs his hands asking, “Why is he so high-strung? . . . Everything’s blown out of proportion! Where does he get this obsessive behavior?” His wife only smiles and says, “I wish I knew.”
As Gil watches his young niece perform judo and speak a foreign language (and feels the judging eyes of his haughty brother-in-law), his youngest child puts a bucket on his head and rams himself repeatedly into a wall. As Kevin falls apart at the pizza parlor, Gil’s dad tells him to man up. And as Gil and his wife grapple with the control they don’t have over Kevin’s life, Gil laments, “You know when your kid is born, it can still be perfect. You haven’t made any mistakes yet. And then they grow up to be like . . . like me.”
Parenthood speaks warmly, honestly, and at times, painfully about the theory of parenting juxtaposed against the messy reality. “I hate messy,” Gil complains, “It’s so . . . messy.” In one scene, Gil pours out his fears to his wife about his son and their future baby, when Grandma walks into the room to offer what seems to be a distracting non sequitur.
Grandma: You know, when I was nineteen, Grandpa took me on a roller coaster.
Grandma: Up, down, up, down. Oh, what a ride!
Gil (rolling his eyes): What a great story.
Grandma: I always wanted to go again. You know, it was just so interesting to me that a ride could make me so frightened, so scared, so sick, so excited, and so thrilled all together! Some didn’t like it. They went on the merry-go-round. That just goes around. Nothing. I like the roller coaster. You get more out of it.
The most poignant and instructive scene comes at the conclusion of the film. At a school play for Gil’s younger daughter, his toddler, Justin, storms the stage to defend his sister from what he misunderstands as bullying. As the play grinds to a halt and the set is being destroyed, Gil becomes extremely anxious. “They’re ruining the play!” one woman yells, while others around are laughing. The scene shows Gil almost vertiginous, gritting his teeth and covering his eyes, while his body sways this way and that to the sound of a cart on a track. Gil, he finally realizes, is worrying his way through a roller-coaster ride. And just as he recognizes Grandma’s wisdom, the ride becomes more manageable. He has seen his life for what it is: frightening, scary, exciting, and thrilling altogether. With tear-filled eyes, Gil looks at his wife who is smiling and laughing through the same ride. Parenthood reminds us, once again, that we don’t have complete control. Life is messy. Up, down, up, down.
But, oh, what a ride!