by Elinor Abbott
Even as a kid, I knew my interest in the 1987 film Baby Boom was bizarre. Growing up in a small mountain town, all I did day in and day out was long for the excitement of the city and resent my parents—who grew up in D.C and Chicago—for extracting me so completely from the world of culture. We had one little video store in town, attached to a gas station, where my mom would let my sister and I take turns picking out movies to rent. My sister suffered from debilitating perfectionism, and could barely pick a video without a panic attack, but all I wanted was to watch J.C Wiatt (Diane Keaton) navigating the world of motherhood, via a baby she randomly inherited, and having her big-deal NYC life turned ass over end.Baby Boom was nothing to write home about, a brainless potshot at the plights of modern women, with a little romance thrown in, but for some reason, it became my most longed for video rental. I would pass the movie on the shelf at the video store and think about how badly I wanted to watch it all over again, even though the last time I picked it out my mom had given me a very long look. I was about 9, and my mother—an actual working woman in the 80s, and with two kids at that—clearly thought the film was bullshit. So I would take a last glance at the cover of Baby Boom, with Diane Keaton in her 80’s power suit, precariously balancing a baby on one hip, and say a silent goodbye. Repeated rentals would surely only draw more attention to my ever growing weirdness, which began in the third grade when I insisted that the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle movie had been filmed by the real actual, living giant turtles (I had a crush on Raphael) and continued well into the late 90s, as I endlessly watched 2001: A Space Odyssey. I suppose I somehow knew, even then, that being a Kubrick fan who maybe wanted to fuck a ninja turtle was preferable to being the girl who can’t stop watching 80s baby comedies.
Occasionally, as an adult, I’d reflect upon my strange attachment to Baby Boom and be amused by the child I used to be. I hadn’t seen the movie in a long time but I felt sure it was stridently unfeminist, preaching values about staying home with your baby over pursuing a career, a woman’s true place, women’s supposed maternal instinct, ticking clocks, etc. etc. Despite my childhood love for Baby Boom, I had never pined for traditional female pursuits, perhaps because I did not have a ‘classic’ female role model of a mother. My mother was very passionate about her own career, became nauseous at the sight of a sewing machine, and, when pestered on weekends to chauffeur us places, would often snort and say things like, ‘ask a friend’s mom who doesn’t work’ . My mom was a speech pathologist who highly valued her independence and ability to work in a field she found interesting and intellectually stimulating. ‘If I had to stay home with kids all day,’ she told us many times, ‘I’d probably kill myself.’
I remember listening to my mother recount, with strained horror, how when she was a little girl she thought all you could be when you grew up was a mom, a nurse or a school teacher. ‘You can’t buy this album,’ my mom told me once as I held up a copy of the first album by Garbage. ‘It has a song called ‘Stupid Girl’ on it and girls aren’t stupid.’ She then purchased my sister a Spice Girls tee with ‘girl power’ written on the front. In my private time as a child I was more likely to make my Barbies go to a fashion show, or spend hours meticulously arranging their environments so that they seemed like ‘real’ apartments, than to have them get pregnant or get married. Playing house, the exhausting ritual of actually acting out getting married and becoming pregnant, was something my playmates had to talk me into, or bargain with me for. My parents had a wedding sometime in the 70s which neither of them seemed particularly sentimental about. If life had flavor, for them, it was in work, travel, social life and books. My sister and I were cultivated to their tastes and, as such, baby dolls were usually on short supply. We had stuffed animals instead. I would create wars between them and then heal the rift that had split our happy arrangements of man and beast. Domestic affairs, I seemed to feel, were only for children who couldn’t come up with anything better.
So why did I love Baby Boom so much? A movie where a woman is saddled with a two year old that utterly dismantles her urban life to such an extent that by the end of the film she is almost unrecognizable; an organic baby food maker on a small farm in Vermont. As an adult, imagining my own life turning out as J.C Wiatt’s did—dream city abandoned for a tiny Vermont town with baby in tow—fills me with despair. At one point in the film J.C is overcome with despair as well, and wants desperately to return to NYC. But then she has one night of great sex with a hot veterinarian in town and makes the insane decision to cash in all of her chips, hoping it works out with this doctor of horses and cows, making baby food for a living.
Strangely, though, my favorite parts of the movie are when J.C has to give up NYC and move to Vermont to live with baby. I like it when she’s getting to know her way around the farm house, when she’s in confused transition dealing with the yokels and their funny country ways, when she’s so desperate for activity that she begins to make baby food and sell it at the country store. I feel comforted and warmed by these choices. I like looking at her big, rambling farm house with its barn and lake and orchard. I like it when she goes apple picking, when she milks the cow (though the film gives zero explanation on how she learns to do any of these tasks). As a child I found these scenes highly enjoyable, and I still do. Even though they are not the choices I would make, I am rooting for J.C, going, “Yeah, get out of NYC! Adopt that strange cousin’s baby who you never knew before! Make the shit out of that applesauce! Don’t sell your baby food company to the company you used to work for in NYC for three million dollars! Tell them to go fuck themselves! Marry that vet! Look how great he is with your adopted second cousin who is now your child!”.
The child that J.C inherits and then adopts is a docile, affable two year old, who plays a surprisingly small part in the film, with very little cutesy-wootsyness or catchphrases. She seems pretty ok with whatever is going on and asks for very little attention. She’s what I would consider my ideal baby to be like: unselfish, low on crying and basically capable of meeting most of her own needs. Maybe that’s part of why I like the fantasy of the film. It seems like the only possible way I could come about having my own baby, an event I feel as ambivalent about now as I did back when I was cornered into playing house as a child. Only now, playing house is for real; real marriage, real house, real baby, and the choices one makes come with a lifetime of consequences. But if someone could give me a baby like J.C is given a baby, about two-ish, already kind of formed and pleasant, serving as more of my sidekick or non-stressful inspiration than as an exhausting reason to live/carrier of all my genetic material, then the whole thing would seem more inviting to me. There’s no pregnancy or tears for J.C.; just a nice looking toddler and all-of-a-sudden a country house in Vermont. Perhaps even as a kid this seemed to be the best of all possible ways to come about traditional adulthood; that unavoidable jump in which all the things you want are forsaken for all the things you never knew you wanted.
Reviewing the movie as an adult woman in her thirties, I still found it enormously enjoyable, and did much less tut-tutting about its feminist principals than I imagined I would. Perhaps it’s that millennial feminism has evolved to include a larger scope of womanhood, so it allowed me to see J.C.’s choices not as necessarily derivative of how all women want to be (and must be) mothers, but of J.C.’s own desires. In the end she hasn’t cashed it all in for a baby, but has instead redirected her skills into running a business that doesn’t require her to take a lot of time off from her baby. There’s nothing so damning in that. And as to why I enjoy J.C turning her back on culture, career and society for the Vermont wilderness, I think it has something to do with seeing her stop fighting the current, stop being an individual and becoming more like everyone else. I have made so many nontraditional choices in my life that resting the load of my fierce individuality, and enjoying the guilty pleasure of watching a woman throw it all away and start playing house, can feel perversely good. It feels good to cheer her on as it all falls smoothly into place; the baby just what she wanted, the man stalwart and true, the house like a Town and Country photo shoot, money from the organic baby food rolling in, the life forsaken a funny memory, regrets few and far between.
Elinor Abbott is a writer living in Minneapolis.