Kramer vs. Kramer was my first hint that my marriage was ending.
I watched Joanna Kramer standing in the elevator for the last time, telling her husband Ted that she was abandoning him and her child: “I’m not taking him with me. I’m no good for him. I’m terrible with him. I have no patience. He’s better off without me.” And I started to cry.
I cried all the way through Ted losing his job and having to beg for another one, and I cried all through that awful, ridiculous, harrowing scene in which Ted and his son Billy face off in a battle of wills over a dish of ice cream and Ted realizes how powerless parenthood can actually feel: “You go right back and put that right back until you finish your dinner… I’m warning you, you take one bite out of that and you are in big trouble. Don’t… Hey! Don’t you dare… Don’t you dare do that. You hear me? Hold it right there! You put that ice cream in your mouth and you are in very, very, very big trouble. Don’t you dare go anywhere beyond that… Put it down right now. I am not going to say it again. I am not going to say it again.” (By this point I was sobbing convulsively, and Frank, seated on my right, was glancing at me with some alarm.)
When Ted lets his attention wander for a moment, and in a shattering heartbeat Billy tumbles from a jungle gym and the blood flows and the child screams and Ted runs for help with his child in his arms and that child’s blood spilling down his shirt, I cried so hard that people rows away looked back to see what the commotion was about. And I cried to the point of choking when the doctors told Ted that his moment of inattention was going to leave a permanent scar on his son’s face.
I cried, in fact, for the full 105-minute runtime of the film and off and on for several days afterwards. And at the time, I didn’t really know why.
Now, thirty-plus years later, I think I was crying tears of recognition. Recognition of the crushing burdens marriage is asked to carry: friendship and partnership, intimacy and lust, collaboration and compromise and the creation of a shelter from the world. Recognition that childrearing is an endless task with no set goal and no prize, and that all of that crazy impossible improvisational infuriating effort could fizzle to nothing in one unlucky second. Recognition of the unbreakable bond of a decade’s shared experience – sleepless nights, car trips, illnesses, orgasms and tears and dinners and breakfasts – that tied me to the worried, harried, hanky-proffering man beside me. Recognition that that bond just wasn’t enough.
In 1979, when Kramer vs. Kramer was released, it was accused of being antifeminist, because of Joanna’s choice to leave her husband and child for less-than-ironclad reasons. In fact, I think, it is the most feminist of films, and still the clearest statement ever that it is the work of childrearing, and not biology or culture, that creates the workplace issues people attribute to gender. There is nothing gendered about the radical goofy selflessness of subordinating your life to a newer and more important life, nor in the hair-tearing frustration of knowing that however hard you try you’ll never get it as right as you think you should, nor in how impossible a task it is to leave your doting obsessive parent-self at home when you step across the threshold of your workplace every day. (Nor in how boring it makes you. Ted, having lunch with his boss: “So the other morning, I’m at the refrigerator… you know, getting Billy ready for school… and he says ‘Daddy, you’ve really lost a lot of weight’, he looks up at me and he says ‘And it’s all gone to your nose.’ He was so cute. You know?”)
I hesitate to talk about Kramer vs. Kramer, because I’m a little afraid that it has fallen into the dusty quaintness of other films of its era (spent a lot of time watching Starting Over lately? How about The Blue Lagoon, or Any Which Way You Can?). But when I read its user reviews, I discovered that it still speaks clearly to viewers a generation later. I suspect that parents in every era always have, and always will, struggle with the same indissoluble bonds and the same elemental love – and, most of all, with the same intrinsic, inescapable powerlessness over the unmappable stories of our children’s lives.