Safety Nets: On Seeing Movies with My Children


My seven-year-old daughter broke her leg five days before Halloween last year. She fell off a balance beam in gymnastics. The moment the gymnasium filled with screams, I knew it was my girl. Rushing to her side, I began lying to her. “No honey, it’s just a big bruise. It’s going to be okay.” She’d just broken her arm three months prior and the pain of the past injury was still fresh in her mind. I will never forget the sound of her voice as she told us all something she already knew: “I’m broken.”

Moments after it happened, while she was writhing and screaming from a gurney, I called her father. Calmly, I stated the facts. “Brooke just broke her leg at gymnastics. She’s going in an ambulance to the hospital. You may need to come.” “Okay,” he said. And then he hung up.

I didn’t know if he’d come. He didn’t come when our son was in the ER with strep throat last January, and he didn’t come when she broke her arm. But, this time, he came. That night in the ER was the first time I’d been alone in a room with him since the night before he left our home on Valentine’s Day, 2014. On that night three years ago, I called the police after he stood over me, clench-fisted, spitting through teeth that I’d ruined his life and was dead to him now. It was a side of him I’d seen only recently in our thirteen years together, an unmitigated rage. But in the ER that evening, he was fine in the face of our daughter’s trauma. In fact, it was a side of him I’d seen so many times before: a heavily curated emotion, looking for ways to take charge or be witty with the staff. But all that occurred to me later. What mattered to me in that moment was that he was there. We’d come together for our daughter and I was happy for her to see it even if she had an IV of Dilaudid and was a ten out of ten on the pain scale.

I went home that night with my emotions wound around my sternum and bubbling up in my throat. I fell into the couch and heaved. I cried for my daughter’s pain. I cried for how brave she’d been even when she knew the hurt to come. I cried for the past and for the future. I cried for all the ways I’d failed to protect them both and for all the things I was never going to be able to explain, or ever wanted to have to.

The moment I realized my marriage was broken beyond repair, I hightailed out of there, for my children’s sake. They were two and four and I didn’t want them to remember how bad it had become. I’d hoped that by the time they were older, we’d have gotten past the roughest parts of separation and things would be better. For a long time my explanations of “two homes” didn’t need to go beyond the rudimentary: you live here on these days; you live there on those days. But as my daughter’s emotional world blooms, as she grows and acquires more language to express herself, I’m fielding increasingly difficult questions. Much of this language has come from the common idiom we share through the movies we watch together. Unlike the Disney movies of my youth, the kid movies today are tackling broader themes than just “When am I going to find my prince?” Home, the 2015 DreamWorks animated film, stars a loveable and clueless alien named “O” who befriends a tenacious earth girl, Tip, as the aliens take over the planet, offering a narrative around feeling different and being brave and why we need each other. Inside Out, a 2015 Pixar creation about the interior psychology of a twelve-year-old girl, provides a framework to discuss the necessity for our range of emotions, and how our feelings can be justifiably mixed with great life changes.

It’s been said that if you dwell on the past it contributes to depression, and if you fret about the future you’re the anxious type. Historically, I am fingernail biter from way back. My list of worries runs through the space of my mind like the prelude to the Star Wars films. Most recently, my ever insightful daughter told me, “I feel like I’m in the middle of you and dad’s relationship and I don’t like it. I wish you guys could be in the same room sometimes.” My mind reeled with all the common advice for kids from divorced homes. Never talk bad about the other parent. Don’t put kids in the middle. Make sure they know it’s not their fault.

I’ve met quite a few divorced people and children of divorce in the last three years and I can say unequivocally that our situation is extreme. I’d like to be able to speak to their father. I would welcome the chance to sit in the same room together no matter how uncomfortable it might be at first. But he will not. Any emotional plea on my part to let bygones be bygones is ignored. Just like every other girlfriend he had before he married me, I am to be forgotten and dismissed forever. It doesn’t matter that I am the mother of his two children.

We live in this perpetually broken loop where everything is lost in the translations of a child’s mind. Brooke tells me her dad thinks I’m a bad parent but can’t tell me why, only that he “doesn’t act like he likes you” when she speaks my name. She goes back and tells him that we are hoping he gets better one day, but he reassures her that he’s not sick. Thirteen Christmases, anniversaries, and summers together, but we became, in an instant, two silent mountains. We reside on the same range, connected inextricably by the sun, snow, and clouds that cross us, but with a deep gulch between. We are ancient together, our history strong, but I am granite and he is shale. When the kids have questions I try in earnest to confirm their reality without poisoning their minds: No, this is not normal. Yes, we both love you. No, you never have to choose. Yes, I like your dad. No, you’re right, he doesn’t like me very much. No, I can’t do anything about that. I love you. I love you. I love you. It’s not your fault. You can’t fix it. I’m sorry.

There’s no blueprint for any of this. If there were, I would have read it by now.

Brooke was in a wheelchair for six weeks after the accident, and used a walker for several more weeks after that. Our regular routines of swimming, arcades, bike riding, and beach trips were no longer possible. We adapted. We researched ADA accessible facilities. We started going to the science museum and upped our movie game quite a bit. In fact, we saw all the movies. Any movie. Even Monster Trucks. We had a new, temporary handicap decal and we got to park in the front row. So in we rolled every other week and we’re still rolling five months after her leg is healed. The habit has stuck.

Sometimes I have to stretch to find a movie that is appropriate for everyone. I’ve heard through the seven-year-old grapevine that their father doesn’t approve of many of my choices and blames any nightmare Brady has on the recent movie I let him watch. My son likes action and fighting, but gets scared at realistic horror (he also cried the first time I read Shel Silverstein’s The Giving Tree). Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children was right up his alley; just enough unrealistic fantasy and action to satisfy his limits of conflict and fear, and the love story wasn’t too sad. My son is not afraid of the ghosts he can see; he’s afraid of the ones he can’t. My daughter, on the other hand, gets sucked into the vortex of emotional drama. She loves it and hates it at the same time. It gives her a taste of complicated relationships, but confuses her when things get too real. If she had it her way, she’d probably choose to live inside the animated Trolls. She’d be perfectly content as a happy-go-lucky, bright-haired troll—specifically, the happiest troll, the one that farts glitter. That’s the world my daughter wants to live in.

The same day we saw A Dog’s Purpose, a movie based on the 2010 bestselling novel by Bruce Cameron, another sweet second grader on the bus told my child about the myth of “Bloody Mary.” And when Brooke got in the car that day, she promptly told her brother about a girl who lives in our bathroom mirror and will come murder him if he says her name three times. Suddenly, we’re no longer driving to the theater—and I’m fielding questions right and left about the physics of mirrors and how these are fake stories to make you scared on purpose. Then my daughter asks, “Why do people tell scary stories in the first place? Why does anyone want to be scared?”

Great question.

“Maybe people want to be scared in stories because it’s good practice,” I tell her. Like Inside Out told us, fear is a real emotion. Scary stories allow us to feel a really serious and necessary emotion with the safety net of knowing it isn’t really going to happen. Bloody Mary is just a story, an implausible one that defies the physics of light reflection and bodily fluids. But it gives us a taste of fear, what we have to learn to manage all of our lives.

By the time we are standing in line for popcorn the conversation is finished and there’s a tender, fatherly Dennis Quaid just waiting to wash happy thoughts about unconditional dog-love all over us. Where could we go wrong?

It’s probably a good time to mention that I’d only seen the previews for A Dog’s Purpose and knew nothing of the actual story. Had I known, I might have reconsidered taking them. It features an abusive marriage, a burning house, a kidnapped girl thrown over a waterfall. (I keep pointing out the waterfalls in the movies we watch. There are so many, you should start counting. Every time you see a waterfall, something scary is about to happen.) And to top it all off, the dog dies like five times, totally gutting your belly only to fill it back up again a few frames later when he is reincarnated as another tail-wagging pup.

Bailey, as the dog is named in his first life, bursts into the world of a boy named Ethan, the boyhood version of Quaid’s character. This is the main person-dog relationship in the movie and it is tender and loving. The boy loves the dog, goes to bat for the dog; they have a special and total bond. As they frolic my daughter leans over to ask if we can please get a dog. But the happy times end as Ethan’s father’s alcoholism progresses and he assaults his wife one night on the lawn when Ethan is a teenager. Ethan kicks his father out of the house and by a series of unfortunate events, the boy’s life changes forever when he falls from the second story of his home after a fire. Eventually, Bailey gets old and dies. Oy.

But this story is one of rebirth, literally, and the dog comes back to life a few more times after having lived another life. Over those lives, the dog learns more about his purpose and about the humans whose fate intertwines with his own.

There is something about the reality of fear so sharp that it heightens every other sense. Recently, my many more fears have given me a sharper clarity of mind. I’m paying attention like never before and not just to the ugly parts. There are the smaller, quieter moments: the mornings my son climbs into my bed, half-awake, wanting to snuggle; the tingling excitement of an unforeseen snow day; their first hug after a long weekend away. I’m left feeling hollowed out by both a chasm of sadness and reservoir of joy. In the next moment I am overtaken by an urgency to repair what has just broken off inside of me. In those moments I’m aching to find better ways to connect to them, to teach them about this complicated world without stealing the beauty of it; to protect them from what they are not ready to hear. Every day they are growing up, and things are, and aren’t, changing forever. I want them to know the truest things.

There is this monologue at the end of A Dog’s Purpose, a nice little hand-of-god moment when the dog tells us the meaning of life as he’s learned it. He says that we are not to frown our faces over where we’ve been or furrow our brows over tomorrow, but to live in this moment. We are to find someone to save, to love and be loved, and to try our best. He says we are not made to be lonely or neglected, and the only way you stop someone from being lonely is by being present.

Basically we all need help. It’s the age-old wisdom of the hippies, Ram Dass and Crosby Stills Nash, “Be Here Now” and “Love the One You’re With.” I like both ideas.

That night before bed my kids had a lot of questions. They were no longer worried about the fake ghost hiding behind the mirror but instead grappled with more nascent fears. My daughter wondered aloud, “What if Daddy is like Ethan’s dad in the movie?” To which I emphatically assured her that he most certainly was not. There was no other right answer. In shaky voices they worried about losing those they loved, whether death is real, and how they never want me or their dad to die. To which I had to keep reminding them of the rebirth. I had to lie with both of them until they fell asleep, with one hand on their bodies as their breathing softened. My son had been wrapped so tightly in his fear of the monsters that he couldn’t see; my daughter was encased in knowing all too well that the party ends someday. But I was more aware than ever. My greatest fear—and my grandest joy—is that I stitch the biggest net of their lives, even as they grow too big to hold. And while it may never be long enough to bridge mountains, it will always be there should they find themselves tumbling over one of life’s waterfalls in need of a place to feel.


Image credits: feature image, image 1, image 2, image 3, image 4, image 5.

Shannon Lell is a writer, single mother and mountain biking enthusiast living in Seattle. She has written for The Washington Post, Longreads, Scary Mommy and much more. She's currently working on a memoir about her political, emotional and sexual awakening in her 30s tentatively titled: The Conservative Slut. You can follow her @ShannonLell on Twitter. More from this author →