We Waddle But We Don’t Fall Down

I unwittingly exposed Emmy, and by extension Jon and myself, to the existential nightmare that is Happy Feet.

My intentions were good, I swear it. One cold Saturday morning earlier this year I took Emmy to be tested for the NYC Department of Education Gifted and Talented program (itself a gnawing abyss of parental self-recrimination), and after her test we went out for donuts and then wandered in the CVS. Awash in relief to have the test over and brimming with optimism for her future, I bought her everything she asked for, including the Happy Feet DVD. What did I know? It won Oscars! Hugh Jackman! Tap dancing! Hugh Jackman! Baby penguins! Hugh Jackman!

Suffice to say I should have read the reviews, and was hard pressed to explain the 2001: A Space Odyssey homage. And the tracking device implanted in Mumble. And his grief-driven psychotic break and hallucinations. Oh, and global warming, overfishing, and the menace of human encroachment.

Because Emmy is 4-years-old, we never watch a movie just once. On repeat viewings, I’ve become more impressed with Savion Glover‘s outrageous talent and more horrified by the film’s darker undertones, but Emmy has clearly been meditating on something else.

For the uninitiated, the movie opens with a colony of Emperor penguins ritually courting, and then the mother penguins go off to sea to forage for food, while the father penguins stay behind to huddle in the bone-splintering cold and incubate the eggs.

During a recent screening, Emmy turned to me and patted me on the arm. “The mommy penguins go to work,” she said.

“Yes,” I answered.

“The daddy penguins stay home and take care of the babies.”

“Yes,” I agreed.

She nodded. “We’re a penguin family,” she said, patting her chest, and turned back to the screen.

I opened my mouth to say something, and then closed it. She’s right, of course. I work full time, and Jon stays home, and while we know we made the right choice for our family, we both struggle with the decision at times. He with the cultural stigma of not being a breadwinner, and the isolation of being a stay-at-home-dad in a landscape populated mostly by moms and female caregivers. Me with the stress of being our sole source of support, my lengthy commute, and with being away from her.

But in this new light, from Emmy’s perspective, it all feels lighter. And it all makes sense. We’re not off-beat or progressive or rule-breakers or modern or brave (all things we have been called by various “supporters” of our arrangement).

We’re just penguins.

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