One thing I like best about marriage is that I always have someone to trade memes with. For me, that person is my husband. The memes he sends are accompanied by words that these days are devoid of meaning. “Incredible,” he’ll type. “IMPORTANT.” “Would.” Sometimes I don’t even click through. Last week, when he sent me a 34-second video of a mother sloth being reunited with her baby in Costa Rica, he wrote, “Unfortunately I liked this.” I get it: Every time I watch this video, I experience what I’m embarrassed to admit is a physical ache. The way the mom sloth looks over her shoulder is viscerally, painfully poignant (though it might just be because she’s moving so slowly). When the baby catches her eyes, she looks taken aback with recognition. “Oh, it’s you,” she seems to say, and you can hear the baby chirping as it is helped aloft by a disembodied human hand. Then, as the viewer’s breath is inevitably caught in his or her chest, the hand reaches up with the palm-size three-fingered sloth, and the mother sloth reaches out with her unwieldy claws to gather the baby to herself, safe at last with its arms around her neck.
The Jaguar Rescue Center in Costa Rica originally shared the video on Instagram in May, before it made its way to Twitter, stripped of context and ready for human projection. As a viewer, I was shaken. “A mother’s love in slow motion,” one user commented.
The day my husband shared the video with me, we were each at the ends of our ropes. We were in the middle of moving. Our 4-year-old was home on a break from preschool while we tried to work. My own mother had just been diagnosed with Stage 4 cancer, and there were so many forms to fill out, so many difficult conversations to have. I was holding it together fairly well — or, I was until I watched this video. The caption on the rescue center’s Instagram post explained that staff members found the baby sloth “crying on the floor near the beach.” When they located the mom, they recorded the baby’s cry and played it near the tree to get the mom’s attention. “We waited patiently while the mom came down for the baby.”
I get, maybe, why my husband qualified his appreciation for the video. There is something manipulative about evoking the bond between mother and child, projecting human emotions onto animals but skirting parenting’s actual challenges. We’ve become alert to the ways society idealizes motherhood without supporting it in any substantive way. In the United States, human mothers and their children live with the burden of unmet needs in a society that is not in any rush to help them. I know to resist being taken in by content that distorts parenting’s reality by omitting its challenges.
But then — the visceral feeling in my chest as the sloth saw her baby! The yearning of the child and mother within me! It’s as if what overjoys me in those moments is precisely the experience of having my resistance, my ideological vigilance, overtaken. In her 1969 essay “Trash, Art and the Movies,” the critic Pauline Kael argued that all of us snobs are secretly yearning to be relieved of our knowingness. “Alienation is the most common state of the knowledgeable movie audience,” she wrote, “and though it has the peculiar rewards of low connoisseurship, a miser’s delight in small favors, we long to be surprised out of it — not to suspension of disbelief nor to a Brechtian kind of alienation, but to pleasure, something a man can call good without self-disgust.”
It’s not that I think this video affords me anything but a brief respite from the awareness that I’m a cog in the attention economy’s machine. It’s just that, well, if we are going to passively consume content served up by an algorithm designed to maximize ad impressions by preying on our anxieties, shouldn’t we at least get a hit of dopamine? I have always found solace in difficult art, but some nights lately, the luxury of giving myself over to a plot becomes just that — a luxury. The only media my frayed nerves will tolerate are Reddit threads on plant identification and the gentle Japanese reality-TV export “Old Enough,” in which young children are sent to run errands. Of course I want to be shaken out of my stupor; instead I cry over a sloth video and feel somewhat ashamed. For a quick minute, though, I also feel better.
I wonder if looking down our noses at the bald sentimentality of animal videos is something that we can ever afford to do, even as the world is in crisis. When I was in my mid-20s, in 2009, cute animal videos were as culturally dominant as they had ever been in contemporary history, though their availability seemed to be at an unprecedented high. I remember declaring at work that baby animals were “not my internet.” I am more interested in human beings, I would tell my co-workers, who rolled their eyes at me.
Now I think: What was I trying to say? That I was tough? That I was an intellectual, an internet connoisseur? There was something about witnessing tenderness that made me feel impatient and annoyed. Now it occurs to me that I was trying to choke out some small soft part of me. I was hoping it would die from neglect.
Part of me resented — still resents! — the attention we pay these animals, especially compared with all the human failure we are so willing and eager to turn away from. How mesmerized people are by these animals, the potency of our reaction, so accepting, so loving, so open. How careful we would be with those sloths! I’m right here, I was wanting to say when I was younger. I’m real! I’m human.
It’s how I feel now, again, as a mother in this country, wishing for the compassionate attention of literally anyone. The same month everyone on Twitter was weeping over these sloths, all the progressive family policy was stripped from President Biden’s historic Inflation Reduction Act. Mothers and children do not have the human equivalent of the Jaguar Rescue Center, I want to say to people. We are the fount from which you get your feeling! We need universal health care!
And yet: I take breaks from working at my computer, and reading the bad news, to hug my 4-year-old son to me, the way that sloth hugs her baby. I hug my mom a lot lately too, more than I have in years, and then I am the baby sloth, being gathered up.
Just as in the cultural imagination, the difficult work of caregiving and the needs of the people who do it are conveniently elided in this video. Still, the sloths remind us of what we do have, and what we need more than ever. It is meaningful work, to love another being, and if you can resist the urge to leave your baby crying on the beach and head for the canopy, it is its own consolation. I know we should hold fast to the love part, even in 34-second intervals, to gather strength for the rest of it.
Source photographs: CSA Images, via Getty Images; Kevin Schafer/The Image Bank, via Getty Images.