The other night my partner and I watched the movie “The Kids are All Right.” Despite the fact that it came highly recommended by everyone from my parents (who saw it in the theater) to many of our lesbian friends, we both found it absolutely abhorrent. I’ve read the rave reviews and can’t help but wonder what we were missing in what we both agreed was a slow-moving, predictable, and frankly Hollywood heterosexist take on a modern American family. I don’t think the problem lies with Lisa Cholodenko, the director who’s previous films, Laurel Canyon and High Art, are two of my favorites. I mean, she’s a lesbian herself, so was she made to bend to the whims of what mainstream media could tolerate? I get the premise, trust me: lesbian couple together for more than two decades has issues with complacency in their relationship. The spark has gone out. One is a Type-A, overworked, controlling breadwinner with a penchant for just a few more glasses of wine with dinner than should be acceptable. The other is at loose ends, having been the stay-at-home mom to their two children who are now older teenagers, lacking the daily hands-on need that she once provided. What I didn’t get (and I promise I will get to the point of this middle-of-the-night-and-I-can’t-sleep ramble) was the believability factor. These two straight actresses had no chemistry whatsoever. The motions and machinations were understandable, but I found them forced and lacking in true foundation. I felt betrayed when Julianne Moore’s character so easily jumped in bed with the children’s recently discovered biological father. There was a heterosexual crowd-pleaser if I ever saw one. So cliche: it only takes one straight, unattached sperm donor with a big dick (properly oohed and aahed over) to turn the dyke into a squealing hot mess, never giving thought to the consequences that might be wrought by her actions.
The real plot point of the whole fiasco is also the real reason I’m writing at this hour. The older of the two children has turned 18 and at the request of her brother, she makes a single phone call to the cryobank used to obtain sperm to create both children, and within days they are face to face with their bio-daddy (who miraculously lives in the same city, but that’s another contentious point). From then on, he becomes a central character in their lives, more than just a concrete face to go with a heretofore unknown name.
My own son was conceived in much the same way. Well, actually, the very same way. My then partner and I spent several years and an enormous amount of money trying to get me knocked up. Initially, we approached a friend to be the donor and were turned down–as he felt that he could never be truly hands-off when the child was born. In retrospect, this was a very good thing, as our relationship ended in divorce and the addition of a known donor who was also a friend might have made things much messier than they already were. For several years we exclusively used donors who were willing to be made known to the child when he or she turned 18, just as in the movie. However, when it came down to the cycle that resulted in the successful conception of my son, our top three choices were unavailable. Providence dictated that our son was conceived using a donor who had signed a clause stipulating that he was not willing to be contacted by any of his potential offspring.
As you can imagine, this movie–while I loathed the film itself–brought up more than a few issues for me. My son is young, not yet a teenager, just into double digits. He is, and always has been, fully aware of the nature of his conception. He has seen photos of his donor father. He has seen photos of a few of his half-siblings. At this point, he seems not to care. The circumstances of his birth served to bring him into an extended family of loving women. He has many friends who are being raised in similar circumstances and as far as I can tell, none of them are yet asking to know who their paterfamilias is. My child currently moves through the world easily and unashamed. He is very forthright about how he came to be. At 10, he is a bright student, a gifted athlete, and popular among his peers. He also has no qualms about his “three moms,” as he puts it and easily explains that his “mama” lives far away but they talk almost every day by phone. He is ever eager to share the news of his latest camping adventure with the cub scouts or the grades on his report card. When my partner had to pick him up from school one day when I was sick he was asked to identify her before they would let him leave with her. “That’s Li,” he said simply. The teacher said yes, but who IS she? He looked at her as if she had suddenly gone dull in the head, “That’s my MOM.”
Today, she is his “Maddy.” It is nearing dawn on Father’s Day. My son came to me on Mother’s Day with a dreamcatcher he had found in his room. “I want to give this to Li but not today,” he said, “today is Mother’s Day. I’ll give it to her for Father’s Day.” I just smiled and nodded. He identifies with her as the more masculine role in the family. She does the yard work, teaches him how to handle power tools, they work in the wood shop together, and go “man shopping” for my birthday and Christmas gifts. He has male role models in his life; some men have moved in and out of his life, some, like my father and my brother-in-law, are constant. But he is learning to be a man from my female-bodied partner. She is his “Maddy”; that strange combination of mother/daddy influence. When he has questions or concerns that are “boy-related,” he goes to her. She teaches him about loving and respecting women. She teaches him how to be the man of the house. Together, they exude this testosterone-driven miasma and until I recently acquired a female kitten, I often felt like the only woman in the house.
For now, my son has no interest in his biological father. When we talk of him, he quickly moves onto other, more interesting, topics of discussion. Meanwhile, I see this stranger’s face in the face of my child. His eyebrows, the shape of his mouth, his long and lean frame. I wonder what we will all do if he begins to exhibit interest in knowing who this man is today; if he will have questions as to why this stranger chose to father unknown children. In the meantime, I celebrate this day. I thank God for the chance I was given to bring this amazing child into the world, into my life, and into the lives of those who know and love him. This stranger, this unknown man, made a sacrifice (albeit a paid one) to provide me with the means to have a biological child. Whether we ever know who he is or why he did it, I will be forever grateful.
So, unknown donor man, I raise my proverbial glass to you. As we get together with my own father today, I will think of you as I watch my son play ball in the yard with his “Maddy,” and I will say a silent prayer of thanks for your assistance in this incredible creation. No matter what lies ahead of us, I am truly blessed. So, unknown donor man, I wish you a very happy Father’s Day. And no, I won’t be jumping in the sack with you, should we ever chance to meet.
Just in case you were wondering.