If women can raise children without men, Justin Cascio writes, where does that leave men?
In my childhood in the 1970s and ‘80s, the prevailing social experiment was whether children could thrive in families headed by a single, working woman, a la Murphy Brown. The situation is now commonplace, and people who think otherwise are unflatteringly compared to the man who famously could not spell “potato.”
My generation has seen the fragmentation of the nuclear family. Now that we’re grown, we try to restore the traditional family model in ways that work for us. As we do, we’re tinkering with its roles and forms, sometimes by choice, sometimes by necessity. Couples raise kids together but don’t necessarily marry. Grandparents raise kids, for a variety of reasons. Step-families form and come apart. Amid this diversity of ordinary families, my progressive community contains families whose configurations still defy expectations: divorced lesbian households with three and four mommies, men who give birth, sperm donors who are part of the kids’ lives, but not parents—”spuncles,” one family calls theirs—and yet more dizzyingly complex bonds of community, family, affection, and love that surround and embrace the children in them. The kids accept it as normal, because for them, it is. And despite our hand-wringing, many of them will be just fine.
In The Kids Are All Right, Lisa Cholodenko’s film about the changing family, lesbian moms Jules and Nic have teenage kids, a boy and a girl, one the biological child of each mother, with the same sperm donor dad. When 18-year-old Joni is old enough to do so, her younger brother, Laser, asks her to make contact with their biological father. Joni does, and in short succession she and Laser meet Paul, their donor dad, he meets their moms, one of them falls for him, and—spoiler alert—they have an affair, which is soon exposed. The moms stay together, and their relationship seems unharmed by the affair. Yet there’s little doubt that Paul will not remain in Laser and Joni’s life; he’ll simply fade away rather than weather the consequences of the affair.
Why it seems tragic rather than good riddance is that Paul is the kind of guy other Gen-X guys want to be like—or at least think they want to be like. For the men who are too old for Twilight, but have not yet surrendered to the soccer van pool, the new masculine ideal looks a lot like Mark Ruffalo. Sperm-donor dad Paul is attractive to women not only for his mature good looks, but also for his liberal attitudes, as well as his evident professional success. Every clue to Paul’s identity establishes him as a man who thrives in the modern world. He’s in an interracial relationship with his restaurant’s hostess. He’s cool with lesbian moms; they’re just the kind of people he wanted to help by donating sperm. He’s cool with meeting their kids, too, and curious: will they feel a bond?
Paul is part of my generation. We are the MTV generation, a.k.a. “Generation X,” a.k.a. “Slackers.” After our Breakfast Club years, if we didn’t fail to launch and become permanent “Mall Rats” and “Clerks,” we moved out and got the kind of jobs that put us in “Office Space”: still angsty but unavoidably adult. Ten years after the dot com bubble burst, we’re in our thirties and forties, and some of us have given up on the race for cool, have paired off, and settled into the unglamorous work of paying mortgages and making dinner. We’re no longer “the kids,” but, so used to seeing ourselves on the screen, our most pressing question is not for Joni and Laser but for Jules, Nic, and Paul, and by extension, ourselves. Did we turn out all right?
Nic and Jules seem to have turned out well enough, if far from perfect. Nic’s a driven, Type-A sort who drinks a little too much, and Jules’ passion sends her headlong into situations for which she has no exit plan. But they have each other and exert positive, stabilizing influences: Jules softens Nic’s hard edges and drops everything for the kids, and Nic’s career as a physician protects their household from the vicissitudes of Jules’ business sense.
I’m more worried about Paul. I want to understand what went wrong with him—and by extension, other men of my generation. That Paul is still single and childless is just one sign that something may be off. He doesn’t tell Jules she’s wrong to fire her assistant, who cannot help but witness their affair. He doesn’t stop Laser’s friend from skateboarding off the roof, and when he breaks his arm, drives the kid home. Paul’s beautiful young girlfriend and employee, Tanya, would love to have babies with him, but there is a distinction between the self-image Paul cultivates in order to feel good about himself and how he lives his personal life. The successful, self-made man who didn’t step on anybody to get where he is today, the guy who likes to help people and would like to someday have a respectable family, takes what is offered, but doesn’t offer anything of himself. Meeting Laser and Joni is just another fun way to help people that doesn’t require much on his part. If they don’t hit it off, he just won’t see them again.
Paul’s involvement with the kids could have ended at the sperm bank, and like the title of the movie suggests, they would have been all right. Joni and Laser are raised in a stable home by two loving parents. Other than for donating sperm, a man was not necessary to make this family, and Paul had no part in their success. But does this mean that, because (at least some) women can raise children perfectly well without men, that men are not part of the human family?
At the end of the movie, Paul can walk away from Joni and Laser because he isn’t their dad, isn’t anything like a dad to them. In having an affair, Paul and Jules make a huge mistake together, but there is never any question that Jules will leave Nic or the children over it. Even though their mom has an affair, the kids are all right because she never stops being their mother.
Men are half of humanity, so how can their absence not matter? The kids were all right without Paul, but if he’d been there for them, he could have become essential. No one in Laser’s household full of women sees him as a “sensitive jock,” the way Paul describes him after meeting him just once. In contrast, Jules angrily tells her son that she wishes he were gay so he would be sensitive. Joni needs to know that she can be loved by a man without having to charge their relationship with sex. Paul would have become a better person for committing to his relationships: the person Joni wishes he would have been.
Loving bonds change us and the people we love. We grow into the roles we see ourselves fitting into. By becoming professionals, through having committed relationships with partners, traveling, and having other formative experiences, we develop parts of ourselves that would never come to light otherwise. Being mentors to young people creates another image of ourselves that we stretch to fill. In addition to building families of our own, we can become family by loving others and staying committed. For kids, relationships such as those with close neighbors, honorary or actual uncles, a “spuncle,” a stepdad, coach, pastor, friends of their parents, and other trusted adults are as critical as the relationships they have with their parents. To be a trusted adult in a kid’s life, it doesn’t matter what they call you, as long as they know they can call on you. These relationships may be purely at will, with no legal rights attached to them, and there are forces that will want to push you back out again. It takes faith in your own importance to other people to stay in the face of those forces.
Joni would have let Paul stay in her life: it’s evident from the fact that she steps outside and closes the door to stand with him and let him say whatever he will. If you find yourself, by whatever strange twists, in Paul’s place, or something like it, all you have to do to not screw this up is to not play it cool. Be unafraid to show how much you care. “Cool” guys step back. Heartfelt ones steps forward. Guess which one gets to be a part of a child’s life.
For Paul to continue having a relationship with his kids would have been difficult, but possible. It wasn’t enough for them to be curious about one another. It would have required faith that regardless of what brought them together, once he was in their lives, the commitment was real. People change to become parents, or they fail to parent. Paul fails.
—Photo tinou bao/Flickr