[11 February 2008]
America’s cultural debate about motherhood rages on. As this documentary about single mothers proves—specifically about women who choose to be single mothers—the promises and perils of the biological clock are resonating more loudly than ever with some women in today’s society. And Baby Makes Two follows eight women who made a decision to become mothers without waiting for the perfect mate. The reason is usually the booming ticking sound of that biological clock as women in their late 30s and early 40s try to make it across the babygate finish line before it’s too late. The women pictured here live independent lives, down to making their own two-person family with their baby.
And Baby Makes Twooffers an interesting parallel to the recent spate of books about motherhood myths. Populating those pages are anxious moms feeling trapped by motherhood and missing their careers; upper middle-class career women jumping off the career track to have kids; women arguing that the work world hasn’t made the structural changes that would allow them to have both family and careers, i.e., social structures haven’t caught up to the promise of the women’s movement.
This documentary is about some of those categories of women. Some have put their careers in front of starting a family and time has crept up on them and they now don’t have the option to wait to find an appropriate partner to have the baby. Some have been in relationships with men who don’t want children and now decide to go it alone and have a kid, anyway—before it’s too late.
For some of the women chronicled here, it turns out to be too late, as the fertility treatments they endure fail and they turn to adoption. But for all of them, the struggle they go through involves coming to terms with their own feelings about motherhood and their identity, their own sense of balancing career and family, and their decision to have their child solo. For some that means getting male friends to donate sperm. For others that means a trip to the sperm bank. For all that means some complex feelings about fathers.
The documentary focuses on a single mother’s support group in New York City, and the filmmakers follow the women over the course of two years as they each try to have or adopt a baby. As directors and producers Judy Katz and Oren Rudavsky describe it, the film is “a story of women who, earlier in life, had taken every precaution to prevent pregnancy, and who now actively pursue it—without the help of a partner.” These women fight an uphill battle against the social pressure to become mothers or to get married, against the stigma they find themselves facing for making single motherhood a choice (as friends and family members express concerns about what it will mean for the babies to grow up without fathers, some calling the women selfish for doing it), and against their own expectations and beliefs about family and their own childhood experiences. Some seem determined to de-stigmatize this alternate route to motherhood.
The support group turns out to be a vital resource. These women help each other out, performing roles that a husband might perform, such as going to doctor visits, fertility clinics, birthing classes, and attending the delivery. Or, for mothers of adopted children, sharing research about adoption agencies, supporting each other’s efforts, going to the airport to welcome the mother and her child “home” via a different kind of delivery (usually a flight from China or Guatemala).
In addition to the solidarity and support, these women learn from each other about differing models of motherhood and varying expectations about family. One woman feels immense guilt at the idea of having a baby without the father being a part of the child’s life, in part because she had such an idyllic, 1950s-style childhood with an intact nuclear family. For this woman, the absence of a father for her child is a big issue, because her own father died when she was 12 and her family never fully recovered from it. In contrast, for another woman in the group, she herself was the child of a single mother and doesn’t miss the other model because she never experienced it. Throughout, we see these women come to grips with the real power that cultural expectations and norms can have over them, and how that can impact their daily lives.
One strength of the documentary is how it provides some historical and cultural context for what these women are going through. Originally released in 1999, And Baby Makes Twoincludes discussions of what social expectations about motherhood are at that time, and about the flourishing business of fertility treatments and international adoption. One woman, discussing why she waited until later in life to think about having a baby, talks about being in college during the women’s movement in the ‘70s, and how everyone looked down on the women who wanted to get married and have babies. The idea was to have an adventurous life and a meaningful career. Having focused on her career for many years, this woman now finds herself turning to the idea of a child and her own family as the adventure she wishes to take.
The implication is that the social agendas of the women’s movement have come full circle in the sense that these women who wanted to be independent career women never fully came to terms with that other set of social pressures, the messages about motherhood being stereotypically framed as the locus of happiness or meaning in life. Something about the biological clock has suddenly kicked in for them, and they rush to have the motherhood experience themselves, all while struggling with expectations and ambivalences.
But their idealizations of what motherhood would mean for them, and what it actually turns out to be, vary widely. The reality of motherhood is that much more bracing for them precisely because they have waited so long and have worked so hard for it.
We see the reality behind the fantasy in one of the DVD’s bonus features, a look at these women and their children 10 years later. We learn that the results of their baby quests have been complicated. Sometimes joyous, sometimes heartbreaking, always challenging.
One of the happier stories is about a woman who had a male friend donate the sperm for her son, and 10 years later finds her sunnily ensconced in her New York City life with her son. They have made their own family and they have fun, enjoying the support of family and friends, and because the city is so cosmopolitan, the son doesn’t feel any different from his peers. Things seemed to have worked out well for her. But her life is not without complications. She wants the male donor friend to be a part of her son’s life, but not as a normal father, more like a family friend.
But her son has other ideas. He talks instead of wanting to see his father more and of how he doesn’t want his mother to marry anyone else because he doesn’t want a second father. She talks about how she thinks it will be hard for her son when he grows up because he gets to be the center of the universe in their little family of two, but he can’t expect that kind of undivided attention from others when he becomes an adult.
This woman’s secure career and upper middle-class status seem crucial to her ability to pull it all off as a single mom. The film does not really address the question of lower class women who are forced into single parenthood, and the economic struggles they face.
But one of the stories ends up speaking to this class issue in some way, because one of the career woman single moms falls on hard times and ends up having a real struggle. A vibrant, energetic, optimistic woman in the earlier sequences of the film, she is the one in the group who urges international adoption as a viable option for her and for some of her peers. She goes to China and brings back a baby girl from an orphanage, and her arrival to the cheers of her cohort at the airport seems to offer the promise of an exciting life to come.
Ten years later, she is almost unrecognizable. After getting the baby, she lost her job, had to move to upstate New York, had trouble finding another good job, discovered that her child has a number of developmental and behavioral problems, and found herself overwhelmed and far from the cocoon of her family and support group. The film implies she had a nervous breakdown. In her direct address interviews to the camera, she talks about how she didn’t fully realize that raising a child isn’t like recreating another little version of her, and that the deep differences she has with her child have been shocking to her.
As the energetic preteen runs around the house and her mother looks weary and defeated, although committed to her little family unit, we get a poignant sense of dashed hopes and unmet expectations. While this storyline might lead one to conclude that the film is advocating biological births over adoption in a problematic way, there are other mothers interviewed in the film who have had a happier experience with adoption.
In the end, the film reveals the inner workings of the motherhood dance in all its difficulty. These women strike a blow for independence, which requires heroic effort on their part. And they show the abiding challenges of revising norms and expectations even further.
Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/and-baby-makes-two/