“The Kids Are All Right” and the Obligation of “Third-Party Parents”
Because I’m at least a year behind when it comes to movies, I did not watch Harry Potter this weekend. I’ll probably wait until this time next year, when the crowds have died down a little. Instead, I saw The Kids are All Right. (Just as a warning, this post will discuss the plot, but it’s been out for a while, so this shouldn’t be a problem.) The movie centers on a lesbian couple, Nic and Jules (Annette Bening and Julianne Moore) and their children, Laser (Lazar [Wolf]?) and Joni, half-siblings from the same anonymous sperm donor. Joni turns 18; they contact said donor, Paul, a single restaurateur. Underlying, and in a way defining, the uncertainty Paul’s arrival brings to their family are two tensions: a marital/domestic tension between Nic and Jules, and the tension resulting from the unresolved question of Paul’s relationship to the rest.
His introduction to his biological offspring (one can assume young Paul thought no one would ever want to use his sperm when he donated it) changes him. He sees, suddenly, that he could be more than what he’s on track to be, “a fifty year-old just hanging out” and wandering through just-for-sex relationships. He discovers that he wants a relationship with his children—but a certain kind of relationship. He begins to feel obligated toward his children, even though he previously knew nothing of their existence. He wants to feel obligated as a husband and a father; he expresses several times, under drastically different circumstances, that he (now, suddenly) wants a family of his own.
Paul, noticeably, never claims that he has any rights toward his biological children as their father, not even when he attempts to see them after his affair with Jules has been discovered—rather, he claims that he owes Laser/Lazar and Joni an apology/awkward explanation. His true failure through the affair is not simply slipping into the role of “homewrecker,” but that he has failed with respect to this nebulous, undefined (semi-fatherly) obligation toward his children and that, even more, he has undermined his ability to ever fulfill this obligation by destroying the relationships he had with them. His two attempts to resolve the problem caused by the affair are, in fact, attempts to restore/formalize his relationship to his children:
- He offers to Jules, thinking himself in love with her, that she leave Nic and marry him. Though his relationship with his children would be damaged even more than it now is, he would have become part of an official family through marriage, thus resolving the existence of the relationship necessary to fulfilling any obligation toward them.
- When this is turned down, he appears to apologize to Joni before she leaves for college. This, he explains, is because it is what is owed to her, not what he has a right-as-parent to do. It is an attempt to repair.
The first plan is treated as the foolishness that it is; the latter ends, for him, ambiguously as Nic tells him that he can speak to her of family after he has spent eighteen years building one. One-by-one, the family turns away from him. The last image the audience has of Paul, with some fifteen minutes of film left, is of him hurling his helmet at his motorcycle in a desperate fury. He has failed, knows it, and is truly distraught. To him, any relationship with his children is likely beyond repair and will cease to exist. He will feel obligated toward them, but will be unable to act.
The movie itself takes a more ambiguous approach; lost to even partially distracted viewing in the emotional aftermath of this encounter and the rushed action of a college departure, Joni returns, at the last minute, to her room to bring the gardening hat Paul gave her; the door cracks open slightly.
So the question, to which neither I nor the movie have any good answer, is this: is this “3rd-party parent” (for lack of a better term) in fact obligated, as (if) a parent, toward his/her children? And, if so, what form does that obligation take? I’m not sure, after all, that we can claim it is (or even ought to be) the same as that of the primary/rearing parent. And a bonus question for thought: are the biological children, as children to a parent, in any way obligated toward the “3rd-party parent”?
I ask these questions, for your consideration at home or in the comments, not because of New York’s marriage law or projections of the normalization of same-sex marriage, but because this is a broader matter. The family in The Kids Are All Right is, in this matter, analogous to a straight family with an adopted child, or which, because of infertility, had to make use of an egg/sperm donor. The possibility of the number of parents suddenly jumping from the typical (“normal”?) two to a crowded three is one that has been made more plausible and likely over the past half century, from causes technical (IVF), bureaucratic (adoption agencies), and societal (de-stigmatization of adoption, normalization of gay families).