Who Gets To Have A Traditional Family?

The HBO documentary Nuclear Family is a fascinating exploration of who has the right to raise a child. (Spoilers.)

When lesbian couple Robin Young and Sandy “Russo” Russo fell in love in the late 1970s, they thought they were giving up their dreams of having children. Then a (now-former) friend of theirs named Cris Arguedas found an instructional pamphlet in one of San Francisco’s gay bookstores about how lesbians can take motherhood into their own hands. “Look, Cris told them. “Look: You can still have children.

Equipped with an empty artichoke hearts jar — preferred by DIY inseminators at the time for its conveniently wide mouth — and sperm from two different known donors (sperm banks, for the most part, didn’t cater to lesbian clientele), Robin and Russo willed their children into being. Two daughters. Miracle babies.

The youngest, Ry, was born in 1981. She and her parents would eventually become embroiled in a headline-making custody battle concerning her sperm donor’s parental rights, but for the first decade of her life, Ry Russo-Young reflects in her extraordinary new HBO documentary, Nuclear Family, her childhood was an idyllic one: “It was really magical, and there was a lot of playfulness.” She’d even spent multiple happy vacations with the man who’d eventually sue one of her moms for custody: then–superstar gay lawyer Tom Steel, to whom Cris had introduced the couple back when they were searching for their second donor.

“I was not ever a child who wasn’t deeply loved,” Russo-Young says in voiceover over opening clips of herself as a little girl, playing with her sister, her moms, and her sperm donor in New York and California. “If anything, I was loved too much.”

Tom’s lawsuit against Robin Young, who’d given birth to Ry — her other mother, Russo, had no legal rights to their daughter — would plunge the family into years of painful chaos.

Robin and Russo, as much as they were committed to the project of gay liberation and a part of its “wild, loose” culture, insist that they weren’t trying to do anything radical in having kids, like “queering” the traditional family unit. Tom, in his lawsuit, gestured to the benefits of a modern, blended, multiparent tribe, the utopian village of child-rearing to which some queers, then and now, aspire — a vision Robin and Russo vehemently rejected, and still reject. From the outset, according to Ry’s interviews with her parents, they made clear with their donors that they’d have “no rights, no responsibilities.” What the couple wanted, Robin insists, was a “nuclear family.”

Tom’s lawsuit against Robin Young, who’d given birth to Ry — her other mother, Russo, had no legal rights to their daughter — would plunge the family into years of painful chaos. It was an exceedingly ugly court battle that brought institutional sexism and anti-LGBTQ discrimination to the fore. (Even though Tom was gay himself, his lawyers insinuated that two lesbians weren’t fit for motherhood by relying on bunk anti-gay psychiatry.)

But it wasn’t only outdated laws and cultural ignorance that stood in the way of the Russo-Youngs’ dream for that perfect, self-contained nuclear family.

I approached the Russo-Youngs’ story with great personal interest, both as someone who experienced the traumas of custodial court battles as a child and as a gay woman considering whether I want to have children. I wouldn’t have to worry about my partner being denied legal rights as the non-birthing parent, and gay motherhood, while still stigmatized, is much more widely accepted and celebrated today — thanks in large part to trailblazers like Robin and Russo.

But I wouldn’t be afforded the luxury of staying home with my kids, as Robin was able to do while Russo went to work as a lawyer; though rates of stay-at-home parents have risen during the pandemic, it’s become far less financially feasible for many families to survive on a single income.

Perhaps more significantly, the biological facts remain the same. Someday, advances in stem cell research might allow two women to create a baby that shares both of their genetic material, but even if that were to happen in my lifetime, I’d never have the astronomical amount of cash it would be sure to cost. My options: I’d either need a sperm donor (known or anonymous — lesbians have both options now), or I could foster or adopt someone else’s children. It’s a genetic impossibility for a lesbian couple to create a truly “nuclear” family, bigotry and anti-gay prejudice notwithstanding — and perhaps that’s actually a good thing.

Theorist and critic Sophie Lewis in her 2019 book Full Surrogacy Now: Feminism Against Family advances arguments made by a plethora of feminist thinkers who reject the idea that children “belong” to their parents and argue the many harms of organizing our society around the bourgeois, heteronormative two-parent household. The custom of private households, Lewis notes, privileges the making of babies “in the shape of personal mascots, psychic crutches, heirs, scapegoats, and fetishes, not forgetting the avatars of binary sex.” For too many, they are sites of “discomfort, coercion, molestation, abuse, humiliation, depression, battery, murder, mutiliation, loneliness, blackmail, exhaustion, psychosis, gender-straightjacketing,” and “racial programming.” Lewis quotes Nietzche: “‘I want heirs,’ sayeth everything that suffereth. ‘I want children, I do not want myself.’”

We all know what havoc “bad” parents can wreak, but “good” parents do their own kind of damage. Sociologist Margaret Hagerman, who spent two years of book research embedded in upper-middle-class white households, puts it like this: “when being a good citizen conflicts with being a good parent, I think that most white parents choose to be good parents, when, sometimes at the very least, they should choose to be good citizens. … I wonder if even the way we think about what it means to be a parent is to some extent socially constructed. We have other societies that do things differently. I think when we look across time and history and geography, we can see that the way that we’re doing it — prioritizing your own child over everyone else — is one way, but I don’t think that has to be the only way.”

Robin Young tells her daughter in an interview that she was worried coming out meant she’d be denied the “right” to have a family. While she and Russo should never have had to prove their psychological fitness to be parents, and other lesbians of their generation should never have been legally denied access to their children after coming out as gay later in life, is the ability to have children deemed exclusively “your own” a human right? I’m not talking about reproductive justice here — every person on the planet should have the right of bodily autonomy, to choose to get pregnant or to terminate a pregnancy — but the extent of parental rights over a child once they’re born. It’s supposed to be simple; mothers know best, right? But complicated custody battles, like those fueled by racism in child and family courts across the country, prove otherwise. Who has the right to raise a child? What, if not biology, makes a family?

What’s so fascinating about Ry Russo-Young’s documentary — aside from the beautiful way she charts her own emotional growth throughout the project and the deep love she expresses for her mothers — is the ways it depicts lesbians attempting to have a “normal,” self-sustaining nuclear family are tested by the encroachment of realities outside of their control. In this couple’s case, the interloper is someone they see as an illegitimate parent; Russo and Robin attempt to batten down the hatches against Tom Steel and protect what is theirs, which, while understandable, has ultimately disastrous consequences. Ry Russo-Young’s case is an extraordinary one, but in questioning the adults who made decisions for her before she was old enough to make them herself, the filmmaker exposes what can be lost for all of us in naked pursuit of a perfectly “nuclear family.”

Russo-Young recently told the Hollywood Reporter that she’d “resisted the idea of making” this documentary for a long time, wary of focusing on herself and her problems; perhaps more significantly, she didn’t want this custody battle that had long haunted her to end up defining her life. But in embarking on the project, she realized the extent to which she hadn’t resolved her complicated feelings about her donor, who died of AIDS six years after filing for and ultimately failing to get custody rights. The story of the lawsuit had mostly been foisted upon her: “As a child, I had a lot of other people telling this story.” Now, Russo-Young was finally investigating it for herself.

The three-part series, which will conclude on Sunday, begins by highlighting her mothers’ perspectives on the case, as well as documenting their love story, forged in the lesbian counterculture of Boston and New York. A teenaged Ry — Russo-Young has been shooting footage for decades — delights in referring to them as “Juliet & Juliet.”

The couple used two different donors, Russo says, because they “didn’t want any one donor to have such a role — potential power.” Already they were protecting themselves against outside claims to their childrens’ parenthood. The donor who’d helped produce Ry’s older sister, Cade, had alcoholism, so he dropped out of the family’s lives pretty quickly. But they spent a fair amount of time with Ry’s donor Tom, his partner Milton, and Milton’s son, Jacob. It was during those visits that Tom, who’d never before cared about or wanted children, fell in love with his biological daughter.

“He changed his mind,” Russo remembers, bitterly.

Eventually, the mothers grew uncomfortable with how much access Tom and Milton wanted to their girls. They cut Milton off, and eventually Tom, too. Tom and Milton’s many letters begging to restore contact went unheeded. The mothers asked Tom to come to New York in person to work things out. Then, in 1991, Tom sued for custody.

Robin, Russo, and their kids went on talk shows and did national press to bring their plight to the mainstream, and eventually the court decided in the mothers’ favor, in a landmark gay rights case. (It was overturned on appeal, but Tom, dying of AIDS, eventually dropped the suit.)

As the documentary progresses, the mothers’ perspective cedes to that of Tom’s friends and family — Russo-Young specifically sought them out to speak to Tom’s motivations for the suit, since she can no longer ask him herself — as well as Ry’s own evolving point of view. It mimics her own growing agency as she emerged from the fracas and began to “find her voice,” as she told the Hollywood Reporter. She says she was “very in touch with the hate and the fear that I felt during my childhood as a result of the lawsuit and toward [Tom], but I wasn’t clear on any other more murky, ambiguous feelings of affection.” Cris, who lost the mothers’ friendship when she refused to explicitly take their side over Tom’s, tells Ry in an interview that she’d never wanted Tom to file the lawsuit — but that she didn’t think her mothers should have cut him out entirely.

When he died — mild spoilers ahead — Tom left Ry with a trove of old family movies, clips of which would eventually coalesce into the narrative Russo-Young expertly weaves, as well as a videotaped letter in which he tells Ry that he loves her. We’re afforded empathy for the man so viciously villainized by the mainstream telling of the family’s story, as well as by Ry’s mothers themselves.

One of the film’s most remarkable scenes comes toward the end, when Russo-Young plays them some of Cris’s interviews about Tom’s side of the story. According to Cris, Ry’s mothers “purposefully described Tom and your relationship in a way that was utterly false.” Part of that was, of course, because of the lawsuit: They had to tell the court that Tom was nothing special to Ry in order to ensure he couldn’t take her away from them. But perhaps, Cris suggested, that deception also extended to their family home. A following clip of teenage Ry shows her saying that she’d only seen Tom in her youth “once or twice,” that she knew him casually as the man who’d helped to make her. That PR spin, coupled with her genuine fear of being taken away from her family, eventually became what Ry accepted as her own reality. But “the truth,” Cris says, “would have been to say to you, ‘We loved him, you loved him, he was important to you, and then he dropped a nuclear bomb on our heads and now we hate him.’”

Ry shows her mothers this interview with Cris, and their tearful exchange concerns whether Robin and Russo shut Tom out for them, or for her.

“You,” says Russo, instantly. Then she adds: “All of us.”

Ry suggests that, without the context of a lawsuit, she might not have minded as a child visiting Tom by herself. Her mothers push back: “It wouldn’t be our family anymore,” Russo says. “It wouldn’t be the family we wanted, we planned, that we struggled for, that we loved.”

“[The family] that we had,” Robin interjects. “That existed.” It’s a fascinating moment in which Robin corrects Russo for suggesting that their family had in any way been socially constructed. And yet both worried that outside influence could easily destroy it.

“What would have been worse,” Ry asks. “Four years of the lawsuit, or [seeing him for] the six years he would have lived?”

For her mothers, the answer is obvious. For Ry, less so. Still, Russo says: “I love you for loving him.”

The documentary culminates in the mothers getting married among a sea of other happy gay couples, and Russo-Young having a family of her own. This isn’t a project devoted to family abolition, clearly: The filmmaker, in a voiceover, says that Tom gave her a gift in forcing her to confront her family’s fragility, which only “made it more precious.” The “unbelievable joy” families can bring, for Russo-Young, completely outweighs their attendant sadnesses. Still, I think, we can read it in the context of questioning what a “nuclear family” even is, or should be. And that, as history marches forward, we can only continue to push the limits of love’s possibilities. ●

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