“Having a baby is an immoral act — overpopulation, climate change, rise of neofascism,” Rachel (Kathryn Hahn) laments to her husband, Richard (Paul Giamatti), near the start of Tamara Jenkins’ new comedy-drama, Private Life. But despite her misgivings, when her name is called, Rachel, sitting in a fertility clinic waiting room, shuffles off to her egg retrieval surgery in a hairnet and sticky-bottomed socks, taking her chances on creating the baby she’d spent 41 years putting off.
Private Life, which premiered at Sundance in January and was released on Netflix earlier this month, takes place over a bleak, blue-gray New York winter, inside and out of bleak, blue-gray hospital rooms. Rachel and Richard have made it to middle age with many hallmarks of success, though their achievements can sometimes seem like reminders of everything they still don’t have: The couple lives in Manhattan, albeit in a still-gritty part of the East Village that missed the gentrification boat, as Richard jokes; they’ve made careers out of their writing, and yet both are plagued by quiet worries that their best creative work lies behind them; they have a couple of dogs, but no baby.
Richard and Rachel’s desperation for a child seems to stem from taking stock of their lives and thinking: Are we enough? Is this, everything we’ve built for ourselves, enough?
A similar sort of middle-aged New York existential malaise also permeates Marielle Heller’s Can You Ever Forgive Me, starring Melissa McCarthy as the celebrity biographer Lee Israel (based on Israel’s biography of the same name), which was released this past weekend. Back in the ’70s and ’80s Lee wrote profiles and books about the likes of Estée Lauder and Katharine Hepburn, but now, the marketplace isn’t hungry for the book she’s trying to sell, a biography of the comedian Fanny Brice. While researching for her project that’s been going nowhere, however, she finds an original letter written by Brice herself, which, when she sells it to a bookshop, nets her more money than she’s had to her name in a while. So begins Lee’s new venture: fudging, then eventually all-out forging, juicy letters from some of the entertainment and literary greats, which earn her enough cash to cover her rent in a shabby, rat dropping–strewn apartment uptown for the first time in months.
Both Can You Ever Forgive Me? and Private Life are about a city, and an art world, that’s begun to leave its aging creative class behind — particularly those who are queer, female, childless, or all of the above. They’re about how women considered past their prime — older, imperfect, unruly women — grapple with a sense of personal and professional unfulfillment. Neither Rachel nor Lee thinks she has quite enough — enough money, enough time, enough accolades, enough love. Enough of all the things that are supposed to give our lives meaning.
In my own New York storyline, I’m past the point of sleeping on an air mattress in one corner of a three-bedroom Brooklyn apartment, but not yet at the point where I’m thinking about where I’ll live next based on how friendly a neighborhood will be to families. Watching both of these movies, however, reminded me that while I might sometimes think I have all the time in the world to achieve the things I want — writing a book; having a baby — in truth, of course, nobody has the privilege of forever.
In a widely shared recent essay, Tom Scocca reflects on his decision to hop aboard the baby-making train at age 35 with his wife, when “it did not occur to me, in any real way, that as we did this, we were spending down a limited resource.” For educated, urban dwellers in the middle and upper classes, “one is wary of getting married too soon, of having children too young.” But the cultural assumption that we all need to wait around to claim adulthood is, he writes, “a distraction ... to turn your attention away from the only truly certain thing, which is that your time will run out.”
My biological clock, perhaps aware that its time (and humanity’s time on earth, in general) is dwindling, has been going haywire lately. Maybe that’s a good thing, because as a gay woman, I don’t have the luxury of ambivalence when it comes to children. I’m going to have to put a lot of time, money, and effort into figuring out how to create my family.
And yet I do still feel somewhat unsure about babies — more so, the methods I’ll use to have them. Anonymous sperm donation? Known donor? Adoption? For months now, I’ve been devouring novels, memoirs, movies, television shows — anything that might help me figure out what the hell I’m supposed to do, if anything, when it comes to the question of kids.
Watching Can You Ever Forgive Me? and Private Life in quick succession made me realize that the two films fictionalize two diverging paths: In one, there’s a woman who devotes everything to her work, yet still ends up broke and alone; in the other, a woman realizes late in the game she wants to pursue a sort of idealized version of family life, which comes at both a literal cost (IVF is insanely expensive) and at the potential cost of her happiness. Both films premiered during a time at which our future — let alone the future of following generations — seems anything but certain. And both have made me question the path I’m blundering down myself, toward a hazy “someday” of thinking seriously about children; whenever I eventually arrive, will I finally know what I want? And if, or when, I do, will I be too late?
At the beginning of Private Life’s third act, when Rachel and Richard’s deepest, lingering resentments toward the world (and each other) bubble to the surface, Rachel excitedly logs on to her email to view the cover for her new book. She’s less than pleased to discover the image of a woman standing alone in a field of flowers, awash in pastel pinks and purples.
Rachel rails to Richard about how poorly the cover, which her agent justified to her as a marketing decision, actually represents her story. “I do know that if a guy wrote it, it wouldn’t be packaged like a cupcake. I’m so sick of this shit,” she says. Rachel, like Lee Israel, is subjected to the whims of a literary market that doesn’t privilege certain women’s stories.
Rachel feels similarly betrayed by the lie of feminist ideology she was raised to believe — that she could have both a career and children.
“You can’t blame second-wave feminism for our ambivalence about wanting a kid,” Richard tells her. He concedes that, yeah, now she’s no longer ambivalent, but that’s because the train’s leaving the station. “You kept changing the deadline.” Richard thinks they need to take some responsibility for their infertility, which pisses off Rachel, who thinks he’s blaming her for their lack of a child. What is at fault, really — Rachel’s insistence they put off a baby till after her career really got going? Her old eggs? His blocked sperm? Gloria Steinem? And is all of this pain, this heartache, this regret and anger and shame — is parenthood really worth it?
Women writers and other creatives have pondered these questions in their work for decades, though the topic of motherhood in literature has seen a recent surge. Memoirs like Now My Heart Is Full by Laura June, And Now We Have Everything by Meaghan O’Connell, and All You Can Ever Know by Nicole Chung involve the writers’ explorations of relationships with their own mothers as they embark on parenthood themselves. In her novel Motherhood, Sheila Heti’s protagonist investigates her ambivalence about wanting a child to the point of exhaustion before she hits her imposed biological deadline (turning 40).
Queer writers, too, have plumbed these depths, including, of course, Maggie Nelson in her earth-shattering book The Argonauts. More recently, Michelle Tea’s essay collection, Against Memoir: Complaints, Confessions, & Criticisms, includes a beautiful piece called “Baba,” about the name her child uses for her partner, which brought me to tears. Tea, who was in her forties by the time she got pregnant, carried her younger partner’s egg inseminated with the sperm of a “friendly drag queen” — a method that seems as practical as it does magical. I know that if I have a child, no matter what, they’ll be genetically connected to one or more people besides me or my partner, a fact which sometimes makes me sad, even though most of the time I’d rather not admit that, even to myself. But carrying a partner’s egg seems like a beautiful way to physically tie both partners to their child, a method that appeals to me for its romance in spite of (or maybe because of?) its futuristic sci-fi vibes.
Queer people are experts at building unconventional families, both because of the physical realities of babymaking and more broadly because, for many of us, the biological families from whence we came never made us feel at home. Private Life, even though it’s about a straight couple trying to do, perhaps, the straightest thing in the world — get pregnant — takes on queer vibrations when it becomes clear to Rachel and Richard that they may not be able to have a child through their own genetics alone.
Into the dreary swirl of injections and hormones and the news of yet another horribly expensive round of failed IVF comes Richard and Rachel’s niece, Sadie (Kayli Carter), who’s dropped out of her college writing program to come stay with them for a while. Sadie, charming and lovable despite her obliviousness and general lack of life direction, is the living, breathing representation of everything that’s passed Rachel and Richard by: She’s young and beautiful and a bit of a ditz, someone who scoffs at her classmates who’ve gotten work published in literary magazines “no one’s ever heard of,” like one of Rachel’s holy grails, Tin House. She also happens to have the body of a 25-year-old, which means she has 25-year-old eggs, and when Richard and Rachel’s doctor suggests the possibility of using an egg donor, spritely Sadie coming to visit them seems like a kind of sign.
The three of them eventually form a strange little family where all the typical titles are scrambled. Who’s the mother, who’s the daughter, to whom will this mystical fertilized egg eventually belong? Intimate scenes of the three lying in bed together, daydreaming about the family they’re trying to make, intercut with the equally intimate but more uncomfortable shots of Rachel helping her niece inject herself with endless hormones, starkly highlight how this nontraditional family is trying to achieve the most traditional of endeavors: making a baby.
Can You Ever Forgive Me? is also about what it means to have a nontraditional family — as well as what it means to have no family to speak of.
Lee, in the film, blames everyone but herself for her current lack of success. We first see her at a party at her agent’s swanky apartment, glowering her way through the crowds of partygoers. Soon it becomes apparent that she’d never be caught dead at this kind of gathering if she weren’t trying to corner her agent, Marjorie (Jane Curtin), who’s been dodging her calls.
“No one is going to pay for the writer Lee Israel right now!” Marjorie tells her after Lee barges into her office soon afterward. Marjorie’s at her wits’ end; not only does Lee’s biography of Fanny Brice sound completely unappealing, but Lee’s burned every bridge there is to be burned in the literary and publishing worlds. “My suggestion to you is you go out there and you find another way to make a living.”
So she does. By forging letters in other people’s voices, Lee finds her own voice again; she’s scathingly funny, her cynicism and meanness put to entertaining use. It’s the kind of triumph that feels, simultaneously, a little pathetic — besides the obvious fact that nobody is buying these letters because they think they’re written by Lee Israel, she’s also cosplaying as someone who communicates with the wider world, while in reality she’s alone in her apartment with her cat, nursing an alcohol dependency, writing to people who died long ago.
Lee is eventually abetted in her art crimes by Jack (Richard E. Grant), a dashing, impoverished older gentleman who finds her day-drinking in the historic gay bar Julius, and takes a liking to her even though she’s positively nasty to him. Jack, a cheerful gay Brit who sleeps his way through town since he doesn’t have a bed of his own, becomes the closest thing Lee has to a true friend.
With Lee and Jack, Can You Ever Forgive Me? paints a portrait of two childless, older gay people who no longer quite fit into a gentrifying city filling with straight yuppies and their children. Like many queer people from their generation, neither has much of any family to speak of; they have only each other, and even their tie is a tenuous one.
Eventually, with the feds closing in on her, Lee begs her fed up ex, Elaine (Anna Deavere Smith) to meet up, but Elaine — who always felt that Lee was pushing her away — can’t save her.
“I was just supposed to be something more than this,” Lee tells her, defeated. And the real-life Lee Israel, who was, at one point, a best-selling author, died alone, with no partner or children and few close friends, in December 2014.
Both Private Life and Can You Ever Forgive Me? ultimately end on similar notes: that nagging little feeling that (*waves hands*) all THIS wasn’t really enough — the lukewarm reception to passion projects; the unrewarded accolades; the failed relationships, or the relationships, like that of mother and daughter, which never come to fruition.
Lee does end up writing a memoir about her crimes (which, she says in a late scene, she doesn’t regret — actually, they were some of the best times of her life), earning her success and notoriety in the last chapter of her life, and Rachel and Richard are able to help Sadie take the next step in her writing career, cementing the strengths of their little self-made family. Plus, they’ve got yet another lead on yet another potential child. Those are all good things, yes. But couldn’t there be more?
I don’t believe that the trappings of an upper-class, heteronormative life — partner, house, kids — are the only things that make a life worth living. So many childless and/or partnerless queer people build extraordinarily rich, meaningful, fulfilling lives. Still, the uncertain fates of many LGBT people without children to take care of them in old age — without the safety net of a robust health care system or guarantees against discrimination — make me worry about what my own possible childless future might look like. Elderly LGBT people have less income for retirement and are more likely to live in poverty. Lesbian couples over 65, in particular, live in poverty at twice the rate of straight couples. Kids have long since functioned as mini insurance policies for their parents — in our post–marriage equality age, they could do the same for gay couples, right?
In truth, I’d hope to have kids for more than just practical reasons. I grew up in a family ravaged by alcoholism and mental illness and bouts of poverty; I’m fully estranged from one parent and on uneven footing with the other. I’d want what practically every potential parent wants: the opportunity to build something better than what I had. But there’s arrogance in believing we even have that power, when so much about what makes and breaks families is outside of one person’s control. I’m incredibly lucky, and privileged, to have any sort of choice in the matter at all, when full reproductive rights are far from a guarantee to so many people in this country. I know this, and yet the privilege of my choice can still paralyze me.
“If you intend to have children, but you don’t intend to have them just yet, you are not banking extra years as a person who is still too young to have children,” Tom Scocca writes. “You are subtracting years from the time you will share the world with your children.”
I’m not sure I agree that those mindsets are mutually exclusive. It’s impossible for me to know if, by the time I have children — if I do have children — I’ll regret the years I spent selfishly indulging without them, but right now, as I live through these years in the present tense, I certainly don’t regret a thing; I might be the happiest I’ve ever been.
I think it’s a normal, everyday sort of sadness that we can’t live two or more lives at once, and that applies to far more than just the prospect of kids. I’m the sort of person who likes to spend a lot of time alone, and every moment I’m by myself — reading or watching TV or making a poor attempt at whatever new craft I think I can learn that day — is time that I’m not spending with people I love. And every moment I spend with loved ones is time I’m not spending working on my magnum opus, or otherwise bettering myself, or trying to make the world a slightly less shitty place for everyone to live in. But I think — I hope — that no matter which timeline we decide to live through, there’s no single golden option that would guarantee us the most fulfillment.
Maybe there’s a version of me somewhere in the multiverse who has kids right now and is over the moon she decided to start a family. Though, just as likely, there’s an alternative version of me who does so, and regrets it — or, perhaps even more likely, she loves it and regrets it in near equal measure, recognizing that wondering What Could Have Been at any given moment is just a regular old part of the human condition. I wish my hypothetical alternate selves the best. Meanwhile, I’m still trying to figure out whatever it is I should do, and when, with this one life of mine, the only one I’ll ever know. I suppose that's the best I can do. ●