Amie Klempnauer Miller is the author of She Looks Just Like You: A Memoir of (Nonbiological Lesbian) Motherhood. Miller works as a development consultant to the public media industry and lives with her partner and daughter in St. Paul, Minnesota.
I sit in the dark next to Jane, munching the contraband cinnamon roasted nuts that we snuck into the movie theater, past the NO OUTSIDE FOOD OR DRINK sign. Against all odds, we have finally secured a babysitter and made it out to see The Kids Are All Right. Fairly early in the movie, the two mothers, Nic and Jules, are lying in bed together. “Good night, chicken,” one says. “Good night, pony,” says the other. Jane nudges me just as I elbow her. “Oh my god,” I say. “They are such lesbians.”
I like the film immediately for the way it captures the long-term lesbian relationship, at least one version of it, right down to the menagerie of nicknames. There’s overmothering at the dinner table; snuggling in front of the TV; tensions around work; years-old inside jokes; rehashed insecurities --- basically the challenges, joys, hopes and disappointments of marriage, all wrapped up with an estrogen bow.
But I’m interested in the film not just because I am a lesbian in a long-term relationship, not just because I want to see this film that has brought lesbian-headed families to mainstream attention.
I want to see it because we, too, have an anonymous donor in our lives, though for the time being, he is still anonymous. I don’t know if we will ever meet him. I would like to leave that up to our daughter to decide since her relationship with him is decidedly closer than ours. So far, Hannah, who is now just seven years old, has not expressed much interest in her donor. Will she want to meet him someday? I have no idea. Would I like to meet him someday? I don’t know the answer to that one either.
For now, at least, I think that I will be OK with whatever she chooses. But there are a million or more variables that could push me in different directions, toward Nic’s defensiveness or toward Jules’ reaction (well, maybe not the jumping-into-bed part, though I understand it served the movie’s plot).
But really? Would I be OK? I mostly liked the character of Paul, the donor, but he was in a movie, not in my life. And although I liked him, I nonetheless wanted to cheer when Nic tells him: This is not your family. Because it was not his family; it was a family to which he was genetically connected. That’s a crucial difference. And yet . . .
I also get it that these things are complicated. The truth is that sperm donors and half-siblings who share the same donor are both family and not family, all at the same time. Hannah’s sperm donor is not her “father” in any meaningful sense of the term, but he is also not just a random guy. He does share a connection with her. He shares features with her. His influence is felt in her life, whether or not it is ever directly acknowledged. What’s more, a passel of half-siblings are out there, growing up in families across the Midwest. Several of them have two moms; some have a mom and a dad. A few are known to us. They are connected and not connected, related and not related, all at the same time.
So Nic is both right and wrong when she tells Paul that her family is not his family. The fact is that the lines of kinship are blurrier – or perhaps more multifaceted – in gay- and lesbian-headed families, a reality that drives our opponents nuts. I don’t believe for a minute that our families “undermine” anyone else’s, but it is true that they are expanding the definitions of what it can mean to be a mother, a father, a sister, a brother. Our families might be a little more complicated, or a little surprising, or hard to explain, but it’s also kind of awesome to have the chance to explore new ways of being family.
Will Hannah choose to meet her donor? Maybe, maybe not. But in the end, I think, whatever happens, it will be all right.