The HBO documentary Nuclear Family explores who is entitled to raise children. (Spoilers.)
In the late 1970s, lesbian couple Robin Young & Sandy “Russo” Russo thought they were abandoning their dream of having children. Cris Arguedas, a former friend of theirs, found a pamphlet about how lesbians can have motherhood in one of San Francisco’s gay bookstores. They were told by Cris Arguedas “Look! You can still have children.”
Robin and Russo were equipped with an empty artichoke heart jar, which was preferred by DIY inseminators for its wide mouth, and sperm from two known donors. Two daughters. Miracle babies.
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.
Russo Young says, “I wasn’t ever a child that wasn’t deeply loved,” over voiceover. Russo-Young speaks as Russo Young opens clips of her as a young girl playing with her sisters, her moms and her sperm donor in California and New York. “I was loved far too much, if anything.”
Robin and Russo were both committed to gay liberation and part of the “wild, loose” culture. However, they insist that they didn’t want to do anything radical when having children. In his lawsuit, Tom referred to the benefits of a modern blended multiparent tribe. This utopian village of child-rearing is something that many queers once aspired to, which Russo and Robin vehemently opposed and still reject. According to Ry’s interviews, her parents made it clear from the beginning that they would have no rights or responsibilities.
Tom’s lawsuit against Robin Young who gave birth to Ry, her other mother Russo had no legal rights to their child – would lead to years of pain for the entire family. It was a very ugly court battle that exposed institutional sexism as well as anti-LGBTQ discrimination. (Even though Tom was gay, his lawyers suggested that two lesbians were not fit to be mothers by using bunk anti-gay psychotherapy.)
It wasn’t just outdated laws and cultural ignorance that stopped the Russo–Youngs from achieving their dream of a perfect, self-contained nuclear family.
The Russo Youngs’ story was something I found very interesting, as both a person who has been through the traumas of custodial court fights as a child and as an individual considering having children. My partner would not be denied legal rights as a non-birthing parent. Gay motherhood, although still stigmatized, is now more widely accepted and celebrated thanks to trailblazers such as Robin and Russo.
However, I would not be able to stay home with my children as Robin was able while Russo worked 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.
Even more important, biological facts are 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. There are two options. I could either find a known or anonymous donor of sperm or foster or adopt another person’s child. 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.
Sophie Lewis, the critic and theorist, in her 2019 book Full Surrogacy Now Feminism against Family, argues the many problems of organizing society around the heteronormative, bourgeois 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.'”
While we all know the havoc that “bad” parents can cause, “good” parents often do their own 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 the way we view what it means being a parent is socially constructed. There are other ways of doing things. If we look back over time, history, and geography, I believe that our current way of doing things – prioritizing your child above all else – is only one way. But, I don’t think it has to be the only way.”
Robin Young told her daughter that she was concerned about being denied the “right to have children.” Russo and Young should not have to prove their psychological fitness as parents. However, other lesbians in their generation shouldn’t have been denied legal access to their children. Is the right to have children that are exclusively yours a human right or a privilege? This is not about reproductive justice. Every person on this planet should have the right to bodily autonomy and to choose to get pregnant or terminate a pregnancy. But, once they are born, I am referring to parental rights. It should be easy. Mothers know best, right? Complex custody battles like the ones fueled by racism in family and child courts across the country prove that this is not true. Who is entitled to raise a child in their home? What is the definition of a family, other than biology?
Ry Russo Young’s documentary is fascinating for many reasons. Ry Russo Young’s beautiful charting of her emotional growth and deep love for her mothers are just two of the things that make documentary so special. It also shows how lesbians trying to have a normal, self-sustaining nuclear family are challenged by external realities. The interloper in this case is someone they consider an illegitimate parent. Russo-Young and Robin try to protect their family and put an end to the rumors about Tom Steel. This is understandable but can have devastating consequences. Ry Russo Young’s case is extraordinary. However, by questioning those adults who made her decisions before she was able to make them, the filmmaker exposes the dangers of all of us trying to create a nuclear family.
Russo Young recently told the Hollywood Reporter that she had “resisted” the idea of making this documentary for a while, afraid of focusing on her own problems and herself. Perhaps more importantly, she didn’t want the custody battle that had haunted her for so long to become her life’s focus. She realized how complicated her feelings were about her donor six years ago, when she filed for custody rights. But she began the project. Russo Young was finally able to investigate the story for herself.
The series will end on Sunday. It is composed of three parts. Ry, a teenage Ry who Russo Young has been filming footage for decades, loves to refer to them as “Juliet and Juliet.”
Russo said that the couple used two donors because they “didn’t want any one donor having such a role – power.” They were already protecting themselves from outside claims to their children’s parenthood. Cade, Ry’s older sister and donor, was an alcoholic, so he left the family’s life quickly. They spent some time with Ry’s father, Milton, their partner, and Milton’s child, Jacob. Tom fell in love with his biological child during these visits, something he’d never done before. Russo reminisces bitterly, “He changed his mind.”
The mothers became uncomfortable with the amount of access Tom and Milton wanted to their daughters. They cut off Milton and then Tom. The many letters that Milton and Tom sent to each other begging for contact were ignored. To resolve the matter, the mothers requested that Tom visit New York. In 1991, Tom filed for custody.
Robin Russo and their children appeared on talk shows and did national media to raise their case. The court eventually ruled in favor of the mothers in a landmark gay rights case. It was overturned on appeal but Tom, who died from AIDS, ultimately dropped the suit.
The documentary’s progress shows that the mothers’ perspective is replaced by Tom’s family and friends. Russo Young specifically sought out these people to discuss Tom’s motives for the suit. Ry’s evolving view of the matter is also revealed. She described how it mirrors her growing agency after she emerged from the chaos and started to “find her voice” according to the Hollywood Reporter. She said she was “very in touch” with the hatred and fear she felt in her childhood due to the lawsuit and towards [Tom]. But she wasn’t sure about any other murky or ambiguous feelings. Ry interviews Cris to find out if she ever wanted Tom to file the suit – but she doesn’t believe her mothers should have thrown him out.
He left Ry with a collection of old family movies. These clips would eventually merge into the story RussoYng masterfully weaves. Also, a videotaped letter that he wrote to Ry in which he told her that he loved her. We are able to feel empathy for the man who is so cruelly vilified by both the mainstream family story and Ry’s mothers.
The film’s final scene is a remarkable one. Russo Young plays some of Cris’s interviews about Tom. Cris claims Ry’s mothers “purposely described Tom and your relationships in a manner that was completely false.” This was partly due to the lawsuit. They had to tell Ry that Tom was not special in order to keep him from taking her away. Cris suggested that perhaps this deceit extended to their home. The following video of Ry, a teenage girl, shows her saying she had only seen Tom “once or twice” in her youth and that she knew him casually because he was the man who helped her become what she is today. Ry eventually accepted that PR spin and her genuine fear of losing her family as her reality. Cris claims that “the truth” would have been to tell Ry, “We loved him, You loved him, he is important to us, and then he dropped the 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. Russo immediately responds, “You.” She adds, “All of us.”
Ry suggests that she might not have minded of it as she was a child visiting Tom alone without the context for a lawsuit. Her mother says that it wouldn’t be her family anymore. “It wouldn’t be the family we wanted, we planned, that we struggled for, that we loved.”
Robin adds, “[The family] we had,” Robin interrupts, “That’s how it existed.” This is a beautiful moment when Robin corrects Russo who suggested that their family was socially constructed. Both were concerned that outside influence could quickly destroy their family.
Ry wonders, “What could have been worse?” she asks, “Four years of the suit or [seeing him] for the six years he would’ve lived?”
The answer is clear for her mothers. For Ry, less so. Russo still says, “I love him for loving me.”
The documentary ends with the mothers marrying amongst a sea of happy gay couples and Russo Young having her own family. It’s not a documentary about family abolition. The filmmaker says in a voiceover that Tom gave Russo Young a gift by forcing her to face her family’s fragility. This “unbelievable joy,” Russo Young believes, far outweighs the attendant sadnesses. It can be read in context of asking what a nuclear family is or should be. We can only push the boundaries of love’s potentials as history advances.