“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).

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20 thoughts on ““The Kids Are All Right” and the Obligation of “Third-Party Parents”

  1. It seems to me that the biological parent has no obligations down the road if that was the original arrangement. The family that raises the child are the “real” parents.

    The question for me, to what degree do I have this view because I read Horton Hatches An Egg so many times as a kid?

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    • And if I clarified that I wasn’t talking about obligation in the sense of, “Raise and clothe,” or, “Pay for college,” but something a little more nebulous, that, at the very least, this stranger to the children should simply have a relationship to them that is, immediately, more than that of a stranger? Or, fine, on a contractual level he’s not obligated toward them, but is there any other (prior?) level on which he might be?

      In my notes from this morning, well before I wrote the post, I have “obligated toward” consistently rather than the “obligations” of the post — the former is what I meant, but the latter, while carrying a few more connotations I’d rather not be there, worked syntactically where I couldn’t get the other to do so. Again, not sure if this alters anything, but I felt like I should clarify it anyway.

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      • This may well be a cop-out answer, but I think the movie as you describe it seems to get it right. The parties get to decide what obligations exist. If this is to become an emerging trend I think that I can easily see parties on different sides deciding a universal moral answer for this type of question, and that makes me uncomfortable.

        In this case the father was able to make his case for being included in the family, and the family decided that he simply was not part of their family. (The plot line you note, where the father attempts to gain entry to the family by breaking them up to allow space, makes this seem like the right decision.) That feels just about right to me, as it would have had the family made a different decision.

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        • It’s only a movie. That said, we have made a joke and an untangleable spaghetti of all this. Parenthood, like marriage, must be first seen as a legal convention. If there were no such thing as children, then the state would have no compelling interest in marriage.

          “Love and marriage,” eh. Add in the baby carriage and by convention, they are inseparable. The state’s only compelling interest in marriage is that one type of sex, sexual intercourse [and you know what is meant by that], makes babies. The state has a compelling interest to encourage and defend a non-state institution to raise the babies on its own and turn them into productive citizens and taxpayers with a minimum of state intervention.

          Biological fatherhood is only relevant outside the legal convention of marriage. Knock a single girl up, you’ve to pay.

          Otherwise, piss off. Yr DNA has no legal standing.

          And to those poor deceived legal fathers who try to slip the noose by arguing it ain’t their child—too fishing bad. You have legal standing. It’s your child, not “his.”

          Some say that males get a pass in this whole baby-making equation. I don’t think so!

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          • “Some say that males get a pass in this whole baby-making equation. I don’t think so!”

            Actually, I think most men are pretty on board with having a role on the baby-making part. It’s usually the baby-raising side where disagreements occur.

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    • RTod, the biological parent made no arrangement with the children. I don’t think you can wave away the possible obligations between Paul and the kids by referencing a deal between Paul and the mothers (or two deals, one between Paul and the sperm bank and one between the mother and the sperm bank, or doctor, or whatever).

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      • Oh, I don’t know that he doesn’t have some kind of obligation to the children – assuming that the children wish him to have one.

        My initial comment was more along the plot line of the movie described here (I have not seen it): Say my wife and I had adopted children, or for whatever reason had gotten a sperm donor, and that biological father appeared in our life a decade or two later with ideas of how he should be integrated into our family. There might be all kinds of reasons why he might choose to feel obligated to ask us to do so, but I would maintain that my wife, my family and I should have the ultimate say in whether or not he gets to, and if so to what extent.

        Again, I suspect this is somewhat influenced by Dr. Suess.

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    • The title is part of a undercurrent of musical references — my favorite, which will of course ruin it, is that at the dinner party at which the affair is exposed, Nic flips through Paul’s records, and discovers, in sequence, BLOOD ON THE TRACKS and BLUE. (She pulls the latter out to examine it.) At this point, I knew precisely what would be set in motion at dinner.

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    • Now that you mention it, I think the marketing people of the movie missed an opportunity: Having the movie poster be Annette Bening, Julianne Moore and Mark Ruffalo sleeping against a wall covered in the Union Jack would have been genius.

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  2. I agree pretty much with RTod on this one. The emotional navigation involved in adopting a child and personally knowing the biological, but no longer legal, parent is something with which Jason and I are well familiar.

    Our daughter’s biological mother did give her and us something that it would appear never occurred to Paul to give (though I didn’t see the movie–he might have and you didn’t mention it): A full and honest account of her health history. I reveal nothing about that particular history here in saying the knowledge has the potential to be quite helpful in raising our daughter and in her continuing management of her own health after she is grown.

    Paul was probably asked those sorts of questions when he donated his sperm, but an update to the kids’ parents would be helpful. To sum up: He donated his DNA, and the legal parents lacking a way of determining exactly what that DNA has done for him, he potentially has some small obligation to fill in whatever gaps in that knowledge that he can.

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      • “I find straight people’s mystification of their DNA bizarre and embarrassing.”

        Being a straight-y I find this really embarrassing, but I suspect the mystification of the DNA is just an attempt at “scientific” justification to keeping you guys out in the cold.

        Funny thing, but a lot people I see using this argument are the same ones that insist we shouldn’t teach the science that surrounds DNA in public schools. (Or if we do, we should make sure we teach the “controversy.”)

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  3. A tough question, and one that I am interested in, as boegi and jason are.

    Our daughter’s biomom and her husband and kids are close friends of our family, and we decided to informally adopt them. So biomom is aunty, her husband uncle, and their kids cousins. It’s early days, but for the first almost two years, it has worked great. This “third-party parent” gave us the greatest gift ever. As an accommodation and small gesture of gratitude, we have given her a nonparent way to channel love and guidance to our child, to see her grow and be a part of her life. But we don’t see her as having any sort of obligation, other than in providing medical history, to the raising of our daughter. She did pump breastmilk for us, which was great, but we didn’t consider it a duty owed.

    As to obligations running the other way, we will broach that someday. I think there is an obligation of gratitude from our daughter to her, at the very least. Their family was full; they intended to have no further children. But their gift to us was also a gift to our daughter, of life and being and, although it may not be humble to say it, of a pretty good life with a pretty good family. As we are blessed, so is our little one.

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  4. Hi, I’m late to this, but this seems to me a case of Bernard William’s idea of moral luck.

    Moral luck arises in cases where a person’s action is part of a necessary causal sequence to an event that has moral significance, where we would not consider that person to be morally responsible for the action.

    Consider driving in the dark along a car-lined street with limited visibility at low speed. Suppose a child runs out from between cars right in front of your car. Despite your 20 mph speed, you can not react, you hit the child who subsequently dies. (The possibility of this scenario actually haunts me as a Brooklyn driver and parent.) Here’s two conclusions we’d intuitively draw: (i) the driver is not responsible for the death, in any sense of moral responsibility, and (ii) were the driver not to show contrition, grief, and reach out to the family of the dead child, etc., we would find the driver somehow emotionally or morally defective. We have expectations for the driver’s behavior regardless of actual moral responsibility.

    The “father” in this case is causally necessary in a sequence that produced these children. It’s obvious he has no moral responsibility to provide or in any way have a relationship with his genetic descendants. It’s also obvious that we’d evaluate his response to his genetic descendants differently than a response from someone who had nothing at all to do with the children.

    Suppose the offspring have a legitimate need, and go to their genetic “father” for help. Assuming the request was well within his power to provide, were he to summarily rebuff them, we’d consider him somehow short of feeling or compassion. We would not judge a person who had no causal involvement similarly.

    Basically, I think we should try to separate out intuitions that relate to cases of moral luck generally from intuitions regarding what we owe to people with whom we have relationships.

    Our emotions, motivations, and compassion do not necessarily conform to reasonable judgments about moral responsibility and obligation. And one can’t expect that they will, even on reflection.

    Basically, we can’t take a feeling of obligation as solid evidence for the existence of actual moral obligation. What’s more interesting is why we tend to think that people who feel obligations, even when they don’t have any, are somehow responding appropriately.

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    • Interesting. I wasn’t familiar with the idea of a moral luck theory (though, I suppose, I was aware of scenarios like the one you outlined; my fear is less children than cyclists at night). I don’t know that I’m as ready to dismiss the validity of a “sensed” obligation as you are, but you’ve given me a line of thought I should look into, re: these questions.

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  5. When you said this:
    “And if I clarified that I wasn’t talking about obligation in the sense of, “Raise and clothe,” or, “Pay for college,” but something a little more nebulous, that, at the very least, this stranger to the children should simply have a relationship to them that is, immediately, more than that of a stranger? Or, fine, on a contractual level he’s not obligated toward them, but is there any other (prior?) level on which he might be?”

    I thought that sounded exactly like the kind of response I expect in a case of moral luck. We wouldn’t expect the driver to pay damages to the family. But we’d find it troubling were they to refuse to attend the funeral, or hear the parents’ grief. There’s something deeply human about that.

    Another way of saying this is that there’s (much) more to being human (and having human relationships) than merely being moral.

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  6. It’s an interesting question. I’d have to say I don’t think the donor has an obligation in my opinion simply because I don’t think I’d begrudge a sperm/egg donor who didn’t want a relationship with his or her offspring.

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