My son Eli’s stuffed doggie got married last month. Out of the blue, Eli announced the engagement, and then looked through the pile of stuffies to find Doggie a suitable wife. He rejected the kangaroo, the otter, and the two frogs before finally coming to a dachshund about half Doggie’s size. Right under her was a smaller dachshund. “Perfect!” Eli crowed, “A bride and a baby!”
My preschooler knows many different kinds of families — families with one parent or four, families with two moms or none — but our own two-parent, two-kid family operates as a powerful model for him, and if you ask him if he wants to get married when he grows up, he says, in a slightly bored tone, “Yes. Of course.”
But the school-age kids in Karen Skloss’ beautifully quirky new documentary, Sunshine (2010), aren’t so sure. One says quite flatly, “No. I don’t want to get married when I grow up. I don’t really want the stress of being married. Yes, I want to be a mom when I grow up. Yes, I think you can be a mom without being married!” That interview sets us off on Skloss’ creative exploration of marriage and motherhood, a visually stunning film built out of newspaper clippings, dance sequences, reenactments, clips from radio shows, home movies, interviews and archival footage; it’s a carefully-edited collage that creates a moving and intimate portrait of one family’s history with single motherhood.
“Tell me everything, starting… now!” we hear Karen say to Mary, her biological mother. On camera, Mary smiles; “OK, well, let’s see, back in 1975… actually, it probably happened in 1974, but then, it could go all the way back to 1955, when I was born.” She pauses, and then jokes, deadpan, “Ah, now I don’t want to talk about it.” They have an easy rapport, years after Mary gave birth to Karen in a Texas home for unwed mothers, named her Sunshine, and then gave her up for adoption. She left a note in the file that said, “I just need to know you’re okay.”
Karen was okay, adopted by a couple who’d been waiting nine years to have a child. Her adoptive mom, Patricia, says she thought about Karen’s biological mother every birthday, and knew that someday her “strong-willed” daughter would look for her. Karen found Mary when she was twenty, and when she became pregnant, like her biological mother, without being married, she told Mary “before I had the guts to tell my mom.”
Because despite social changes, there’s still a stigma; even Karen, whose biological mom and adoptive sister both became pregnant outside of marriage, admits “until it happened to me, I’d always looked down on women in my position.” In a home movie of Karen’s daughter’s birth, Karen’s dad jokes lightly about holding “grandchild number two from our two restless…” he pauses, searching for the right word and Karen (off camera) offers, “Wayward daughters?” “Two wayward daughters, yeah” he agrees. The tone is light, but there’s an edge to it, an awareness of the heavier history behind them.
Karen’s meditation on the changes between her mothers’ generation and her own drives the film. Her biological mother had to have her baby in secret, and when her adoptive mother claimed that baby, the agency cautioned that people might call the baby a bastard. Twenty years later, Karen and her ex-boyfriend Jeremy have more choices, though that doesn’t make their lives necessarily easier. “I had all of these ideas about wanting a family, and wanting a family that was whole,” says Jeremy, while Karen admits to feeling trapped. Later, grumpily watching Mr. Rogers with her toddler, Karen scoffs as Mr. Rogers cheerfully narrates an educational video: “There are many different families of birds, just like there are many families of people!” he declares, “And one way or another, each one is fancy.” But Karen is too tired to appreciate that even contemporary television accepts her choice: “Why didn’t I feel so fancy?”
Still, Karen gains strength in knowing she could make the decision to bear and raise her daughter rather than seclude herself in a birth home. She gains strength in her two mothers, both of whom witness their granddaughter’s birth, hugging each other, their daughter, and the new baby. And she gains strength from Jeremy, her ex-boyfriend and daughter’s dad, who takes his fathering every bit as seriously and thoughtfully as Karen does her mothering; their conversations over the years about their shifting relationship – always keeping their child’s needs at the center — are a model of honesty and authenticity. Jeremy recalls telling Karen that the only thing he wouldn’t be able to do was breastfeed, to which Karen responds, “I really, really doubted you.” “I was completely comfortable being a single parent,” Jeremy says at another point; “I was not afraid of it. You were afraid of it. You said, ‘I’m going to be a single mother!’ and I said — I don’t remember exactly what I said. What did I say?” Karen answers slowly, “You said, ‘Well, I’m going to be a single father.'” “Right,” says Jeremy, “I do remember that now.” To which Karen responds, “And I thought, what a jackass.”
“I would have never imagined things could have turned out so well,” Karen remarks in a voice-over; “History had repeated itself but there was a different ending this time.” When Karen compliments Jeremy on his willingness to stay and write a different version of this story than the one Mary lived, on the fact that he makes sacrifices to live nearby and raise his daughter, he remarks “I appreciate your comment, but on a social level I find it sad how many times I get complimented for doing what I should be doing. And it bothers me when people go, ‘Wow, you’re a single dad, that’s great that you stuck around! Congratulations, that’s great!’ Yeah, I’m a dad,” he finishes quietly; “I made a baby.”
That baby is one feisty, well-loved little girl. We see her as a newborn, crying in her grandmothers’ arms, and as a toddler, pulling a blanket over her head rather than being filmed by her mom. We see her at her dad’s house, carefully stirring a pot of pasta, or cuddled in bed with her mom, reading books. And at the end of the movie, she’s one of the movie’s interview subjects, who contradicts the other kids and says brightly, “I think I’m going to get married, and have a couple kids. My family’s going to be cooler than cool!”
It already is.