In Nina Davenport’s latest documentary for HBO, First Comes Love, she films her journey toward single motherhood and the profound changes it brings to her comfortable New York life.
Single motherhood—whether by choice or by circumstance—is hardly a new cultural development, yet it continues to excite polarized opinion whenever it crops up during presidential elections, in Pew polls, or on the cover of The Atlantic. Family-values conservatives are still demonizing it as an insidious social malaise; meanwhile, Hollywood celebs who can afford a fleet of nannies have made it a fashionable lifestyle choice. (Think Angie pre-Brad, or Madonna post-Malawi.) And so it's fascinating to watch the range of heartfelt, humorous, disapproving, and worried reactions that the specter of single parenting provokes in Nina Davenport's latest documentary, First Comes Love, which makes its debut Monday night on HBO.
Everyone in Davenport's life seems to have an opinion about whether she—as a 41-year-old single filmmaker tired of waiting for Mr. Right—should strike out on her own and have a kid. One sister-in-law emerges as a pillar of support ("Put down the camera, go get some sperm, and get ready"). A gay best friend and potential sperm donor is more skeptical ("It seems to me that parenting can be exceedingly difficult ... I don’t know how someone does it alone"). Most painful are the scenes in which a second sister-in-law—a coiffed, glossy gal ensconced in monied comfort, whose life of abundance includes a litter of four children—tells Davenport briskly, "You often worry about your situation in life and financially how you’re situated. Am I right? What about having a child? ... It’s just going to get worse.
"Think about the way you grew up," she continues. "You don’t expect to provide a worse life for your child, do you?”
Money, time, love—none of these luxuries is on Davenport's side when she starts filming the documentary. She's got "rapidly diminishing ovarian reserves," and she's still living alone after decades of dating hunky boyfriends, whose images she tosses up on the screen while noting wryly, "It's certainly not for lack of trying to find the right man that I find myself still single at 41. And in the meantime, seemingly everyone on earth has managed to marry and procreate. Except me."
The precariousness of love and its many disappointments permeate the film, lending it a melancholy tone even as Davenport decides to go forward with her plans to get pregnant. Her best friend, Amy, a dark-eyed beauty who could pass as Davenport's twin, laments about failed Internet dates and admits that she's depressed when she doesn't have male attention in her life. Another acquaintance, a single mother of two, delivers a monologue about the window between 30 and 35, when everyone is "dating feverishly, dating desperately ... and then constantly wondering, why is this not happening for me? Why is it happening for this one? And feeling so awful every time you get a wedding invitation or heard somebody was pregnant." Pouring salt in the wound, a couple with a newborn, seemingly oblivious to Davenport's situation, enthuses about how lucky they are to have found each other as soulmates and how hard it would be to raise a child alone.
Meanwhile, Amy steps into the role of surrogate husband, volunteering to be Davenport's birthing partner and helping her prepare for in vitro by shooting her up with hormones. Despite the odds, the IVF is successful on the first try—and the reality of a new life coming into the world starts to hit home. Though Davenport assures her pals that she alone bears an obligation to the baby—"I'm making the decision; I'm 100 percent responsible"—it quickly becomes clear that she's going to have to rely on a surrogate family of New York friends, and her new bicoastal boyfriend, for help. In a touching and amusing scene, Davenport and Amy go to couples’ therapy to learn to set healthy boundaries before the infant arrives. Amy voices the fear—echoed by Eric, the gay baby daddy—that she is going to be sucked into caring for the child even though she never wanted kids of her own. Davenport is hurt by Amy's reluctance, but her friends have a point. As people are fond of reminding Davenport, parenting is hard work, and Davenport's artistic temperament seems more primed for flights of fancy than practical problem solving.
Of course, parenting is also an occasion for euphoric joy, which bursts through during the birthing scenes. After a grueling labor, baby boy Jasper arrives—6 pounds, 2 ounces—and Davenport, Amy, and Eric are instantly smitten. Her friends help Davenport power through those first exhausting months and bolster her emotionally when she endures yet another breakup. As the old saying goes, there are families you're born with and families you choose, and Davenport is clearly blessed to have found the latter—particularly because her relationship with the former is rocky enough to produce the film's strongest, and also its most exhausting, scenes.
Though her adult lifestyle may be quintessentially New York, her background is upper-middle-class suburban through and through—her father was a lawyer and later a Michigan auto executive; her mother, a Smith coed turned housewife. Her brothers pursued the well-trodden paths of banking and corporate law, to great wealth and success. As the filmmaker, the perpetually broke one, the youngest and only girl in a family of high-achieving men, Davenport is the odd duckling out. Her mother is the greatest champion of her creative calling, a close confidante—and her death midway through the film makes Davenport's own experience of motherhood bittersweet. Old clips of her talks with her mother are haunting and lyrical; they quietely explore the intimacy, and the impenetrable mystery, of the parent-child bond.
Davenport's relationship with her father is hardly as cozy. He's a practical man, one who understands the world in terms of measurable quantifiers of success. When Davenport floats the idea of becoming a single mother, he tells her that she just hasn't been looking hard enough for a husband and cautions, "You’re a single mother with a fatherless child. It begins to sound like the ghetto.” Later, when she springs the pregnancy on him, he says coldly, "Good God. Get an abortion."
One symapthizes with Davenport—after all, a critical parent is a hard thing to bear—but as the film wears on, her repeated attempts to ambush her father with a camera and pull scraps of devotion out of him start to feel like a forced therapy session, even if the personal wounds are real. One cannot entirely blame the man for looking slightly annoyed at having to put down his New York Times to stand trial over and over again for his parental failings. At the film's end, when Davenport discovers that her father grew up as the child of a violent alcoholic who died in a terrible accident, it gives her some insight into his steely exterior—but it's hard not to suspect that the tension between them will probably live on, even as he enjoys being a grandparent to Jasper. ("Lots of children have grown up in poverty and done very well, Jasper. You can do the same," he tells the baby, bouncing him on his knee. "Night law school ... and you'll rise to the rank of senior partner.")
Still, despite her father's misgivings and her sister-in-law's skepticism and even her friends' differing ideas of how to raise a child (Jasper "doesn't seem to have a bedtime," Eric notes witheringly), Davenport is clearly, confidently happy with her decision. In the last shot, Jasper is a rambunctious toddler, and he and Davenport giggle over a picture book as she reflects on the long journey to motherhood. "Ever since I decided to become—really, ever since I decided to stop waiting and move forward with my life," she says, "I've been much happier."