The Back-up Plan portrays thirtysomething single moms as bitter, unkempt losers—unless they’re Jennifer Lopez. As one such mother who saw the film, I want my money back.
Even before the opening credits rolled in The Back-up Plan, the new Jennifer Lopez vehicle about a single woman who decides to have a baby by herself, the wacky rom-com hi-jinx had begun: I found myself running across town to the screening, laptop bag banging against my hip, while I mentally calculated how much the movie would cost me in childcare. True to the laws of bad comedy, the skies opened, and I finished my dash in the rain. At least I didn’t break a heel.
The dream of mid-30s single working motherhood is one I’m living—I had a baby alone last year, when I was 35. Zoe is also facing her “late 30s” with no guy around, so she embarks on her "back-up plan" to have a baby on her own, using an anonymous sperm donor. Her doctor (Robert Klein) tells her, “I have a feeling you and CRM-104 are going to make beautiful babies together.”
The back-up plan reveals itself to be the bottom-of-the-barrel plan, and the moms are not only unappealing, but disproportionately invested in the trappings of hippy-dippy motherhood.
And then, wouldn't you know it? She dashes out of the doctor’s office, ecstatic—and, yes, in the rain–over having just been inseminated, and runs straight into the perfect guy for her, Stan. We all know what happens next. They fall in love. She tells him she’s pregnant. It turns out she’s having twins! He commits to raising the children. They break up because she Just Can’t Learn To Trust. Then, in a surprise twist, she has a breakthrough about love, and delivers, first, her speech to Stan between contractions and in full view of the farmers market where he sells homemade goat cheese, and second, twin girls at the hospital. There’s more to the happy ending, but I’m not that cruel.
When I chose to keep a pregnancy by a guy who wasn’t around, I thought that social approval, which Zoe seeks from her friends and family, was unlikely to appear. I’m happy to have been mostly wrong – my son, I say with no bias, is the joy of an ever-broadening community. But Zoe’s interest in the communal thumbs-up for her plan speaks to her ambivalence, to a mistaken belief that philosophical acceptance will ease the concrete reality of what she’s undertaking. Cheering sections don’t change diapers.
Nobody expects movies like this one to celebrate single motherhood as an identity or as a (gulp) lifestyle choice. But neither About a Boy’s “single parents alone together” cheer, nor Tina Fey’s stereotypical control-freak career lady in Baby Mama approaches the retrogressive insult to single parenthood that The Back-up Plan hurls at its audience.
At her doctor’s suggestion, Zoe attends a support group: Single Mothers and Proud, a bunch of bitter, unkempt misfits in a drab room. These scenes, like many others in the movie, are cartoonish, and here we see the hand of director Alan Poul, who brought grotesque depictions of the domestic to Six Feet Under and Swingtown. The group’s flaky leader bangs a drum and taps a fertility sculpture while a three-year-old breastfeeds and the women organize a “phone tree” for communal labor support. Isolated and aesthetically offensive, the Single Mothers are freaks. No wonder they’re single; no wonder they’re hanging out with the macramé and just each other. The back-up plan reveals itself to be the bottom-of-the-barrel plan, and the moms are not only unappealing but, consequent to their deserved social failures, disproportionately invested in the trappings of hippy-dippy motherhood. Mainstream and charming, Zoe can’t wait to get out of there.
Among the many unfortunate aspects of this movie is its missed opportunity. No, not the opportunity to be a city on the hill of American single-parent families. Anyone who has raised a baby on his or her own knows the natural comedy that flows from the structure of life alone with a baby, just as there’s humor in the natural course of all families. How many times did I explain to the self-congratulatory “we’re so accepting of your choices” hospital staff when I had my son that no, the friend sleeping on the couch wasn’t my wife? And how often does the effort to integrate single life and family life end in clumsy pratfalls? A single friend—herself a mother of two—and I recently invited friends for a grown-up lunch. Our guests, who do not have children, were due any minute, and we paused to survey the apartment. The only food in sight was a box of Elmo punch for her three-year-old; our infants were cheerful and awake; a diaper had just leaked onto the couch. My friend and I looked at each other, feeling less than fabulous, and we laughed: not the most enticing scene to arrive to.
Assumed in the phrase “back-up plan” is the idea that the paths to happiness don’t have to take the precise turns we envision, but that conscious action determines a life. “Experience is not what happens to you,” Aldous Huxley said, “It is what you do with what happens to you.” The decision to have a baby without a partner—whether he split, or she’s in Tasmania, or his best self arrives in a vial you order from a bank—is anything but magic. Not so for Zoe and Stan. She is forever finding pennies for luck; he’s at his finest surprising her with a Bachelor-style fantasy date with lanterns and tablecloths in a community garden. Nearly everything in The Back-up Plan mystically drops out of the sky, so much so that it’s hard to square the notion of a plan of any sort with the allusions to fate that frame this story.
When Zoe brings home a double stroller too wide for the doorway of her brownstone, Stan is overwhelmed by the logistical challenges ahead. A baby-store employee stops by a month later, during one of the couple’s breakups, to deliver a piece of “custom work” that Stan had ordered on the sly: a double stroller that collapses to fit through the narrow doorway. Epiphany! We can make it work.
This corny bit is the movie’s one pure moment. Nothing in the details of raising a child or creating a family is magic. It’s not luck, it’s not written in cards, and it’s not found on heads-up pennies. You take life as you find it, you do your “custom work,” you get the stroller through the door. The magic comes later, when you walk in from the rain after a long day and a stupid movie, and you’ve come home, finally, to your little boy.
Casey Greenfield, a graduate of Yale Law School, is a lawyer and writer in New York.