The “phenomenon” of gay couples wanting to become parents is not new. So what’s new in “Paternal Instinct,” the chronicle of two gay New Yorkers who seek out a woman willing to help them produce a child?
The artificial insemination angle is definitely new ground. Most of the stories we’ve read about or seen involving gay parenthood are about adoption—think of Jesse Green’s “The Velveteen Father” or Dan Savage’s “The Kid,” or the Galluccios, who were the gay couple behind landmark changes in New Jersey co-parent adoption law.
A Cinemax Reel Life documentary, which airs at 7 p.m. on Fathers’ Day, does an excellent job of taking us through the almost magical journey of Mark and Erik from their initial discussion of having kids to the successful birth of their daughter Cecilia. The journey is magical in that we see an idea discussed by Mark and Erik in the movie’s opening moments, and a real, living daughter at the end. Also “magickal” in that the woman who is the mother of the child is a practicing witch.
“Paternal Instinct” is a bit messier than tales you’ve seen before. For example, we actually see the men manipulating the device with which Wen, the Boston mother who has a male partner and a teenage son, is inseminated. As a couple, Mark and Erik might be described as “radical faeries lite” and there is little attempt to butch them up. To be sure, they are a successful urban couple with a balconied apartment and great skyline views, but they also do some drag, and other types of alternative dress. We are able to see them alternately as moody, giddy, pensive, and real, for the ever-present cameras.
Mark and Erik have a lot of moral support from their parents. We initially see Erik saying, “I want to have those feelings, of being a parent,” rather than “being a doting uncle and inserting myself into the lives of my friends’ kids.” When Erik first came out to his parents, his father lamented the lost parenting opportunity, telling Erik he would be a good father. Ironically, Erik talks in the film about being the more “maternal” of the two men.
For Mark, there is the worry that a child might change a ten-year relationship that’s been an incredible experience for him. Everyone knows that having kids changes everything. The film opens with a mental inventory of just how little free time they currently have, and also of the other “possibilities” they might lose.
Mark and Erik painstakingly negotiate the details of their impending fatherhood—issues such as who is going to stay at home and who will work. There’s a certain amount of new age, feel-good warmth in the film that would seem goofy and even staged if it weren’t for director Murray Nossel’s ability to convincingly convey the serious spiritual depth of the two men.
Viewers might find scenes of the men on either side of Wen’s thighs after an insemination session a bit uncomfortable, but after seeing her in various states of undress, on her back and awaiting the next sperm delivery or ultrasound exam, “Paternal Instincts” reminds us in a frank way where babies come from: a naked woman. By the time Cecilia is born in a blow-up pool full of water, it’s hard to imagine this was going to happen any other way.
While the program has a hand-held video MTV “Real World” feel to it, it comes across as far more genuine than reality television. One of the pregnancy attempts ends in a miscarriage; Wen buries the fetus in a wiccan ceremony in her yard, as full of emotion as Mark and Erik are when they hear the news halfway around the world vacationing.
The film also documents some of Wen’s life with other pagans, in a way that demystifies her practices and makes them seem like other, more accepted religious rituals. We also meet her teenage son, who has a healthy attitude about his mom experiencing birth and then giving the baby up to these men.
By the time of the birth, the bonds between the two men and the mother and her family seem absolutely natural, like those of any family. The partnership that produced Cecilia does not come across as a transaction. Mark and Erik are overcome with emotion and tears.
“Paternal Instinct” presents the issue of artificial insemination of a woman willing to give up her parenting rights at its best here, with all parties are pulling together. It also shows that gay men definitely have the option to parent their own biological children, if they really want to pursue that avenue, rather than adopting.