For the next part of the series, I will be taking a look at movies that depict women giving their babies away. Whether it’s an unplanned pregnancy leading to adoption, a surrogacy situation, or the case of a woman relinquishing the role of full-time parent in a less conventional sense, this subgenre has admittedly fewer entries than the other two sections. It is quite rare that a woman is shown birthing and giving away a baby without regret in film. As a result, I have chosen one outlier in this section that fits into the theme of adoption without showing the mother making the decision to give her child away.
Juno (2007) dir. Jason Reitman
No doubt one of the most recognizable (and acclaimed) depictions of teenage pregnancy, Juno is, for many, a cultural landmark. The film spawned numerous iterations of quirky indie couple Juno (Elliott Page) and Paulie (Michael Cera) and made a topic seemingly reserved for Lifetime movies into something engaging and self-aware. Juno initially considers getting an abortion, but psychs herself out at the women’s clinic when she sees others awaiting their consultations. She ultimately decides to give birth to and then give her baby away to a couple unable to have one of their own.
There are certainly growing pains for the lowkey teenager who is considerably less naive than the typical protagonist depicted as becoming pregnant. Juno’s wry sense of humor eases the transition to a larger belly and expectancy side effects, but her relationship with the future adoptive father to her child, Mark (Jason Bateman), provides its challenges. The two bond over their mutual love for rock and horror films, but their dynamic soon becomes inappropriate. Most of Juno’s doubts about her pregnancy arise from her dynamic with him, who does not appear to be quite as ready for fatherhood as he first appeared. Perhaps if she hadn’t arranged a closed adoption, Juno wouldn’t have to worry so much about the parents’ personalities interfering with her confidence. It’s tough to give away a child to a person who’s not all the way committed. It’s even more mortifying when Juno discovers that he harbors feelings for her. What was supposed to be a safe, secure process of giving a baby to a loving home has become a predatory conflict of interest.
Ultimately, Mark flakes on his wife, Vanessa. But Vanessa, ever the nurturing and passionate woman, still wants to accept the baby, which Juno recognizes and appreciates. The teenager gives birth to a baby, who, even after labor, she accepts as not being hers to raise. The maternal instinct would, in theory, kick in at this point in time, but Juno is still young. She seems far more preoccupied by her relationship with her boyfriend Paulie, whom she really does love. Paulie (the father of the child) is there to see the baby away, but it is out of concern for Juno. Most parties end up exactly where they want to be. Juno made Vanessa the mother she always dreamed of being, and she still got to be with Paulie in the end.
Juno is an intro-level look at the themes of motherhood. It concedes that pregnancy is a hurdle for its titular protagonist to overcome rather than a life sentence to fulfill, but its PG-13 lens leaves something to be desired. Later films better expand upon the burden of becoming a mother, if not by name then by design. For many, the line is far blurrier.
Ninjababy (2022) dir. Yngvild Sve Flikke
On a similarly quirky but much less sentimental note is Ninjababy, a Norwegian movie about a woman who discovers she’s pregnant too many months in to be able to access an abortion. Kristine Kujath Thorp plays Rakel, an occupationally aimless young adult whose lifestyle primarily consists of partying and brief, non-committal flings. She has no intention of becoming a mother right now, and she may never want to be one. Ninjababy entertains the discourse that not all women want or even possess the inherent instincts to become a mother.
Rakel is at first unclear about the identity of the father. Her latest hook-up actually appears to be a great guy, but the timing is all wrong. The true father is actually a notoriously skeezy and self-centered man jokingly referred to as “Dick Jesus.” Does she really want to have a baby with Dick Jesus?
Although Rakel might seem like she’s at the time in her life (late 20s) when women tend to have children and even plan their lives around them, Rakel simply doesn’t want to be burdened with the care of another person when she can barely take care of herself. She deals with her complicated feelings by creating a cartoon character called Ninjababy who she imagines and illustrates growing inside her. When the baby kicks, it is Ninjababy expressing their anger, and when she is having doubts, it is because Ninjababy is being judgmental and crude.
Like Juno, Rakel chooses herself. She has the baby, and despite an option for a closed adoption, it is Dick Jesus who ends up stepping up to the plate and accepting the responsibility of parenthood. In the epilogue, he is shown raising their child as a single father. Rakel still maintains a friendship with the father of her child – she delivers a copy of her new comic book, Ninjababy, to his home – but the film’s fresh feminist lens does not suggest that she feels any remorse in giving up her baby. By allowing herself a few extra years to find out where she fit in in the world, Rakel was able to take the life-changing experience of becoming pregnant and giving birth and turn it into something creative and career-oriented, all without upending her life for a baby she had no desire of having. The end result is amiable, and, for once, puts the man in the hot seat of the baby burden.
Just because a character doesn’t want a child for themselves doesn’t mean they can’t carry it for another party. The process of surrogacy is an alternative to adoption, but with a higher degree of planning and control by the receiving family. Likely the most well-known case in popular media is Phoebe Buffay in the TV show Friends. She, in one of the more bizarre scenarios, acts as a surrogate for her brother. There is also the Fey-Poehler surrogacy situation of Baby Mama, which does fall into this category, but doesn’t tackle the theme of motherhood in as thoughtful of a manner as it probably should. However, there are some good, matter-of-fact surrogacy movies out there.
Together, Together (2021) dir. Nikole Beckwith
Nikole Beckwith’s Together Together (2021) takes on the idea of giving up one’s body for the happiness of another with nuance and compassion. Anna (Patti Harrison) had a baby as a teenager, whom she gave away. She is now looking to make a little extra money so that she can finally get her degree. She offers her womb to Matt (Ed Helms), a single man in his 40s who is ready to become a father. Beckwith draws contrasts between the two’s particular surrogacy situation with most other arrangements: neither Anna nor Matt is in a relationship. The only person close enough to dissect the more intimate details of the baby’s development is each other.
It presents a bit of an awkward dynamic, as Matt is paying Anna to carry the child. He has a right, technically speaking, to monitor how she eats and lives for the sake of his unborn baby. Anna, who is grown but not liberated, has conflicting feelings about his many questions and concerns. Eventually, the two develop a friendship, somewhat out of necessity. Anna even lives at Matt’s house for some time. Their purely platonic relationship makes sense for the two loners. It really only becomes complicated when other people are brought into the mix.
In one of the film’s stand-out scenes, Matt has a baby shower for the child (whom they have nicknamed “Lamp” in order to remain gender-neutral and sufficiently detached). People address Anna as “the surrogate" during the party, reducing her identity to her sole function as a birth-giver. Anna stands awkwardly to the side as Matt opens up baby gift after baby gift from his friends and family, and eventually slips away to the bathroom unnoticed. It is a brutal reality to come to terms with; Matt may see her and value her as a person, but to everyone else, she is just a uterus with an expiration date. Patti Harrison’s layered performance sells the devastation of her isolation. She is reminded, time and time again, that she is giving people a unique opportunity to start their families when they aren’t able to do so on their own, but it burns to watch her predisposed party of one be so loved when she is so alone.
Anna and Matt struggle with maintaining boundaries, but by the end, they are both very grateful to have someone that pushes them forward in life. Although the movie ends right after Anna gives birth, it is assumed that she was able to attend college afterward and get a fresh start. She provided a very complex service to a man longing for fatherhood, and she, in turn, was able to build up the confidence to move on from her residual doubts about her capability to be something more than a babymaker.
Private Life (2018) dir. Tamara Jenkins
Pushing the limits of cinematic conversations concerning fecundity even further is Tamara Jenkins’ Private Life (2018), a film so true to its name that a viewer might feel as if they were intruding. Kathryn Hahn and Paul Giamatti play Rachel and Richard, a couple who, after previously prioritizing career goals, are now trying to make a family for themselves in their 40s. They’ve tried every treatment and artificial insertion; their bodies are not up to the task. They’ve connected with women who are trying to put their babies up for adoption; they are all fakes or flakes. They’ve been on the adoption list for ages; something isn’t clicking. The answer to their prayers, it appears, comes in the form of their niece, Sadie, who is willing to act as a surrogate for her aunt and uncle’s child.
It’s a strange diegesis to be sure, as many times remarked by Sadie’s overbearing and deeply disapproving mother (Molly Shannon). But Sadie, who, like Anna, is at a disjunct point in her life, feels like she could offer something to her relatives. Perhaps the set-up will help her find purpose in her own life. She’s always seen her aunt and uncle as the cool, funky alternatives to her cookie-cutter mother and stepfather. What’s so wrong with helping them along their journey to parenthood?
Jenkins contemplates the fragility of Hahn’s character, Rachel, next to the emboldened surrogate Sadie as they mix the hormone cocktail to make a baby possible. Rachel has been able to avoid the mommy-lull that afflicts so many in their early 40s, but there still exists an envy of Sadie’s youth that leaves her longing. Sadie’s fertility is a magical thing that plagues Rachel with shame about the shortcomings of her own body. She doesn’t want to regret not having started her family sooner, but unfortunately, there is a biological clock that ticks down right until most women feel that they have a handle on their lives. The career/family woman dilemma is well-documented, but not usually after the woman is officially considered “past her prime.”
Private Life documents the psychological (as well as financial) toll that failed procedures and emotional investments can have on a person. Rachel and Richard are happy, technically. But they no longer have sex for pleasure. It’s procreation or bust. The endless stream of appointments delivering disappointing news is equally strenuous.
Although things appear to be going well for the first few months, surrogacy, despite its miraculous concept, is not without risk. Feeling pressured by her doctor to improve her chances of an egg developing, Sadie’s insecurity about her once-considered dreamily fertile body propels her to up the dosage. Unfortunately, her pregnancy fails as a result. Jenkins, through the characters of Rachel and Sadie, acknowledges how traumatic life can feel when your body doesn’t do the thing it’s supposedly designed to do. Rachel and Richard are sent back to the drawing board.
Secrets and Lies (1996) dir. Mike Leigh
There are several quintessential pieces about adoption that do not actually depict the mother giving up her baby at the time of their birth. Mike Leigh’s Secrets and Lies (1996) is likely the finest film to show the search for one’s birth mother, but only after 30-something years, bringing up old memories thought to be well-buried.
Brenda Blethyn plays Cynthia Rose, a loving single mom in her 40s who is constantly on the verge of tears. She and her daughter Roxanne, who is about to turn 21, constantly bicker. Her run-down house weighs heavy on her shoulders, particularly when she thinks about the clean quarters of her suburban brother and sister-in-law. One day, she receives a call from a woman named Hortense who claims to be Cynthia’s biological child. She at first declines the existence of such a person before agreeing to meet. When she discovers that her biological daughter is Black, she is amused and then distraught. It is learned, over time, that Hortense’s father was “not a nice man.” Cynthia Rose’s journey in the film is one of excitement mixed with grief. She is quite impressed with Hortense, who has had a good upbringing and appears to be successful. But she is also a reminder of an experience – one that is implied to be dangerous and regretful – that Cynthia Rose has been trying to forget.
Secrets and Lies is a fascinating exploration of how children can be both symbols of hope and painful reminders of tragedies. Indeed, motherhood is a long-term feeling that transcends the day-to-day. A lost child's absence may always be felt. Having carried the baby, felt it kick, and gone through the birthing process are experiences not so easily forgotten.
Cynthia Rose’s painful memory of Hortense’s father, while never explicitly described, complicates their relationship. It is made more difficult by her other daughter’s jealousy and frustration that her mother never told her that she had another baby. Roxanne, too, was born out of wedlock, but apparently by a kinder individual. Eventually, the family lays out all their cards on the table, which Hortense is not frightened by. They are now able to begin a new phase in their life with the addition of the eldest daughter. It’s a complicated reality, but blood is blood. There’s a healing element to seeing all of one’s kin in the same space. Love can abound.
"Women's History Month 2022 Pregnancy Series: Giving the Baby Away" is part of a 3-part series on pregnancy in film in honor of Women's History Month. The final article, which discusses making the decision to raise a child, will be released in the following days.