I watched the new film "Friends With Kids" hoping for an UNhappy ending. Or what Hollywood generally thinks of as unhappy. Specifically, I hoped the boy wouldn't end up with the girl, but rather they would end up with other people. Alone would be fine with me, too. And I hoped that this non-happy ending would send viewers out of the theater smiling, because it really wouldn't be unhappy at all.
Let me back up for a moment. "Friends With Kids," which you can find in theaters starting this weekend, is crammed full of actors you have loved in other things (many of them, including Kristen Wiig, Maya Rudolph, Jon Hamm and Chris O'Dowd, were together in "Bridesmaids.") Its director, actor and star is Jennifer Westfeldt, who has been half of a couple with Hamm for 15 years. The two have no children, but watching the ways that kids changed their friends' lives led to this exploration of how relationships bend, and sometimes break, when lovers become parents. The solution, the two best friends in Westfeldt's film decide, is to have a child and raise him platonically.
When I first saw the trailer, I thought, "Why not?" After all, it's not as though the "normal" way to do this -- mom and dad fall in love, get married, have 2.2 children, and live happily ever after -- is actually the norm. If you are a mother under the age of 30 giving birth this year, you are more likely to be unmarried than married. Just over two-thirds (67 percent) of American children younger than 18 lived with two married parents according to the latest Census, which means that one-third of children do not. Add in same-sex parents, along with all varieties of biological links (surrogacy, gamete donorship) that have become possible between parents and children, then take into account the fact that our mobile, scattered way of life means we turn our friends into relatives. The result is a concept of family that has been de- and reconstructed in recent decades.
And a small but envelope-stretching subset of this transformation is of the type shown in the film -- friends who are literally becoming family. I'm betting you have flirted with your own idea of a platonic partnership at some point in your life. I certainly have. That conversation with a pal about how you will marry each other if you are both single at 40? That joking with mom friends about how a group of "sister wives" is actually appealing -- wouldn't it be practical to be a group of women raising a group of children? The vague plan to gather a knot of friends together in old age to live in commune-like retirement?
There are real people doing all these things. You can find them by the handfuls at websites like modamily.com, where singles advertise themselves as looking to find a platonic partner with whom to raise a child. And they periodically pop up in profiles like the one in The New York Times last Father's Day about Carol Einhorn, her old friend George Russell, and his partner, David Nimmons, who are all cobbling a way to parent Griffin, the 3-year-old conceived through invitro fertilization using Mr. Russell as the sperm donor.
"More people seem to be deciding that the contours of the traditional nuclear family do not work for them," reporter N.R. Kleinfeld wrote, "spawning a profusion of cobbled-together networks in need of nomenclature. Unrelated parents living together, sharing chores and child-rearing. Friends who occupy separate homes but rely on each other for holidays, health care proxies, financial support."
The response from readers was harsh -- less because of what readers thought of the arrangement in theory, but because they really seemed to dislike the three "parents" as portrayed in the story. But peppered amid the comments saying "I find this whole mess confusing and grotesque..." and "poor child" were stories from others who are rejiggering the family jigsaw.
"I have a rare and very workable living arrangement," wrote one. "My husband and I share a duplex with a connecting door. For the most part, we do our own housework, shopping, laundry, and cooking. I think we spend about as much time together as most couples, maybe more, since we both work at home. We are childless seniors, so this is fairly easy. I did know one couple who managed a similar situation with kids, though."
Hollywood flirts with the idea of nontraditional parents, but in the end they just can't help themselves and they veer toward the traditional and romantic in the third act. "Knocked Up" starts with two strangers with nothing in common, but by the end they have fallen in love. In "Life As We Know It," two relative strangers who loathe each other accept custody of a baby whose parents have died and, you guessed it, fall in love. Isn't it time for another depiction of Happily Ever After?
I won't ruin the ending by telling you whether "Friends With Kids" is that new version. But I will ask why the ongoing disconnect between how we really live -- messily, imperfectly, improvisationally -- and how we think "real" families live. Why has it taken so long, in art and in life, to warm to the reality that a variety of villages can happily raise a child?
PHOTOS: Scenes From 'Friends With Kids'
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