In October 1936, a convicted chicken thief named Jack Skinner stood before an Oklahoma county judge and was sentenced to forced sterilization. Skinner had been convicted of his third felony and therefore met the criteria for the state’s new Habitual Criminal Sterilization Act. His lawyers argued the punishment violated the 14th Amendment––specifically, its Equal Protection Clause––and, several appeals later, the Supreme Court agreed.
The right to procreate, Justice William Douglas asserted in the Court’s 1942 Skinner v. Oklahoma decision, is “one of man’s basic civil rights. Marriage and procreation are fundamental to the very existence and survival of the race.”
There it is. That’s how a eugenics case involving the punitive sterilization of a convicted poultry burglar established parenthood as a fundamental human right. And yet, almost 80 years later, many people who want to become parents are challenged when they pursue that right. When it comes to prospective parenthood, one of the most broadly excluded demographics is the single male.
Together Together, a new film from writer-director Nikole Beckwith, portrays this experience with deep empathy. Ed Helms stars as Matt, a middle-aged app developer who decides to become a father through gestational surrogacy. The story’s élan vital is Matt’s relationship with Anna, his surrogate played by the compelling Patti Harrison, but the movie also examines prevailing attitudes toward men who choose to start a family on their own. When Matt shares his exciting news with friends and family, he’s met with quizzical stares and skeptical questions. Their pushback––or at the very least, lack of unconditional support––holds a mirror to our own world.
“The story of a single, straight male having a child through surrogacy is not a story we’re culturally familiar with yet,” Helms tells Men’s Journal. “When we’re unfamiliar with things, oftentimes we approach them with a little more trepidation, fear, or judgment. I think that’s what Matt experiences in the movie in a very realistic way. Society just hasn’t quite found the language or rhythm to comprehend that yet.”
Options are limited for the man who wants to become a father but lacks a uterus. He can adopt or work with a surrogate. If he wants a genetic connection with his child, then it’s the latter. As a thought exercise, imagine how you’d react if one of your single friends decided to have a kid through surrogacy. There’s a good chance he’d face some resistance.
“People become suspicious,” says Diane Hinson, owner and founder of Creative Family Connections, a surrogacy agency and law firm. “And they’re like, ‘Why does this person want to do surrogacy? Why can’t he just go out, find someone, and get married—or get someone pregnant sans marriage?’ We hear these questions and it’s like, why doesn’t this person have the same right to do surrogacy as all our other intended parents?”
There are legal headwinds too. Since there are no federal surrogacy laws, states hold all the power. Hinson and her team created an interactive map to help navigate the complex patchwork of state surrogacy laws. A handful of states have statutes that discriminate against single people and LGBTQ couples, but the map has become considerably less restrictive since the Supreme Court’s 2015 ruling on same-sex marriage. For single men who pursue fatherhood through surrogacy, social hurdles are often more obstructive than legal ones.
Cultural representations play a pivotal role in helping cultures process and accept unorthodox narratives. Forty years ago, it was taboo to talk about IVF treatment. It’s not a coincidence we’ve become more comfortable discussing fertility, as an increasing number of stories are being told about infertility. Beckwith’s film does its part to dismantle the myth that the only way a man can become a parent is with someone else.
“I think for men who want to have children and be dads, there’s a cultural expectation you must have a partner first,” Helms says. “Even if a man doesn’t feel beholden to that cultural expectation, it may just be something they really, really want––having a partner to go through that with. And sometimes, partnership doesn’t happen. Or it falls apart. Or people wind up single at various points in their lives for all kinds of reasons. And I think what Nikole did brilliantly was separate that from the desire to have a family.”
Gestational surrogacy, where the surrogate has no biological relationship to the child, has emerged as a viable path to parenthood. People who tread the path alone frequently have their motives questioned. To Helms, this unsympathetic reaction doesn’t make sense.
“It’s sort of a grand expression of love to start a family, especially when someone is forced to jump through as many hoops as one has to to start a family through surrogacy. It takes a lot of commitment to move through that process.”
This commitment requires a colossal amount of time, effort, and money. For the small but growing number of single men who are becoming fathers via surrogacy, the impetus of a ticking clock is a common refrain in many news stories about their experiences. Maybe it’s tricky to call this “the male biological clock,” yet it exists on the same plane. In terms of fertility, there’s no male equivalent of menopause––though sperm health does decrease with age––but there are temporal forces that shape family planning regardless of gender or relationship status.
“I think it’s very common and understandable for men to feel like there’s a certain window of their adulthood that’s ideal for parenthood,” Helms says. “To feel pressure to fit parenthood into that window, whether or not it’s rational, is a very real thing. It’s not a biological window the same way it is for women, but it can be a very powerful emotional window.”
We’re speaking over the phone on a Friday afternoon and this comment hits close to home. My wife and I are in our thirties. We don’t have kids, but we’ve spent a lot of time talking about this window recently. It’s definitely emotional. I tell Helms about my own fears and insecurities. The poor man. He agreed to an interview about his new movie and now I’m asking him to be my therapist. When I mention I’m terrified by the weight and responsibility of becoming a dad, he laughs knowingly. He and his wife became parents a few years ago. I ask if he can relate.
“Absolutely,” he says. “One hundred percent. There’s no question there’s a lot of fear and anxiety in the buildup to having a child—but it’s all based in that fear of the unknown. Thankfully, it more or less flies out the window once the child arrives because, suddenly, you’re just in it and life is moving forward. This kind of inevitable human inertia takes over, and parents, families—whatever shape or form they take—just step up. It’s kind of incredible. You find something in yourself that, certainly for me, I didn’t even know I had in me.”
In Together Together, Helms’ character, Matt, approaches fatherhood with an inspiring amount of certainty. Even as his closest relatives sow doubt and question his decision, Matt’s faith never falters. This conviction evokes empathy for the film’s worldview.
“Families are created in all kinds of ways, and I just think culturally it’s so important we don’t judge those processes,” Helms says. He credits Beckwith, the writer-director, for telling such a compassionate story. “As a person, she’s incredibly non-judgmental. That’s like a superpower.”
Hinson believes we’ve come a long way since the 1942 Supreme Court decision. “Probably nobody thought surrogacy would exist because there wasn’t such a thing as IVF back then, but the technology exists,” she says. “It’s possible for single women to become mothers. And now society accepts that. It’s possible for couples who have fertility issues. It’s possible for same-sex couples.” She’s hopeful the circle of tolerance will continue to grow. “I think single, straight dads are the last frontier in terms of being accepted, but I think society will get there.”
Storytelling can accelerate this acceptance. Together Together shows that a single man’s desire to become a parent is just as natural as anyone else’s.
“There are certain cultural stigmas that the closer you look at them, the more irrational they become,” Helms says. I think this is one of them. Thankfully Nikole has put a real magnifying glass on this particular narrative in our culture. And to the extent that it neutralizes any of that stigma, I’m incredibly proud of the movie.”
Together Together is currently playing in theaters. It comes out on VOD May 11.