Private Life, Public Property. Kathryn Hahn & Tamara Jenkins on motherhood in the public eye
The subject of infertility has echoed down the ages, in history, in mythology, and in Shakespeare – of course. The modern quest to have a child is summed up by actress Kathryn Hahn succinctly in the vernacular.
“It’s a real fucking pickle,” she says.
Hahn and Paul Giamatti are starring together in Private Life, New York based Tamara Jenkins’s third feature film. The writer-director has a habit of attracting talent, even if she is making films roughly once a decade – Laura Linney and the late Phillip Seymour Hoffman starred in her last film, Savages. And Kathryn Hahn and Giamatti find their own unique chemistry in this film, released by Netflix, as a forty-something New York couple going through adoption, IVF, surrogacy and egg donation, pretty much all at the same time, in their quest to have a child.
While rom-coms such as J-Lo’s The Back Up Plan have explored women getting pregnant by other means than the “usual”, I can’t think of a film that teeters so constantly on the brink of hopelessness and hilarity, that leaves the audience, as Hahn says, “not knowing if we are going to laugh or cry.”
“The idea of fertility was the perfect metaphor. It has to do with the limitations of your body as you get older, and the expectations of what your life can be.”
The film is emotionally autobiographical for Tamara Jenkins.
“I had my own experience of this with my husband, “she says, but I wasn’t taking notes in the middle of it at the time. Writers and artists have a third eye when they’re living their life and things are being recorded even against their will, so I must have been doing it on a certain level. We were pursuing international adoption, we did IVF - we had our version of the movie basically - and my best friend said, ‘you should be writing this down.’ I said, ‘this was not interesting to me’, and of course I made a movie.
“My attack was more this though, that I was interested in middle age marriages and a mid-life crisis and a mutual crisis within a marriage,” she goes on. “The idea of fertility was the perfect metaphor. It has to do with the limitations of your body as you get older, and the expectations of what your life can be, and it became this great forum with which to examine marriage.”
Children would never be born if you usually had to put that much thought to it in every case of someone who tried to get pregnant.
Kathryn Hahn may have brought her comic gifts to Bad Moms and Bad Moms Christmas – a whole different genre on motherhood, but in the character of Rachel she says she recognised “a woman who is written with complication, and contradiction, and mess.”
During Private Life we learn how Rachel and Richard (Giamatti) didn’t start trying for children until she was nearly 41. Viewers may wonder whether the couple actually want children, or has it become a statement, a thing that they feel they have to achieve?
“Perhaps it’s to do with having something ripped away from you that you think you might be entitled to,” suggests Tamara. “When your body is preventing you from doing something, you can become more and more obsessive about getting it.
“Pregnancy by the old-fashioned way, you know people who achieve that, they don’t have to think as hard,” she points out. “‘Regular’ people who have sex and get pregnant – they don’t have to think as hard about wanting one because the getting there is so much easier and it’s often joyful when it happens. If it’s something that you have to pursue with medical involvement or social services involvement, your relationship with that chid becomes so much more fraught and strange, it’s very complicated.
“Children would never be born if you usually had to put that much thought to it in every case of someone who tried to get pregnant.”
We were led to believe that we were somewhat in control of our fertility. My own mom told me, ‘don’t have kids in your 20s, wait a second and find out who you are.’ So I had them in my mid 30s and it took more than a second. As I said, it’s a real fucking pickle.”
Of course, any film involving the subject of motherhood allows for journalists to start asking questions of actresses that may be very intimate indeed. Both Tamara and Kathryn raise their voices in a chorus of “I know!” when the subject of Meghan, Duchess of Sussex was raised – the constant speculation from the global press as to when she’d announce she was pregnant, as if that was all she had been born to do.
“There is that feeling of public property is a woman is in the public eye,” suggests Tamara. “It’s like that feeling of everyone becoming your grandmother. You know whenpeople get married in a family, older generations are like, ‘when are you going to have kids?’ Within a family it’s a natural expectation.”
“Maybe people shouldn’t get married,” Kathryn Hahn suggests.
“There was a sense of independence created in my generation that you could have a career and perhaps that you could wait till you were ready. But that strip of life in your 30s when you should be having children is also a crucial time for your career, which takes a long time to build. “
She disagrees however, that motherhood is still held up, perhaps unconsciously, as a necessary achievement for a woman.” It would make me very sad and I don’t feel like in my life as a mom – and I am a mom - that is the end of personhood. I don’t think so and that makes me sad. It shouldn’t be.”
But she does believe that Private Life highlights the almost Kafka-esque choices presented to women about their fertility.
“I think it’s interesting when we talk about a woman’s right to choose we’re usually talking about abortion, not actually choosing to have a child. We were led to believe that we were somewhat in control of our fertility. My own mom told me, ‘don’t have kids in your 20s, wait a second and find out who you are.’ So I had them in my mid 30s and it took more than a second. It wasn’t as easy as I thought and now some friends have waited till their 40s and it’s hard for them. As I said, it’s a real fucking pickle.”
‘That second wave of feminism says ‘you’re in control’ to women,” Tamara Jenkins chips in. “There was a sense of independence created in my generation that you could have a career and perhaps that you could wait till you were ready. But that strip of life in your 30s when you should be having children is also a crucial time for your career, which takes a long time to build. A man doesn’t need to worry about that at 30, he can build his career and then have a baby when he’s 50, it’s a biological bummer. This movie is sloshing around in the fact that it’s not fair.”
By Emma Jones
‘Private Life’ is on Netflix now.