‘They fought hard and all for love’: the lesbian couple who started a family in the 80s

There’s a supernatural element to motherhood that can’t be articulated, only experienced. Legend has it that imperiled babies can unlock untold reserves of mom-strength sufficient to lift a car, but the emotional equivalent is far more commonplace. New parents will talk about how the bond with their offspring cannot possibly be comprehended by those outside of it, how caring for another human being creates a love connection of an intensity beyond what they previously believed possible. The heart expands.

“As someone who didn’t necessarily know that I wanted to have children for so many years, I was always skeptical when I heard parents say that,” film-maker Ry Russo-Young tells the Guardian over the phone from her office in Los Angeles. “‘Oh, you and your holier-than-thou parental club.’ It seemed a little precious to me. Being completely honest, before I had kids, I was the center of my universe. After I had kids, I had no choice but to make them the center of my universe. That has humbled me, and I think made me a better person. I think about other people more deeply, their points of view, as opposed to just my own.”

For all her skepticism, Russo-Young found that the arrival of her first infant did fundamentally change her, as a person and artist. Learning first-hand how profound and primal the impulse to nurture can be affected her thinking about her own girlhood, and one episode from it that she’d theretofore left untouched in her own work. Much of her early life was defined by the high-profile custody battle between her lesbian mothers and the sperm donor who helped along her conception before suing for access to her, a desperate tooth-and-nail fight that Russo-Young has only just come to fully appreciate. “Being a parent allowed me to understand the stakes of this story in a new way, as someone who relentlessly loves my children, worries about them all the time, is constantly thinking about whether they’re happy or will learn to read,” she says. “Having children is such a huge event in a person’s life, and it gave me a totally new perspective.”

She was pregnant with her second child when she decided she was ready to make Nuclear Family, now a three-part documentary miniseries airing on HBO. With the intimate candor of autobiography, Russo-Young recounts the romance between her mothers Sandy and Robin, their dauntless decision to start an unconventional family in the still-small-minded 80s, and the ensuing legal campaign to keep it intact in the face of an external challenge from her biological father, Tom Steel. More than a threat to the home the Russo-Youngs had built together, the case turned into a referendum on how courts would treat same-sex couples in instances of contested parenthood. They won out once an Aids diagnosis commanded Steel’s full attention, but the impact of his choices would reverberate for decades to come.

“I’ve been reckoning with these feelings, in one way or another, for the last 20 years,” Russo-Young says. “I’ve had versions of this conversation, less intense versions, with my moms intermittently over the course of my entire life … They wanted something so basic – a family. They wanted children, and they had to fight for that. They fought hard, and all for love. What else could compel someone to fight that hard?”

From a deep backlog of archived home-movie footage, TV coverage clips, original interviews conducted with those close to Steel, and four massive boxes of yellowed court papers totaling over 3,000 pages, Russo-Young endeavored to make sense of the family crisis that defined her youth. For all the research into her own history, she found that the most revelatory moments came from her extensive sessions with Sandy and Robin, as they all talked through a series of events they processed and remember differently. “In some sense, sitting down with my moms was so familiar, because this is what we’ve always done,” she says. “My moms have constantly told me the story of my birth and childhood, and they’re great storytellers. I love sitting down and listening to them talk about anything. The other side of that was having to ask them to relive the lawsuit on a very detailed level, and I knew that would be pretty painful for them. Asking them to go there was difficult.”

Rather than a simple rehashing of the timeline, Russo-Young focuses on the complicated emotional conflicts and their aftermath. When glimpsed through her juvenile eyes, the argument over who truly cared for her and who only claimed to could be confusing and overwhelming for a kid. She nonetheless stood by her mothers, often on daytime talkshows dedicated to getting out the word about their cause. To not only get caught in the crossfire, but to advocate for one side in such an outward-facing manner, had sent plenty before her to junior therapy. And yet Russo-Young was eager to speak out about her loyalty and devotion to the family she couldn’t imagine being without.

“In some ways, I was proud to be a spokesperson for children of gay parents,” she says. “There was so little visibility for that in the media at the time, that it felt like I was obligated, and not in a negative way. I wanted to represent my kind, and I knew that there were other kids out there going through a similar difficulty of not seeing themselves and their experiences. Seeing is validating, so I gladly wore the backpack of ‘poster child,’ even though it was a bit complicated, because being this public made my sister and I feel like we had to be perfect model children.”

As a girl, Russo-Young strove to project an idealized image for the sake of lesbian mothers everywhere. As an adult, she came to see the ethical snags implicating her parents, even in their desperate effort to hold on to her. In the thorniest scene, she shows her mothers some footage of Steel’s close friend Cris Arguedas talking about the sincere love he had for Ry, and asks whether her moms might have misrepresented him as a force of destructive evil. She dares to engage with a novel empathy for her donor, considering that his actions were motivated by the same affection so prized by Sandy and Robin.

“Much of the series was edited before I went and had that conversation with them,” she explains. “Making this series brought up these questions in my mind, and it was my producer Dan who told me I should go back and talk to my moms, ask them the harder things. I realized, oh no, he was right. It was terrifying, to have to confront them, because I really didn’t want to hurt them. I didn’t want them to feel like I was saying that they were bad parents, or that they did the wrong thing. I just needed to ask these questions for my own sense of clarity and peace.”

She’s still pursuing that inner resolution, sticking with the subject in an upcoming fiction series based loosely on the contents of her documentary. At the same time, she’s accepted that she’ll never stop turning this over in her mind, assuming different angles and trying to see through everyone’s opposing vantages. In her own motherhood, she’s been confronted with a simple truth re-contextualizing much of the acrimony: when it comes to the welfare of their child, a parent will do anything and everything. “Yes, I do think I got some closure,” she says. “But it’s not that final. It’s more like being able to sit with all these feelings at the same time, and be OK with their contradictions. When I think of closure, I think of closing the book, saying goodbye. Which everyone would like to be able to do! But I know I’ll be living with this forever, and I’m OK with that. That’s as close as I get to closure.”

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