Published on September 27th, 2013 | by Meg Lemke9
FIRST COMES LOVE: An Interview with Filmmaker NINA DAVENPORT
Nina Davenport, the documentary filmmaker of (and starring in) FIRST COMES LOVE, lives in a family-centric Brooklyn neighborhood next to my own. Her film takes place in Manhattan, but like many NYC breeders she moved to BK after her son, Jasper, now a kindergartener, outgrew a one bedroom. We met up while my daughter, Lola, was in her second-week-ever of a regular playschool. It’s only a few hours, a few mornings, but still feels luxurious to do anything on a clock longer than toddler attention-span.
Davenport is open and energetic–I love talking to other mothers. Maybe that will wear off as Lola grows up, but I hope not. What follows is an edited selection of our ranging discussion.
First Comes Love is Davenport’s fifth documentary. Salon calls it “witty, touching, and at times brutally honest.” Davenport follows how she became a single-mother-by-choice, and her family’s first year. Jasper was conceived with the help of fertility drugs and Davenport’s (gay) best-friend Eric. Plus her (hetero) best-friend Amy, who becomes Davenport’s birth partner.
You should watch it (and tell us what you think). Davenport puts her desires and anxieties about motherhood in the spotlight to make, as she says, a “personal and particular” film. It is beautiful to see a child who is so wanted come into the world. I cried start-to-finish, and left with lingering questions–I’m grateful to Davenport for granting this interview.
On MUTHA, Davenport talks back to critics–and about the positive responses she’s received from women across the country. — Meg Lemke
MUTHA: Why did you make this movie?
NINA DAVENPORT: I had made a film in 2000 called ALWAYS A BRIDESMAID, which HBO is currently re-airing. And that film was about my turning 30 and being with a younger guy who couldn’t commit, and being a wedding videographer, filming everyone else’s weddings, meanwhile wishing I was the one who were getting married.
Then, when I found myself at 41, considering having a baby on my own, it just seemed like the perfect sequel to that film. How could I not film this—especially since I felt like I was kind of the perfect person to tell this story of the women of my generation. Because even if you didn’t have a baby on your own, all of us thought about it. And had a plan B.
MUTHA: Was Jasper what you expected? Is motherhood what you wanted, now that you’re here?
NINA DAVENPORT: I think it is, yeah. Maybe having to do with my relationship with my niece, who is in the film, I thought that children are so fascinating, magical, hilarious, wonderful, the love that you feel for them is like nothing else, and I wanted to have that experience in my life. And, I think even more significantly, I had such a close bond with my own mother, and she passed away, and I really wanted to re-live that, but from her perspective.
MUTHA: The movie made me jealous of this kind of New York Metro-“Friends” group… That’s such a huge part of the film. I love Amy; it seems like she’s everyone’s favorite character. I particularly liked her “OBAMA MAMA” t-shirt...
NINA DAVENPORT: Amy still is Jasper’s number-one Auntie, second mom, the person who is the most involved in his life besides me. Eric is still involved, but I would say Amy is even more involved than Eric.
MUTHA: So, what’s the deal with Eric? What’s that relationship developed into?
NINA DAVENPORT: I think it’s an extension of what you see in the film, which is that he starts out as just a sperm donor and then sort of finds himself inexorably drawn into Jasper and loving him and caring about him. We see him pretty frequently and his mother comes to visit…. It’s really nice. I’m lucky that Jasper can know who is father is and know his father; as opposed to a sperm-donor situation, not that I judge that in any way, but I just feel that I’m really grateful to Eric for helping me figure out a way to get what I wanted. And his genetic makeup is such that I ended up with a very smart and incredible child.
MUTHA: How does Jasper talk about his family?
NINA DAVENPORT: He hasn’t really asked questions. He said something the other day that was very sweet. It was with me and Amy and he said that we were his family. That was cute… The only question he ever asked, because he has a lot of Aunties who are single women with no kids, he once asked: “Why don’t Aunties have babies?”
MUTHA: Both Amy and Eric talk about feeling in over their heads at different points, or the fear of being manipulated or taken advantage of….
NINA DAVENPORT: Yeah, yeah…
MUTHA: [Is it a statement] about pregnant women in general? Like I think that I was fairly self-centered as a pregnant person—that’s why some people want to get pregnant, it is a time that’s really about you.
NINA DAVENPORT: Let me think of an interesting way to answer this. I mean, both of Eric and Amy were ambivalent about having a child. But, also willing to help me. I think in the abstract it’s pretty scary even for the mother who has decided to have a child. You have no idea what you’re getting into. You hear all these things about how your life is going to change forever and about how exhausted you’re going to be and all these things. But then once there’s a real child it’s just a totally different situation. But you cannot envision that until you’ve been through it. So I think that for them, both, once there was a real child, those issues kind of went away.
MUTHA: They were transformed with you… You can’t understand it, until you go through it.
NINA DAVENPORT: It’s impossible. I mean, even though I knew how great it was, I knew I had to have it, I didn’t really know. You can’t really know until you experience it yourself.
MUTHA: Let’s talk about labor. I’ve seen reviews where they called your labor this “graphic and ugly” experience and I also saw an interview where you said “I think it’s much better for people to know what’s really going on, and to see it as a beautiful thing rather than something to be afraid of.” I wonder about this discrepancy….
NINA DAVENPORT: Well, first of all I’ve definitely gotten a lot of emails from people thanking me for showing labor in such an honest way. I think there is a kind of misogyny that is so deep in this culture that people don’t even see it and it plays out as this just negative view of women’s bodies. Old women are always depicted as utterly asexual and dried-up spinsters, and meanwhile men are dashing as they get older. And somehow labor is this scary, nasty thing, and a lot of guys don’t want to see it, and don’t think it should be in the film. It makes no sense to me. I mean it’s a fundamental; it’s the beginning of life, we’re human beings, we’re physical creatures, how can you feel like you don’t want to see that? I can’t even relate to what that says. But I think part of it is this kind of fear and disgust for women’s bodies that underlies it, that people aren’t even aware of. I think for women, there’s a fear of seeing it because it’s very scary…. The people that say that they don’t want to watch it or that it made them uncomfortable, it’s always men who say that.
MUTHA: When I was giving birth to my daughter, I remember when I was pushing—they didn’t have like a mirror, they said “do you wanna to see the head coming, we can angle this blank, dead television screen so maybe you can see?” I was like “No, it’s cool, I’m fine, I’m focused on what I’m doing in here…”
NINA DAVENPORT: Wow…
MUTHA: “Really, I think you guys need to pay attention to this right now—stop messing with the hanging TV!”
NINA DAVENPORT: They didn’t offer me that option! I don’t think I could have handled watching it at the same time.
MUTHA: No one was filming my birth—and I would have loved to see that after the fact. Because at the time, I was just too busy.
NINA DAVENPORT: Right, right, right…. I think it’s amazing that I have it on film… Jasper is going to get to see the moment that he was born. I mean, who wouldn’t want to see that?
MUTHA: And Eric cut the cord, right? I heard them asking.
NINA DAVENPORT: And Amy was crying. It was so amazing.
I mean the problem with sexism and misogyny, it’s all very subtle, so you can never very clearly point the finger at it, but it’s pervasive in our culture. It’s there, and there’s no denying it. And yet, if you try to point to a specific instance of it, it’s very hard. Similarly, I feel that there were four hateful reviews of the film, and I think there’s this kind of idea of if you’re a woman, and you talk about your experience, you’re a narcissist, but if you’re a man, that’s great, bring it on. There’s a total double standard there.
MUTHA: Right after you give birth, you find out your kid won’t latch and you start pumping, and you show that in the film… I went through a process of pumping exclusively for my daughter for weeks until we got [nursing] going….
NINA DAVENPORT: People have no idea.
MUTHA: I don’t know that I have a question here. I just want to say thank you for putting that out on HBO—that photo still of you pumping with Eric next to you was what my life was for weeks.
NINA DAVENPORT: And it’s truly hellish. And they tell you that you have to pump every three hours in order for your milk flow to not decrease. So that means you have to count twenty minutes of pumping or half an hour, because maybe you can’t handle both breasts at once, and you have to wash the whole thing out—we’re talking about essentially being able to sleep never for more than two hours at once. And you’ve just had a baby…. The breast pump was really painful, and like breaking it up, and then you’re constantly feeling like you’re falling short, because you can’t get yourself to wake up. It’s a nightmare. You had no idea that this was even going to happen to you in the first place because you thought “oh, you give birth, and then the baby…” Then you find out that legions of women have these problems, but somehow no one has ever mentioned it to you until you gave birth yourself and it’s too late to learn anything about it. My God, it was a full-time job to breastfeed.
MUTHA: Did he eventually latch or were you pumping for five months?
NINA DAVENPORT: No, he did eventually latch, but then it was almost right around that point that I took this stuff called Domperidone which was supposed to get the supply up—and they said that when you go off it, it can be fine. I went off it but [my milk supply] immediately started going down right when he started latching, and the latching was painful, so it was never good, for five months. And then I stopped, not even on purpose—there was like no milk.
MUTHA: I always think Domperidone is funny because it sounds like champagne.
NINA DAVENPORT: Oh, I called it Dom Perignon. I know, hilarious. The Dom Perignon. I never knew if it did anything, I never knew if he had enough milk. I still remember having my friend Melissa over and she was breastfeeding and she took the baby off and literally some milk shot all the way across the room, out of her boob, and I was like “I’m going to start crying.” It was the exact opposite of me.
MUTHA: But you may have been getting plenty of milk—it’s just, you’re not a shooter….
NINA DAVENPORT: I don’t know! How do you know! You can’t tell what’s going on, it’s so crazy. And then they made me do Pediasure, which is also a total scam. It’s basically sugar, and then I realized all these things he used to eat, he stopped, gradually he wouldn’t eat anything but the Pediasure… Amy was babysitting with this guy she was dating and he looked at the ingredients… and they started googling it and she’s like “just so you know, Todd found all these people saying how much they hate Pediasure, and it’s all sugar, blah blah blah…”
So, then I stopped that, and he started eating other things again. And then after a year they stopped bugging me about his weight. He’s just lanky, he’s super skinny, Eric is really skinny. He has the exact same body as Eric. Why was anyone even worrying?
MUTHA: The film says: “you can do this too,” to the “everywoman.” But I want to talk about privilege and class; I’ve seen this come up in reviews. You comment on money and privilege in the film. You have wealthy relatives and when we see your childhood home it’s this beautiful big house. There’s a scene with your sister-in-law who implies you shouldn’t have a baby unless you’re financially ready to provide tennis lessons….
NINA DAVENPORT: No comment, no comment.
MUTHA: But at the same time, you were obviously in a reasonable situation. You had an apartment in Manhattan—reviews that say “she must have money because she has these expensive fertility drugs….” Are they saying that you shouldn’t make your movie because it’s not a movie about a single mom who doesn’t have any means? I wanted to hear you talk back to some of that discussion. I do think it is a question: Did this get picked up by HBO when a film about a mother who didn’t have the means you did at your disposal wouldn’t be…?
NINA DAVENPORT: I don’t agree with that. If HBO, if there were a good film… Well, first of all, it is a problem. The single motherhood issue is a major issue in this country because among lower-middle class, lower-class people, single mothers fare worse. I’ve read studies about this. It is a real problem. It’s a social problem. That is not the class that I’m in. It’s not relevant to my situation. And therefore to try to cram it into a film that is so personal and particular would just have been absurd. It would have been more offensive than just ignoring it all together. It’s an issue I feel strongly about because it’s related in the sense that it has to do with men dropping the ball—in a different way in those situations than in my socio-economic circle. But it does come down to men not wanting to be responsible, not wanting to pay for children, not wanting to have children—and women being left to do the work of having the species carry on, and at the same time getting no support from society, getting judged right and left, criticized. It’s criminal the way we treat mothers in this society. It’s truly disgusting. The richest countries in the world gives no paid maternity leave, no support for women. It makes me absolutely enraged.
I would consider making that film, actually.
But that doesn’t mean that what women in my social world are dealing with isn’t important. We have our struggles too. It’s different. But women go through a lot of mental anguish about this issue of the biological clock. How to find a partner, how long to wait, and people get deeply depressed about it. To say that it’s trivial because I had some money in the bank is just ridiculous. It’s not all about money. There’s a lot more going on.
MUTHA: It’s ironic given your family’s own response in the film.
NINA DAVENPORT: With that—it’s confusing because from their point of view, they think I don’t have that much money because they have so much of it. Obviously when your family is telling you, “you shouldn’t do this,” it’s not like it has no effect on me. They’re my relatives. I’m not going to say to them “I’m middle class, I don’t have to listen to this, I can do this.”
What am I trying to say (sigh)… I certainly don’t mean to imply that it doesn’t matter at all. Because it does. The difference between being a single parent and it being fun versus hellish is money. If you have money you don’t need the guy as much. I was lucky that I had enough money to do it, despite the fact that my family thinks that I don’t.
MUTHA: How is your father feeling about Jasper now, and how does he respond to the film? [When Nina tells her father she is pregnant, he says “get an abortion.”]
NINA DAVENPORT: My dad is such a character. He’s seen the film several times. He likes it. All he has to say is: “I still say I have no recollection of ever thinking it was a bad idea….” He also keeps asking me about that shot where he’s rowing the boat on the St. Lawrence river at age ten, which is this beautiful shot, black and white, shot by his grandfather where you see him as this boy struggling to row this boat and it’s this metaphor for how hard his childhood was with this alcoholic father. Then it goes to shots of my dad filming me, and shots of me filming Jasper—the whole end of the film is about the cycle of life. And he keeps asking me: “What was the point of that shot? What was that shot doing there, I just don’t understand it….” But he’s also 84, he’s older than he was in the film, visibly, palpably older.
MUTHA: We’ve talked about some of the negative reviews of the film; do you want to talk about some of the positive responses?
NINA DAVENPORT: I’ve gotten hundreds and hundreds of messages, emails, Facebook, Twitter. I haven’t even begun to read them all…. It’s an outpouring of love and admiration and gratitude and respect and just amazing. To contrast that with these angry reviews–are these critics hateful people, out of touch with reality? Based on all the festival screenings I had done, it did not cross my mind that I would get a bad review. It literally didn’t cross my mind. So I was completely like “What?” And the New York Times review was pathetic. She’s insinuating all these things but she doesn’t even come out and say it. That’s a woman. The rest of them were written by men…. In one case the guy describes me as “a demographic of one.” Have you ever left your apartment? Do you not realize this city is crawling with fabulous women who are freaking out about their biological clocks and can’t find a man? What the hell.
MUTHA: What would you say to other mothers who are artists, or artists who are wanting to be mothers?
NINA DAVENPORT: It is hard. There’s this joke among filmmakers that your film is your baby. So how can you have a baby and make a film, it’s like having two babies at once. The way I solved that problem was to make a film about my baby, so they are one and the same. I feel like that was sort of a brilliant career move, and thank God it got on HBO and people loved it. But now what? I’m facing: how do I make this next film? I don’t know what it’s going to be yet. Can I find a topic that doesn’t involve too much travel, or if I do need to travel, can I make it work? It’s always felt like “am I ever going to be able to make another film?” It’s unbelievably hard to make a film at all, let alone a film that you sell. I’m viewed as very successful despite the fact that I make no money…. Because it’s so competitive and so hard.
Now on top of it I’m a single mother. That just makes me more determined to do it. The more that women are blazing a trail for other women, the better. Not that I feel like I’m very much of a trailblazer. The real trailblazers are the women who had babies on their own when they were seriously judged and stigmatized. I’ve talked to some of those women, it was a different scene even ten years ago. I got all that negative feedback from my family, but personally I don’t feel judged… Katie Roiphe writes about being judged as a single mother. Not everyone agrees with me on that. But in this neighborhood, in this culture, I don’t feel like a freak. I feel completely normal.
MUTHA: “Everyone move to Brooklyn.” But that’s terrible advice because it’s so expensive to live here.
NINA DAVENPORT: I know, it’s already gone way up since I bought this place. It’s insane.
MUTHA: Are you dating anyone? I watched Always a Bridesmaid right after First Comes Love… the first is really about getting the boy, or “a boy.” I kept thinking “it’s fine, because she’s going to get a wonderful boy–[Jasper] is coming into her life and everything is going to be solved.”
NINA DAVENPORT: If only I had known that at the time! Think of how much less I would have suffered.
MUTHA: Especially because the main featured boy [in Always a Bridesmaid] is toddler-like….
NINA DAVENPORT: Oh my God, are you kidding, my brothers used to refer to him as the boy-toy….! That was my type. I don’t know why that was my type but it just was. The pretty boys.
MUTHA: How is it going now? There’s that really lovely man, and you break up, in the film.
NINA DAVENPORT: John and I are still close and he’s such a great guy. I wish that could have worked out. I actually just broke up with someone—or rather someone just broke up with me. It was only 48 hours ago. Because he said “I’m falling for you, but I don’t want to be a stepfather.” I’m not sure why he used that word since “stepfather” connotes a lot that is not the case in my situation… And “all we could do is adopt” slash “you can’t have a child.” So therefore “I can’t picture a life with you.” I don’t understand why he had to date me for two months to figure this out. Personally, if I met a great guy who had a beautiful four-year-old daughter who was ready to love me and treat me like a mother, I would be so psyched. I can’t understand why that’s not appealing to someone who claims they want to have kids. I can’t relate at all…. “I will love my own biological offspring and not anyone else’s” is something I find deeply offensive.
MUTHA: He’s afraid…. There’s this stopping something down because you’re afraid to start it, it’s a character trait to avoid in a partner. He’s not giving it a chance.
NINA DAVENPORT: I believe him when he said he was falling for me. We were on the brink. It also suggests he’s way more conventional than I thought he was. He said things like “I try not to live my life by filling out boxes.” That’s so appealing, that made me like him so much. What I’m drawn to are extremely open-minded, unconventional, progressive—like that’s what I want, that’s what I am, what I relate to. I thought that’s what he was, but clearly not.
MUTHA: Are you dating anyone else?
NINA DAVENPORT: Yeah, sort of (laughing).
MUTHA: So hope is not lost.
NINA DAVENPORT: Maybe it’s going to be OK in the end.