Tuesday, October 11, 2016

Feminism, Love, and Baby Longing: Ainslie Paton's SOLD SHORT

Romance novels in which the heroine's longing for a child plays a major role often make me cringe. Because so often such novels present motherhood as the most important thing a woman could ever want, do, or be. No matter how accomplished they are in other areas of their lives—successful careers, loving families, strong friendship groups, kick-ass social lives—heroines in such novels almost always believe they are somehow lacking, incomplete without having given birth. And the novels in which they feature too often reinforce such beliefs, rather than show their heroine protagonists that while having a child is a wonderful, joyous life experience, a woman can still be a woman without having experienced it.

Which is why I was so charmed by the latest entry in Ainslie Paton's Sidelined series, Sold Short. Its heroine, Sarina Gallo, founded the tech company Plus along with three friends, Owen, Reid, and Dev, right after college. Now, a decade later, her skills as a talent recruiter, her insistence upon gender equality on the job, not to mention the long, long hours she's clocked at work, have helped transform the small start-up into one of Silicon Valley's hottest firms. But now, after watching Reid and Owen widen their lives beyond the office and fall in love (see books 1 & 2), and with Dev looking to be well on the way to doing the same, Sarina is starting to think for the first time about how she, too, wants to have a family of her own.

But Sarina, whose workaholic ways have led to a disappearance of her casual dating mojo, is less than inspired by the need to search for a guy with whom to have that family. And she's unexpectedly resentful of her male colleagues, because they, unlike her, have no "looming personal deadline": 

[T]hey were never going to be held hostage by their reproductive cycles. That's what sucked most about being a woman. A form of inequality she had no certain way to address. It was hard coded into her femininity and it didn't matter how many other gender divides she stomped across, this one was an unbridgeable chasm.  (Kindle Loc 130)

Sarina could freeze her eggs, then sit around waiting for Mr. Right. But given what a workaholic she is, she knows that he isn't just going to drop from the skies. And she's not willing to put her life on hold. Especially since right now is a good time, business-wise, for her to take time off for a baby; things at Plus are stable for the first time since they launched: "In terms of our business plan, and where we've plotted growth spurts, this plan of mine is a good fit," as she tells her three fellow company founders (446). Thus, her plan: single motherhood, via insemination by a sperm donor.

For Sarina, who comes from a family that does not embody the traditional heterosexual monogamous norm (her sister is a lesbian; her parents are still lovingly married, but invite other sexual partners, some of them long-term, into their family group), such an course seems downright conventional. And Owen and Reid Plus partners are both down with her plan.

But calm, cool, peacemaker Dev, her best friend, blows an unexpectedly major gasket:

     "By shopping, you mean for sperm." Reid grinned. "Is there an app for that?"
     "Almost. A website, and it's very comprehensive. I've got a lot of thinking to do about the attributes I want to match with," she said.
     Ah, this had gone far enough. "Let me get this straight. You let some random person talk you into being a single mom and now you're shopping online for sperm like it's a pair of shoes."
     Sarina shook her head. "Dev, don't be like this."
     "Truly, you'll take any man's sperm?" His voice was still raised; he couldn't adjust the volume.
     "No. There's a process, it's all highly regulated and totally anonymous if I want it to be."
     "You don't even want to know the father of your own kid?"
     "He won't be the father in any real sense."
     "This kid already has three fathers, if Sarina wants us." Owen said.
     "I'm not in on this. Don't count on me."
     Sarina reached for him. "Dev, please don't be like this."
     He'd tripped and stumbled over Sarina the day they met; maybe he'd been wrong to think there had ever been anything personal between them, because  more than a decade later, this was the real fall. (500)

After Dev storms out of the room, Reid, the social maladept nerd of the bunch, follows, and attempts to calm him down. But accusing Dev of being in love with Sarina, then arguing that men are irrelevant to the contemporary parenting equation, does little to calm Dev's uncharacteristic hotheaded response:

     "Who chooses to be a single mom?"
    "Any intelligent, well-resourced woman who's on a timeline, doesn't have a partner she trusts and understands her options. Hot take, Dev. Women don't need us anymore. We're redundant tech."
     "That's no. It's not. I can't accept that." He shook his head. Reid had no idea how relationships worked. "Not for Sarina and not for a child. Parenting is hard going, doing it alone by choice is a bad decision."
     "Because you're currently fucked in the head I'm going to ignore that you just invalidated my whole childhood. Cara's too, probably several hundred of our employees. Men have been voluntarily removing themselves from the parenting equation for so long, women have worked out how to do without us." (551)

A t-shirt Dev definitely doesn't want to wear

The resulting story, then, is not about Sarina's lack, a lack that needs to be fulfilled by a man with love and lively sperm, but, rather, about Dev's. First, Dev's lack of confidence in Sarina, to make decisions for herself and her future child: "He wasn't okay with Sarina planning a baby without him, he wasn't okay she didn't consult with him, and he was gunning for her because of it, and until he could sort that out in his head, he was the dudebro who didn't trust his best friend" (729). "Dudebro" here being a decidedly derogatory term. 

Dev also has to wrestle with the lack of conventionality that bursts in on his own family. Dev's from a loving, tight-knit Indian family, one with clear expectations about how the next generation will marry and procreate. Dev's allowed those expectations to lead him almost without his own awareness into a casual affair with a long-time family friend, an affair that he is only now starting to realize everyone in both their families expects will become permanent. And when his good-girl college-age sister confides in him that she's out-of-wedlock pregnant, Dev truly has to face what matters more: saving family face, or being there for a family member in need.

And of course, Dev has to wrestle with his own lack: his lack of confidence in himself. For Reid is not far off base in saying that Dev has been in love with Sarina for years. But Dev's suppressed any other kind of feeling for his best friend and colleague for a very long time, and it takes some major arguing with Sarina, and the threat of losing her completely, for those long merged feelings to rise above his anger, frustration, and fear of rejection to reach the rational part of his brain.

But by the time Dev gets his emotional shit together, will the sperm donor train already have left the station?

Illustration credits:
Sperm donor: Providence Fertility Center
Dudebro t-shirt: I love Nussies

Sold Short
Supervised by Cats, 2016

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