In my early thirties, when I was dealing with my own ambivalence about whether or not to become a mother, I could find almost nothing—in fiction, drama or film—that addressed all I wanted to explore about the topic. I could not find a single heroine who dealt with choosing childlessness, who lived through that decision for me so I could follow her lead, even though I’d had heroines for every other issue, including not being married.
Characters that remained childless and unmarried were always tragic figures. So were female writers who took that route. Never mind that there are suicidal writers who never wrote The Bell Jar. Never mind that there are miserable men and women who have families. Never mind the children who grew up in unhappy homes. Never mind that most of my favorite fiction has always depicted the misery of domestic life.
I wasn’t sure I didn’t want children or marriage. I was terrified of both prospects, but I wanted to explore that path for myself.
So I began to write EGG.
This was in the early 1990s, a time of raging baby fever. Images of celebrities with their “baby bumps” were everywhere. The only issues around motherhood that people were discussing were challenges with conceiving. Single parenting and sperm donation were all the rage. (Surrogacy, at that time, was becoming an option, but not as a proposed means for positive social change.) Even the editor of feminist magazine Bust was urging women to have children before their clock ran out.
I couldn’t wrap my arms around the mania to have children by any means necessary. I wasn’t worried about fertility, and had no qualms about adopting or fostering. Because I loved children and felt a powerful, biological desire to start a family, I also didn’t relate to the child-free communities I read about. Part of me wanted to be natural and full of fertile, feminine fecundity and just get over myself. I didn’t want to be some pointy-headed person, full of anxiety and just overthinking it, as friends told me I was doing.
I couldn’t square the desire I felt with the realities of what being a mother would mean for my life, and my child’s life, in the real world. That role was so fraught for me, and I didn’t know if I had the courage to have a child and spend the rest of my life and my child’s life redefining it—which is how I would have had to do it. I didn’t know if I could distance myself from the expectations that I had of myself or of motherhood, like many of my admirable friends had done.
I was ready to be a father. I just wasn’t ready to be a mother.
The honest conversations I had with friends about all of this—male and female, straight and queer—were loaded, infuriating, disturbing, impassioned and poignant. They also made me realize that ambivalence about having children was not just a women’s issue. I saw reluctant men being tricked or pressured into parenthood, a route that their partners hoped would solve itself when they dissolved in tears at the sight of their newborn child. Other men longed for children; one even told me he cared more about having children than about the woman he had them with.
The pressure to have children, and the ambivalence about doing it, and the ways and means it actually happened for people was so under-explored. The hypocrisies and the duplicity, the elevation of having children above what I saw as true love and partnership, the gap between biological desire and the realities of being a parent in our society—were so complex, for men and for women. I decided that I needed multiple characters to embody all of the issues in it.
EGG started as a play. The main character is a conceptual artist who reconceives of motherhood as a social experiment. She is challenged by the other four characters in the play: her husband, who longs for a child; the economically challenged surrogate mother they enlist; the main character’s pregnant art school friend; and that friend’s wealthy husband, who isn’t ready for parenthood either. Together, these five characters were able to embody and dramatize all of the internal arguments and issues I had held inside of myself.
The play, finished over 15 years ago, was almost produced numerous times by multiple producers—including a developmental process and a staged reading at South Coast Repertory—but it was never fully staged. I wanted the piece to be seen by any means necessary, as long as it was made in a way that kept its integrity. I admired playwrights like Yasmina Reeza, Harold Pinter and Edward Albee for their ability to use dark comedy to expose dark truths—and to translate their plays effectively to film.
Turning EGG into a film was a way to get it made, to set it in amber, to get it seen by more people, to have the discussion enter the popular culture. Over the years, I’d written screenplays, teleplays and other plays—but EGG was always my bête noir. And it was almost made as a film, again, numerous times, but it wasn’t until 2016 that it found the producers who were able to bring it to life.
Alysia Reiner and David Alan Basche had played two of the roles in EGG during a reading cast by director Ari Kreith ten years prior—and they wanted to make films like Equity, which Reiner produced and starred in, that challenged and changed culture, and build equitable film crews to make them possible.
I trusted Reiner and Basche to make the film I wanted to make. Along with producer Michele Ganeless, they did. The trio purposefully hired all female department heads and a diverse (and 70 percent female!) crew. They landed the director, Marianna Palka—who, as a very talented writer herself, without ego did not change a word of the script, and understood and depicted every subtlety just as I’d envisioned it. They cast a group of actors of various genders who are feminists. They found a distributor to release the film without changes or distortions.
In EGG, there are no heroes and there are no villains; there are only victims and truth-tellers. Because there are no answers—it’s an unsolvable situation. The premise of EGG is a flawed and outrageous solution to the notion of modern motherhood, and a response to a society and a culture that fetishizes motherhood but offers no equitable route toward building the happy families we think we want.
Writer and director Dan Minahan, a friend and mentor, described the tone of EGG as “Valerie Solanis meets Elaine May.” It’s cynical, it’s romantic, it’s funny, it’s angry, it’s painful. That tone was the only way I could write about this issue honestly.
People now often ask me if making the film EGG was like having a baby. Was making Apocalypse Now like having a baby? Maybe it was. For me, making EGG was like not having a baby—and writing a film about it.
EGG is in theaters now.
Risa Mickenberg is a writer. Her plays have been performed or commissioned at Edinburgh Fringe, SoHo Theater London, the Brighton Festival and South Coast Repertory. Her fiction and humor pieces have appeared in Vice, GrlSquash, The Baffler, Purple, The American Bystander, The Witness and the Pushcart Prize Anthology. Risa has also developed television projects for HBO and received screenwriting fellowships from The MacDowell Colony and Yaddo. (Photo by Billy Erb.)