When my first pet human was born, back in the summer of 2006, I was still a grad student and had no maternity leave. After two months I went back to teaching/dissertating/job searching and it was pretty tough to do it all, let alone do it all well. My daughter was only with a caretaker part-time, but I felt like I was “working” all the time: stealing a spare hour here, a few minutes there, typing up job letters while I nursed her.
Therefore, when I realized that my second child would arrive in mid-January of this year, giving me an entire semester of maternity leave, plus the summer, I was overjoyed. My daughter goes to a Montessori preschool in the mornings and then on to an afternoon daycare, so I decided to pull her out of the latter. I knew that I might never again have such a lengthy period of time to spend with my children, and visions of afternoons in the park and elaborate crafts projects danced before my eyes. And when both children napped (because of course they would do this in tandem), I would work on my book revisions and even write blog posts. Yes, I was going to be an awesome (and intellectually productive) stay at home Mom.
But when pet human # 2 arrived on January 13th of this year, these illusions were immediately shattered. As it turns out, #2 is not a great sleeper. And after a morning consumed with diaper changes, feedings, laundry folding and food preparation, #1 would arrive home demanding “Where’s my lunch!” and “What are we doing today?” So how bad am I at this stay at home Mom thing? One month into it my daughter asked me “Mommy, why don’t I go to daycare anymore?” and I replied “Because Mommy isn’t working right now and wants to spend more time with you. Isn’t it fun to be home with Mommy?” Her reply, after mulling it over was characteristically honest. “No” she told me. I explained to her that she would return to afternoon daycare in “the fall” and since then she has asked, multiple times, “When will it be The Fall?” Ouch.
This entitre experience has made me reevaluate my ideas about what my children need from me and what I need from them. Is being home with an overtired, constantly breastfeeding mother necessarily better for my daughter than being with kids her own age, who don’t mind when she picks her nose or wants to play the same game over and over an over? Is this “quality time” really quality for her?
Why am I sharing this personal story on a blog devoted to film, television and media studies? Because in the midst of my stay at home Mom crisis, NBC premiered Parenthood, a loose adaptation of the 1989 Ron Howard film of the same name, which chronicles the lives of the Braverman family. I will admit that after watching the pilot I was initially left feeling unimpressed. First, Dax Shepard, who plays “free spirit,” Crosby, is miscast in my opinion (and I still can’t get over the fact that he is engaged to Kristen Bell. Really, Kristen Bell? REALLY?).
Second, I find it highly implausible that the Braverman clan — busy as they with careers and children — are able to get together for breakfast, brunch, dinner, late night BBQs, little league games, preschool concerts, and school fundraising events on what seems like a daily basis. My God people, you’ve lived in Berkeley your entire lives, haven’t you made any other friends besides your siblings and parents? Finally, the conclusion to the pilot, in which little, autistic Max Braverman (Max Burkholder), decides that yes! he WILL play in his little league game after all, prompting the entire family to rush out to the field, cheering and full of pep, to watch, was the ultimate in cornball.
But the show has been winning me over with its storyline involving Julia Braverman-Graham (Erika Christensen), her husband, Joel (Sam Jaeger), and young daughter, Sydney (Savannah Paige Rae). Some bloggers I know, find Julia’s story to be both dated and somewhat unbelievable. Myles McNutt wrote:
“I don’t quite understand why Julia is just now realizing that her daughter is starting to drift away, and Christensen’s performance (while good) seems to be making the character more stubborn and bullish than sympathetic.”
I don’t think it’s that Julia is just discovering that her relationship with her daughter is less than ideal; in the pilot Julia remarks, in an only slightly joking tone, that perhaps she needs to lower her expectations for her relationship with Syndey, “She will be like…a relative of mine!” Though Julia’s statement is an exaggeration — her daughter seems to really love her — it is clear that the child prefers her father. And is that really so awful? If it were the other way around would it even warrant a storyline on the show? No, I don’t think Julia feels all that guilty for loving her job and being proud of her work — and she shouldn’t. Her husband is a wonderful, engaged, stay at home Dad so Sydney is not lacking in parental attention.
Instead, I think these first few episodes have brought to light Julia’s realization that other parents might disapprove of her choice to work — such as “wonder mom” Raquel (Erinn Hayes)– and that perhaps her husband might (though the show has not made this entirely clear yet) prefer a wife who bakes cookies, takes their daughter to swim lessons, and has a tacky tattoo over her rear end (something I’ve always referred to as a “tramp stamp,” but I digress). It is clear that Raquel does indeed judge Julia, albeit in a passive aggressive fashion, but I like that the writers have depict Julia as being judgmental of Raquel as well. This was perfectly encapsulated at Sydney’s school fundraiser’s auction, when Julia and Raquel engage in a bidding war over a parking space. The war culminates with Julia exclaiming (while still on microphone) “She doesn’t even work!” It was a funny, squirm-worthy moment.
I appreciate Parenthood‘s depiction of these much-maligned “Mommy Wars” primarily because so many women want argue that the division between working mothers and stay at home mothers doesn’t exist. But it does. It shouldn’t, but it does. Depicting both sides of this “war” — how judging a mother for the choices she makes is counterproductive and painful for all involved, is an important task for this series since it is a reality of modern mothering.
As a working mother who is trying her hand (albeit temporarily) at being a stay at home Mom, I’ve learned two important lessons: 1. It is just as difficult, exhausting and stressful to stay home with your children as it is to work full-time, and 2. Some women serve their families best by staying home with their kids while others serve their families better by working. I think Parenthood is handling this very touchy issue well. The viewer wants to sympathize with Julia over the too-perfect Raquel (after all, she is taller, bustier and is definitely hitting on Joel),but then we get a scene in which the camera lingers on Raquel’s face, the day after Julia publicly ridicules her for not working, to reveal her feelings of hurt. These moments speak to the unreasonable expectations that mothers place on themselves, and worse, on each other, to be everything to everyone — their partners, children, employers, friends — at all times.
So maybe Parenthood isn’t that great of a show — there are weaknesses (Who is Joel as a character? Does Kristina [Monica Potter] have a personality? Dax Shepard, REALLY?) and maybe the reason I’m enjoying it so much is because it came to me at a pivotal moment in my life, when I’ve begun to reexamine my role as a mother and as worker. But isn’t that the role of good, serialized television, after all? To settle itself into your bones and make you think about your own life, about what it is and what it isn’t, from week to week? While it might be a little too precious when the image of Adam (Peter Krause) gazing lovingly at his sleeping son is intercut with an image of Crosby watching the sleeping Jabbar (Tyree Brown), we nevertheless get the feeling that Crosby is slowly learning the small pleasures of parenthood. Indeed, during that very scene I couldn’t help but look down at my own newborn son, who was sleeping on my lap, and feel the same surge of pleasure these fictional characters were feeling.