From Better Things to Catastrophe, the Rise of Real Motherhood on TV

TV Features Year in Review
From Better Things to Catastrophe, the Rise of Real Motherhood on TV

I have a wallet full of googly eyes. You know, those white plastic eyes with the black center that moves around.

Are they from story time at the library? A school activity? Who knows? What I do know is that far too many times my daughter has returned home with her project only to have a googly eye missing. Real tears (the heaving, hard-to-breathe kind) ensue. So I’ve learned to snag a few googly eyes whenever we leave an activity. Always Have Extra Googly Eyes would be the title of my best-selling parenting book. (And no, I can’t just buy a bag of googly eyes at A.C. Moore. Googly eyes are like snowflakes. No two are the same.)

If you happened to get lost in the woods, you’d want my purse with you. A recent inventory found a flashlight, bug repellent wipes, regular wipes, sunscreen, water, and assorted snacks (gummies, pretzels, crackers, applesauce). You wouldn’t be bored, either, because I also found four trains, one Paw Patrol character, and a board book. This is literally what I carry around with me in my purse. EVERY DAY.

I share these stories with you because few TV shows capture the everyday grind of motherhood. Meredith Grey (Ellen Pompeo) now has three children on ABC’s long-running hit Grey’s Anatomy. They are the children your cranky great aunt would adore—they are never seen nor heard. I watch the show every week (What? It’s my guilty pleasure) and I had to look up their names (for the record, Meredith’s children are Zola, Bailey and Ellis). On a recent episode, Meredith called for two of her three children to come downstairs. But the next scene had Meredith and her co-workers driving to work. Where were the children? Did they have breakfast? How did they get to school? I think the youngest one is too young for school and should be in the hospital’s (always open and always accommodating) daycare, but she’s not in the car with them. (And how could she be? Meredith’s car has no car seats.) If Meredith has a nanny, she’s never been seen or talked about. Now a single parent, Meredith routinely pulls surprise all-nighters at the hospital with nary a worry about who will pick up/feed/put the children to bed.

Yes Grey’s is a medical drama, not a show about parenting. But by completely ignoring this aspect of her life (and the three kids in general), it becomes even more of a fantasy. Imagine a world where you can be an awesome mom (as Meredith frequently tell us she is) but never have to see your children?

Motherhood on TV is usually portrayed in brief snippets. The woman who doesn’t know she’s pregnant until she can’t stop throwing up. The soon-to-be mom in labor, screaming at her husband. The nursing mom whose breasts leak and ruin her favorite outfit. The working mom who misses a VERY IMPORTANT MEETING because she gets called to her child’s school. But such moments are fleeting and typically forgotten by the next episode. I adore The Americans, and yet the show drove me crazy the first season because Philip (Matthew Rhys) and Elizabeth (Keri Russell) could scurry away on a night mission without ever worrying about who would watch their children. Rebecca (Mandy Moore) on This is Us struggled with having three infants (who wouldn’t?) in one episode, but the new NBC hit has much bigger themes to tackle and quickly moved on.

That’s why FX’s Better Things was such a refreshing change. Single mother Sam (Pamela Adlon) is raising three daughters while juggling her acting career. We see Sam struggle to get her children out the door in the morning and do mundane things like bring snacks to a soccer game and change the batteries in her smoke alarm. She naps in her very messy mini-van because she’s exhausted. When her co-star asks what Sam is doing on her phone, she replies, “mom shit.” Recently, at my daughter’s swim lesson, as I followed my son up and down the stairs (where every step could mean a trip to the emergency room), I swapped library volunteer times with another mom, answered a question about Girl Scout cookie sales (shout out to all you cookie moms out there) and promised my son’s daycare that I would turn in his updated medical form. Like every mom I know, I was doing “mom shit.”

Catastrophe, the Amazon series about a one-week stand that ends in marriage and two children, is another show that strives for an authentic portrayal of motherhood. Sharon (Sharon Horgan) has trouble making mom friends and the house is littered with baby toys. My favorite aspect of the show is how acutely the dialogue captures real conversations parents have. When I wrote about Catastrophe as one of the year’s best comedies, I mentioned my absolute favorite line of 2016: “Frankie wants to show you the poop he just did. Before you say ‘no’ it’s pretty amazing,” Rob (Rob Delaney) says to Sharon. I’ll confess right now, my husband and I have had similar exchanges.

One episode of ABC’s American Housewife found Katie (Katy Mixon) making the back-and-forth trek to her children’s school multiple times in one day. She was in jeans and an untucked shirt. The central conceit of American Housewife is that Katie doesn’t fit in with all the perfectly coiffed Westport moms. Katie looks like I do when I pick my kids up, and I appreciate that. But (sigh) Katie still has time to have brunch with her friends almost every episode. Bernadette (Melissa Rauch) just had a baby on The Big Bang Theory and producers have already said viewers will never see the baby. Much like Howard’s (Simon Helberg) recently deceased mother, baby Halley will only be heard off screen. (Ironically, Adlon will voice the little bundle of joy).

So the tide is turning—slowly. TV offers an escape, and I wouldn’t want a series to mirror my life precisely. But seeing my experience with motherhood accurately portrayed on TV is refreshing. Here’s hoping we see more moms like Sam and Sharon in 2017. Oh, and do you want a snack? I have some in my purse.

Amy Amatangelo, the TV Gal®, is a Boston-based freelance writer, a member of the Television Critics Association and the Assistant TV Editor for Paste. She wasn’t allowed to watch much TV as a child and now her parents have to live with this as her career. You can follow her on Twitter (@AmyTVGal) or her blog .

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