Lately, we’ve been all about the television. Of course we’re also reading. I just reviewed Orlando Figes’s fantastic history of The Crimean War. Having discovered my renowned collection of old school Hollywood biographies, Mara is reveling in Brooke Hayward’s Haywire. Eva also has a new discovery, Phyllis Reynolds Naylor’s Alice series, which, to our delight, includes 26 books — though I almost wrote episodes, which says something about our current bias. For while we still love to curl up on the couch for a Girls Reading Party, these days you’re just as likely to find us curled up on the couch in front of Friday Night Lights.
Our television habit started a few years ago when Mara discovered Project Runway and we watched four seasons in a row on DVD. Looking up at a shared screen, instead of down at our own books, we kibitzed, cheered, and discovered that food and fashion reality shows provide great bonding opportunities for a tween, a teen, and a fortysomething mom (we’re also partial to Chopped, Iron Chef, and Ace of Cakes). Then, at the suggestion of a former babysitter, we tried Gilmore Girls and were hopelessly hooked.
How could we not be? A mom and her daughter, a wacky town, an indie/retro soundtrack, a rapid-fire stream of cultural, literary, and political references…Gilmore Girls was made for us (though I do find it unnerving when people say Mara and I remind them of Rory and Lorelai). And unlike the story line of the reality TV contest, which is basically about who’s going to win, whether it’s drawn out over a full season, like Project Runway, or wrapped up in a single episode, like Chopped or Iron Chef, Gilmore Girls gave us the kind of multi-strand serial narrative we all love: lots of characters, ongoing conflicts, recurring love interests, and the eternal pull of the next episode.
After seven seasons in seven months, we were left bereft when Luke kissed Lorelai and Rory hopped on a bus with the Obama campaign. A Facebook call for tween/teen/mom-friendly television generated a long list of replacement suggestions, from which we chose Friday Night Lights, which gives us the kind of multi-strand serial narrative we all love… with football. Which we don’t love quite as much, and some of us don’t even understand, but which has nonetheless seduced us.
But if all this sounds delightfully wholesome — the real family snuggled up in front of the glowing television family — this new TV habit has a shadier side. The rest of the television audience may have just watched the final episode of the final season of Big Love, HBO’s polygamy melodrama, but I began at the beginning just last month, as a consequence of my ongoing book malaise, and Mara was soon sucked in, as a consequence of eavesdropping while she did her homework. So now, after Eva goes to bed, we curl up in front of sister wives and runaway teen brides, compulsive shopping debts and dubious business deals, poisoning, double crossing, and forced stays in mental hospitals — and we’re only halfway through the second season!
If I am surprised to find myself watching television every night, especially television about football and dissident Mormons, I’m even more surprised to find myself identifying not with the teenagers and young lovers I’ve always been drawn to, but with the mothers, that is, with two specific midlife mothers: Friday Night Lights’s Tami Taylor and Big Love’s Barb Henrickson. What appeals to me about Barb and Tami — and Lorelai too, come to think of it — is that they are mothers, fully (even uber-mothers, in the case of Barb and Tami, who mother everyone within arm’s reach), but they aren’t just mothers.
Being a mother is a crucial piece of my life. I care for my children; I think about them; I talk about them; I take joy in their happiness and do whatever I can to alleviate their sadness. And yet, they are just one piece of my life. I also think about my students, my friends, my own mother, the book I’m reading, how I really feel about teachers unions, whether the nuclear disaster in Japan is the beginning of the end, how the Red Sox will do this year, what kind of phone I should get, and whether I’m going to kill my husband if he works another ten days in a row. Between the many hours I spend with my children, I go to work, admire my crocuses, take yoga classes, have drinks with friends, meet with clients, shop for boots, and don’t think of them at all. And while I often feel overwhelmed, I don’t feel torn between my children and my life; this just is my life.
Barb, Tami, and Loralei seem to share my experience — and, I suspect, the experience of a lot of other mothers, especially those of us somewhere in the middle of our lives and motherhood. It’s not just that these TV moms are complex characters; they are complex characters who happen to be mothers, a state that is at once utterly central to their lives and utterly taken for granted. They engage fully with their children, but also with their partners, their extended families, their jobs, and their own emotional complexities, not to mention polygamy, football, and a wacky town.
I stood in front of my bookshelf this morning, trying to find mothers like this — mothers like me — and I must confess, I was hard pressed. It’s not that there aren’t complex mothers in books — Beloved‘s Sethe and Bastard Out of Carolina‘s Anney were right there on my shelf — or mothers who have lives of their own — a friend reminded me of Dr. Murry in A Wrinkle in Time. But even these three come to literary life primarily in relation to their children. I’m sure there are other (and better) examples, but too often literary mothers still seem stuck in a limited set of archetypes: the dead, cruel, and paragon mothers of yore have been joined by today’s bad mothers and the profoundly or humorously conflicted protagonists of mommy lit. Whatever her archetype, such mothers are either incidental or consumed — positively, negatively, ambivalently — by motherhood.
So what is it about television that makes my kind of matter-of-fact mother easier to find? Part of it, I think, is structural. With neither page limits nor time limits, good serial television has the space and time to engage the complexities of contemporary life in an ongoing way. Indeed, you can find Barb, Tami, and Lorelai’s predecessors in the soap operas my grandmother loved. Embedded for the long haul in families, communities, and workplaces, soap opera heroines have always been mothers who have more going on than motherhood, suggesting the affinity of the long-term serial to such a maternal vision. Television is also the current redoubt of the midlife actress, the place where actresses can still find jobs when they are no longer pretty young things — but are ripe to portray complex characters who, given their demographics, are more likely than not to be mothers.
Of course television has its own archetypes, not to mention significantly more drama than my own quiet life. Still, there are good reasons why it’s where I’m finding myself these days — and enjoying myself too.