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Motherhood

“Grey’s Anatomy” Tackles Its Biggest Drama Yet: Motherhood

“For what it’s worth, I hated maternity leave, too. And I am an excellent mother.”

Dr. Miranda Bailey drops this line in the premiere of Grey’s Anatomy’s 16th season. She’s speaking to new-mom Teddy Altman who’s hanging out in the hospital with her newborn on her maternity leave. Dr. Altman’s both bored and overwhelmed, struggling to meet her baby’s needs (diapers are tricky, babies need to eat all the time, and you can forget about sleeping) and her own expectations (aren’t women supposed to naturally love the opportunity to take care of their babies full time?).

This episode premiered just a few weeks after I’d given birth to my second child. Watching it on my own leave, I couldn’t help but relate to Altman. She acknowledges her privilege, saying “There are women the world over who would kill for the privilege of being able to stay at home with their newborn baby and know that they have a job to come back to.” And then she adds, “I know that I should be grateful, but I hate it… I have a brilliant mind with no opportunity to use it.”

Early motherhood is so physical — it’s about feeding, cuddling, worrying, and diaper changing. I’d describe these tasks as somehow hard and boring. I’d forgotten what it’s like to spend all your energy caring for a little creature who can’t so much as smile for six+ weeks. And that’s not counting the physical roller coaster that is life in the weeks after giving birth. It’s not for the faint of heart. It’s also not something that most professional experiences prepare you for. Mine certainly didn’t. Writing, working in an office, running my own business — none of those things gave me a leg up. You can’t set goals or project manage or write a beautiful phrase to nurture a newborn. You just have to be physically there and let concepts like “return on investment” leave your brain or you’ll go crazy.

Since this was my second, I knew some things about baby care. I’m a skilled swaddler and diaper changer. I know all the breastfeeding tricks. I even know, in my body and mind, that this phase will pass. That the baby will turn into a toddler and then a kid. I know the specific sweetness, the sorriness, and the joy of childrearing. And yet, I still felt overwhelmed, exhausted, bored, and helpless, all combining to give me the distinct impression that I was failing. Watching this episode, I marveled at Bailey’s confidence. I longed for the day where I too can say “I’m an excellent mother” and believe it.

Bailey’s been a force from day one. She might no longer be “The Nazi” but she’s still the hardass I root for even when she’s wrong (see the episode this season where she originally refuses to help Meredith keep her medical license — I was with her the whole way). Bailey’s son is also in high school. She’s had some time to grow into her maternal role. When she was a pregnant resident or divorcing her husband, she was noticeably less confident. Nonetheless, there she was, in season 16, loudly declaring her skill as a mother. It was classic Bailey — from a different character it could read as arrogance, but from her, it was just a statement of fact, a reminder of who she is.

A few episodes later, Bailey learns that she’s pregnant again and the doubts start to creep in. The pregnancy hormones make even the chief of surgery burst into tears. Her feet are swollen, her body tired. She wonders if she’s crazy to be doing this again. Our hyper-competent heroine seeks out also-pregnant Dr. Amelia Sheppard for advice. The pairing is telling. Sheppard often feels lost and out of control — she’s the opposite of Bailey. But she imparts some tricks (like pressing your tongue to the roof of your mouth to stop the tears) that Bailey desperately needs. Pregnancy is the great equalizer. It turns out that a new baby is enough to rattle even the most self-assured women and mothers.

This season of Grey’s has zeroed in on motherhood like never before. Grey, Sheppard, Altman, and Bailey, four of the show’s six leading ladies, have all had plot points about motherhood. In a show with this many seasons and this many couples, we’ve seen pregnancies and babies, miscarriages and abortions, but something feels different now. It’s not just the sheer number of mothers, it’s also the show’s willingness to dive into the realities and nuances of what it looks like to be a high-achieving, working mom.

You see in seasons past, we’ve generally had one pregnant doctor at a time, first with Bailey and later with Callie Torres (miss you!), Meredith (she’s three kids in), and April Kepner (pregnant twice). But when more than one character is pregnant/caring for a newborn at a time, you get to see the diversity in (professional) women’s experience. You get to see how their personal strengths and weaknesses play out in the context of motherhood.

Watching these admirable women struggle, I am comforted. They may be world-class surgeons but their mothering is not Instagram-perfect or an all-fulfilling, sappy, emotional quest. It’s a meaningful part of who they are but it alone doesn’t define them. It’s a rare and nuanced depiction. It’s also one of the only portrayals of motherhood that makes me feel both seen and hopeful.

I find Bailey aspirational in so many ways, including the way she claims motherhood and the way she’s redefining it for herself. Watching this season, I’m not just rooting for her, I’m rooting for myself and all the moms out there (both in and out of Seattle Grace). Let us all be able to declare, truthfully, that we are “excellent mothers.”

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Motherhood and Morality: Catching Up with “Workin’ Moms”

The protagonist of Workin’ Moms is not a good person. There’s nothing particularly groundbreaking about that. Plenty of shows are about bad people and Kate’s sins are relatively minor. She’s not killing people, dealing drugs, or running a criminal enterprise. Yet, most antiheroes (and heroes to be honest) remain men and Kate’s misdeeds are particularly interesting because of the premise of her show — motherhood.

Or more precisely, working, regular motherhood. Kate and her friends may be privileged (no plotlines yet about the expense of childcare) but they’re also supposed to be relatable. The zany “other” characters sit at the show’s periphery, uttering just a few lines in the mother’s group to signal that the show’s creators know that black and brown and older mothers exist. But these women are outside the central group, not as relatable or flushed out as Kate and her friends.

The main group, of which Kate is the lead, is comprised of working, upper-class white people, struggling to be good parents, professionals, and people. It’s the last one that Kate fails at through acts big and small. She teases a toddler boy for his long hair, showing her propensity to punch down (not to mention her lack of feminist bona fides). Though technically consensual, she starts sleeping with her much younger assistant in a plotline that if the genders were reversed would have people calling for her head. She even serves as the go-to PR person for the local men’s right chapter (before eventually quitting this vile gig).

You see Kate’s ease with moral missteps are all light enough, small enough that we’re meant to forgive her, to understand. It’s the type of empathy that asks you to briefly cross ethical lines. And in Kate’s universe, most everyone crosses it with her. Her assistant comes back after the men’s rights clients are gone, seeing Kate’s willingness to work for them as a momentary lapse. Her (estranged, having cheated) husband doesn’t see a problem in Kate sleeping with her assistant — he goes so far as to support his wife, acting as her attorney when the young man sues.

The only time Kate is held accountable is for teasing the boy about his hair. The boy’s mother takes offense and uses her power as a journalist to smudge Kate’s reputation. It’s clear this transgression is different from the others — it reflects not just on Kate as a person, but her as a mother. And that distinction, that Kate can be a good mother while not being a good person is what makes Workin’ Moms so distinct.

Usually, TV moms are good or bad and their personality outside of motherhood matches nicely. There are the good moms of yore (from June Cleaver to Claire Huxtable) and their modern variations (Pose’s BlancaFriday Night Lights’ Tami Taylor), all good people through and through. There are selfish bad moms (like Betty Draper and Lucille Bluth) and criminally abusive moms (from Mommy Dearest to Carrie). But the bad person/good mom is hard to find (and the good person/bad mom seems entirely absent, while men get this characterization all the time).

Now some may argue that Kate’s not a good mom. She consistently prioritizes her career over her family. In season one, she takes an out-of-town job despite having a newborn at home. Later when she’s on a forced-leave, she hates staying home with her baby and takes a second job just to have something else to do. But Workin’ Moms doesn’t demonize her for those choices. Instead, it contextualizes them as part of how Kate struggles to be a good mother. Yes, her husband cheats on her, blaming, in part, how she puts herself (and her career) first. But not only does that not stick (he wants Kate back as soon as he’s found out), it doesn’t affect Kate’s parenting. You can be a good mother and bad partner.

Kate’s mothering may not look like June Cleaver’s but it clearly falls into the “good enough” category. In season one, we see her struggling to get her baby to latch, fighting the good fight to breastfeed, even when it’s clearly not working. Later, she’s figuring out how to co-parent after separating from her cheating husband, first denying him the ability to see his kids and then eventually granting it. By the end of season three, she’s making her toddler’s Halloween costume in a hotel bathroom, sneaking away from her sexy new lover to make sure her kid has something to wear. None of these parenting moments shows a perfect mom. But they each show a woman struggling to do right by herself and her kid.

Kate has to work at mothering, not because she’s a bad person but because she’s human. So much of the portrayal of parenthood omits these day-to-day difficulties. Instead, it’s how best to guide your kid — not how to deal with the constant pressure to subsume yourself to the cult of good motherhood.

In the second season of Workin’ Moms, we see a lot of younger Kate, learning how she met her husband, what she was like before kids. And like everyone I know in real life, Kate is the same before and after having kids. She doesn’t become a different person. Instead, she remains the funny, morally-flexible person who quips to defend herself but can’t predict when she’s about to take a joke too far.

I sympathize with Kate not for her lack of conventions but rather for her flawed nature. She’s not evil or saintly. Simply she’s imperfect and women, particularly mothers, are rarely given the chance to tell that story.

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Why I’ll Miss “Jane the Virgin:”  Empathy, Representation, Sex, and More

It’s officially over: the last episode of Jane the Virgin airs tonight. The show wrapped up a lot up in the final 19 episodes (spoilers ahead!): Jane got a huge book deal ($500,000!), Elisa (finally) came through for her family, arch-villain Rose/Sin Rostro (definitively) died, Alba and Jorge found happiness together, Xo beat cancer, and Jane, of course, picked Rafael once and for all (although I imagine the Michael v. Rafael debate will continue indefinitely).

As a longtime fan of the show, I will miss the Villanuevas’ bench, Rogelio’s antics, and even Petra’s formal shorts. All that aside, what I hope the show is remembered for is treating each and every one of its characters with empathy. It turns out that the world is quite different when you apply the same level of compassion to everyone.

It’s easy, human even, to judge people who are different than you, ascribing negative motives and then writing them off. At its worst, this tendency combines with structural inequality (like how entertainment is overwhelmingly white and male), creating devasting problems like hate crimes, the mass incarceration of people of color, giant pay disparities, etc. Jane the Virgin defies this pattern, both in how its made and in what it portrays — a world filled with the problems we know but where race, gender, and class do not determine one’s value.

It’s worth remembering that Jane is lead by a white woman, Jennie Snyder Urman. Despite her lack of first-hand experience, she has managed to create one of the most meaningful portrayals of latinidad on television. She’s hired Latinx writers and centered a vision of Latinx identity that resonates with reality: Latinxs are a hardworking, diverse group of people (who are no more likely to commit crimes than the general population). All those shows about drug cartels and gang members are giving audiences the wrong impression.

And it’s not just that the Latinx characters on Jane the Virgin aren’t criminals, they’re diverse in so many ways: in age, in how they view sex, even in their views on religion. Take our three principle women: Alba, Xiomara (Xo), and Jane. They manage to have different worldviews, make different choices, change and grow, and yet remain sympathetic throughout.

Alba starts the series in the stereotypical “good Catholic” abuelita role. A staunch believer in no sex outside of marriage, she teaches her young granddaughter that a woman’s worth is tied to her sexual purity. Alba is sometimes wrong but she is never the villain. And as the show goes on, we learn that everything is not so simple: Alba did indeed have sex before marriage and by the final season, she’s even masturbating to Barack Obama — surely a church no-no!

Xo is, in many ways, the other Latina stereotype: a teenage mom who prefers sexy clothing and whose daughter gets mad at for acting younger than her age. And again, Jane the Virgin, grants her leeway to be. Xo doesn’t link her self-worth to her sexuality but rather sees sex as a fun route to self-expression. The show pushes this message with Xiomara getting an abortion and managing to be as likable as ever.

Likewise, Jane falls somewhere in the middle and that’s okay too. She takes what she likes from both her grandmother and mother’s examples and builds her own identity, whether it’s figuring out her views on sex, religion, parenting, or even how to pursue her dream. With these three, Jane the Virgin constructs a beautiful portrayal of the many ways women and Latinas, in particular, exist. The show doesn’t pretend that these choices are solely individual — Catholicism and social expectations loom large — but the Villanueva women each create their own way of navigating these pressures. Imagine if we all exhibited the same grace as the show creators in respecting the different choices others make.

I mean really imagine it — imagine it in the context of “mommy wars” (and the never-ending debate about what’s best for “the children”). Imagine it in class-based debates (say the disdain the GOP feels compelled to exhibit about House member Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s previous job as a bartender). It’s hard isn’t, to imagine the world another way? And yet, that’s what Jane the Virgin does week in and week out.

Take the evolution of the Jane-Petra relationship. The show started with them as rivals. Petra was blond, thin, and rich to Jane’s brown, curvy, and working-class. Petra was also the wife of Jane’s love-interest, Rafael. But as the show progresses, these two stop competing and start working together — all the while remaining vastly different and finding themselves in healthy, regular conflict. I still remember the exchange they had while Jane was helping Petra shop for her new babies in season two:

Jane: Raf and I have this glider. We love it because it is so comfortable, especially if you’re gonna be up long nights, feeding the baby.
Petra: I’m not worried about late nights. I have a night nurse…
Jane: Okay, got it…So, pacifiers?
Petra: Oh, yes, definitely pacifiers. Wait, how about those?
Jane: Two for $12? No, that’s ridiculous. Look it, five for ten.
Petra: Yeah, but don’t you think there’s a reason for the price difference?
Jane: Yeah, they’re trying to scam you.
Petra: Or they’re better.
Jane: Maybe.
Petra: Definitely.

This conversation is perfect. Even though at this point, we’re used to sympathizing with Jane, Petra’s point of view is presented as just as valid. Later Petra says Jane “made me feel bad for wanting the best things for our kids” and call her “a martyr — she has to do everything herself.” Meanwhile, Jane has her own version of events with Petra “buying all these overpriced impractical things just because they were more expensive” and “talking about around-the-clock nannies.”

But as the show makes clear by interspersing these two accounts, neither is “right.” These two women, these two mothers are just different! And that’s okay! In fact, it’s more than okay. By the end of the show, Petra and Jane have both become successful mothers and individuals, finding happiness inside their families and outside them. It turns out the road to fulfillment isn’t determined by your feelings towards $6 pacifiers or even night nurses. Instead, it’s about learning to be honest (Petra) and flexible (Jane).

And it’s not just the women who can grow and change. Think about the central male characters — Michael, Rafael, Rogelio, and even Jorge. They all get to be attractive, “real” men while displaying totally different versions of masculinity. Instead of conforming to a masculine type, Jane the Virgin asks its men, just like it asks its women, to be good people: to respect others, to fight fair, to be honest.

It’s rare that a show manages to do so much: to break important barriers in representation in terms of race, gender, sexuality, motherhood, while also, fundamentally, asking all of us to be better people. Even in its darkest darks (and there were some dark times — Jane’s grieving of Michael, his heart-wrenching return), Jane the Virgin was always a light. It never betrayed the fundamental approach of empathy in building its world. And for that, in particular, I will miss it.

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The Hilarious and the Heart-Wrenching in “Workin’ Moms”

Women have whisper networks. We talk about handsy colleagues and compare paychecks. We discuss skin care routines and pass book titles back and forth. I learned about Netflix’s latest import (from Canada no less!), Workin’ Moms, through my network and immediately passed it on.

You see, Workin’ Moms hasn’t gotten the press coverage of Russian Doll or You. It’s more in the One Day At A Time bucket, forced to grow its own audience through the luck of the algorithm, assumed to only speak to a niche audience (like Latinos — 16.7% of the population, or working mothers — 12%, le sigh). And so, we real working moms are spreading the show amongst ourselves, relaying the fact that this comedy gets to some of the truths of early motherhood in ways we haven’t seen before.

Usually, early motherhood is skipped over entirely (look at this cute baby, now skip forward until they’re old enough to lead their own storylines), glossed over as a sacred and precious period (babies are adorable yes, but difficult to care for too), or portrayed in slapstick comedy form (dirty diapers are perhaps not so hilarious when part of your daily routine). Not so with Workin’ Moms.It’s about the good and the bad, the hilarious and the heart-wrenching of early motherhood. There’s the scene about trying to get your baby to latch. The one where you finally have good sex after the birth. The one where you realize you’re pregnant again and think, I cannot do this.

I’m particularly impressed with how the show presents motherhood as an affront to your identity. All the moms on the show deal with it. In the first season (the one on Netflix now — Canada’s on season three), Jessalyn Wanlim’s Jenny Matthews rebels against the role of motherhood, reverting to her college-aged self, wearing chokers, piercing her nipple, and flirting/hooking up with inappropriate men (aka not her husband, aka her boss and random younger men). Juno Rinaldi’s Frankie Coyne faces the chemical imbalance of motherhood with postpartum depression, unable to keep her job, her sense of self, and sometimes her grip on reality. Dani Kind’s Anne Carlson struggles to match her gruff personality with mothering, feeling jealous of her nanny’s easy connection with her prepubescent daughter and contemplating an abortion of her third pregnancy. Meanwhile, our lead, Catherine Reitman’s Kate Foster hides her promotion from her husband, a career advancement that would be a no-brainer without kids. Now it’s fraught and painful, a no-win situation that turns Kate’s professional dream turned into a nightmare when her son winds up in the hospital.

Throughout, we see the specter of motherhood, this role that is supposed to fulfill you but requires never-ending self-sacrifice, as what it is: really fucking hard. Society’s depiction of motherhood in movies and in the media doesn’t fit actual women with actual lives. So many of us mourn the life we had before kids, the one that allowed us more leeway to focus on ourselves, to grow our careers and interests. The one that included late night outs and bodily autonomy. The moms on the show and the ones I know in real life all want the best for their kids and are willing to work hard and sacrifice for them. But what if we sacrifice too much? When does it become counterproductive? Maybe older kids can recognize that their parents have needs outside of them, but babies and toddlers cannot. Their needs are endless and can consume you if you don’t create boundaries. It’s a pretty tough line to draw, made more so by a social narrative that says you’re supposed to give endlessly and like it.

Not that motherhood is all bad nor is the struggle to navigate its demands. On Workin’ Moms, we see Anne finally bond with her daughter and when they connect it manages to be satisfying, meaningful, and funny. When Kate gets her baby to latch and then later decides to stop struggling and switch to formula, I felt her success in my bones (really my nipples) and the bittersweet compromise in my soul. Each woman is becoming better, yet different people through the journey of motherhood. This show honestly portrays the growing pains of this weird, rewarding, and difficult transformation that is early motherhood.

Workin’ Moms captures much of what it is to be a new mother but it is not perfect. All the moms are relatively affluent, either paying for nannies or able to have one of the parents stay home. The racial dynamics are rough, focusing mostly on the white experience. Early on Kate (white) fires her Filipino nanny in a scene that made me cringe — it othered the brown woman while allowing the power dynamics to go unquestioned. In the show’s mother circle, the lone black woman is consistently played for laughs, made strange and unrelatable for no discernible reason. Yes, the show features two women of color, Jenny and Frankie’s partner Giselle, but neither of them takes as central of a role as the white women.

And then there’s the stay-at-home mom in the mother’s circle who’s made the villain, Katherine Barrell’s Alicia Rutherford. She has precious ideas about self-sacrifice and women’s role in the home. And the other women bond over belittling her. After all these years of mommy wars, it would have been refreshing to see a show that doesn’t pit one type of motherhood against another. We’re not actually in conflict with each other. We’re in conflict with a society that tells us we should find fulfillment in unpaid, undervalued work no matter our personality or predilections. Workin’ Moms generally rallies against this notion as do the real working mothers I know. Here’s to the next two season arriving in the US, hopefully not repeating some of the more tone-deaf moments, and continuing to show motherhood for what it is: beautiful, impossible, real. That’s a story worth telling.

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