Jane the Virgin’s Radically Frank Depiction of Early Motherhood

Jane Villanueva and her newborn, Mateo. Photo: Patrick Wymore/CW

Jane the Virgin is not short of critical accolades; its first season was lauded for how sharp the writing is, for Gina Rodriguez’s stellar performance as Jane, and for how grounded its characters are in spite of the series’s humorous hyper-reality. I’m sure it will end up on some of this year’s lists of top returning shows, as it absolutely deserves to. If I had to bet, though, I’d say that it’s not going to appear on many lists of Most Serious, Groundbreaking, Momentous Series of the Decade. Very often, it’s a silly show. Its pace is lickety-split, it makes hashtag jokes, and its most beloved character is a running joke about pomposity. It’s also really fun, perhaps the surest disqualifier for the “serious” label.

For my money, though, season two of Jane the Virgin is doing some of the most serious, most valuable work I’ve seen in a long time, and that work is rooted in a radically frank depiction of new motherhood.

Don’t get me wrong. It’s not that there are no mothers or babies on TV — there are tons. But motherhood and babydom on television tend to appear in two distinct phases. First there are pregnancies, and then almost instantly, there are full-sized, round infants, chubby-cheeked six-month-olds who scoot happily across the floor and squawk conveniently only when the plot demands. Recall: the birth of Gene Draper on Mad Men, Carrie Mathison’s baby on Homeland, and the egregiously absent children on Grey’s Anatomy and Scandal. There are babies all over modern sitcoms, but they are either of the older infant/toddler variety (see: Up All NightRaising HopeGrandfatheredPlaying House) or they feature prominently in a single “wow new babies are rough” plotline, often one small part of a few episodes, before fading politely into the background. For this iteration of early parenthood in sitcoms or dramas, you might consider FriendsFriday Night Lights, BonesER, or Modern Family. There are a few examples where this one story is so affecting, it transcends its unserialized restriction to a single episode — I’m thinking primarily of the cry-it-out episode of Mad About You — but these are atypical.

The problem with these limited depictions of the days and weeks immediately following the birth of a baby is that they completely elide some of the strangest, most difficult, and most universally insane weeks in the lives of humans. A six-month-old, a variety of baby often seen on TV, smiles and interacts with its family, grabs its toes, burbles sweetly, and probably goes down for a nap at a predictable time. For those in the middle of it, it can feel like there’s a vast chasm separating that Gerber-baby image from those first months of parenthood, which a friend of mine described as “a constant shitshow of unpredictable dread and doubt and emotion and fear.”

Enter Jane the Virgin, which began its second season with the birth of Jane’s son Mateo, and has, for the first six episodes, made Jane’s adjustment to parenthood the show’s central focus. This happens in both large and small ways. On a macro scale, Jane’s refusal to move forward with the show’s underlying love-triangle premise is grounded in her refreshing insistence that she has a brand new baby, and making new romantic decisions would be both unreasonable and unhealthy. She agonizes over the decision to go back to school so soon after her son is born. She worries about the ways her friendships have changed. She has heartfelt, thoughtful discussions with her baby’s father about co-parenting and balance.

These elements on their own would be enough to make Jane the Virgin unlike the vast majority of television narratives about new babies. But the truly radical thing about this season of Jane the Virgin has been how much of these first episodes have been about the unavoidable, unglamorous, and absolutely life-consuming physical reality of new motherhood. Jane Villanueva uses a breast pump. Frequently. She worries about her milk supply. Her body does not bounce back instantly. She is exhausted, and her baby’s presence is a new constant in her life. Even as the series juggles a dozen or more characters with five or six plotlines per episode, it is always meticulously careful to mention exactly who is taking care of Mateo at any given moment. As one example, during Rogelio’s final taping of Santos, Jane has to dash off to her grad school orientation. “Here, give me Mateo,” Xiomara says.

Furthermore, in a seemingly obvious but also apparently herculean feat of new-baby representation, Mateo is, for the first five episodes of the show, a tiny baby. He has no head control. He does not smile, or even track objects with his eyes. He doesn’t do a whole lot, other than completely change Jane’s entire life, and while he’s objectively cute, he’s cute in that “oh sure, tiny babies are cute but also not particularly photogenic” way — not in a blindingly gorgeous, diaper commercial model, actually-a-six-month-old way. (I’m looking at you, adorable and eerily compliant baby on The Mindy Project).

There are budgetary and logistical reasons why having any baby on your television show is difficult, and those reasons are even trickier for infants under six months. But like anything else in the world of television production, the deficit of actual tiny babies on television — the deficit of stories about struggling to breastfeed, about getting mastitis, about the fear that you’ve left your baby to lie on his back too long, about sleep deprivation and running out of diapers and your newfound fear of leaving the house, about the terrifying and disconcerting remaking of your identity — reflects a decision about priorities. Newborn baby Mateo’s frequent presence on Jane the Virgin demonstrates evidence of his value; it’s worth the production obstacles and cost for him to be on this show. It’s valuable, and important, to tell these stories.

In a lot of ways, this is revolutionary, not least because it stems from the underlying radicalism of representing something explicitly bodily about new motherhood. But aside from deeper principles, Jane the Virgin’s illustration of new motherhood is important simply for its rarity. You need only browse through the forums of any parent-centric website to see dozens of shell-shocked people begging for help and desperate for support, stunned by the reality of those first several weeks. Maybe that reality would be less shocking if it were something we all saw more frequently.