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The Beauty and Banality of Motherhood Stories Onscreen

Photo: Vulture

For a few years now, there’s been a slowly growing fascination with stories about the reality of motherhood, a collection of parenthood narratives that’s recently crested into a wider cultural awareness. There’s Better Things and SMILF and Motherland and The Letdown; Ali Wong’s recent stand-up special Hard Knock Wife, the HBO documentary Being Serena, and Diablo Cody’s film Tully; the many moments woven throughout Jane the Virgin. Together with the wave of new books probing the shapes and emotional realities of motherhood, it feels like there’s a sudden interest in illuminating a part of life that previously tended to be lit only with soothing, detail-eclipsing nightlights. Motherhood stories do have a season: thanks to Mother’s Day, they tend to cluster around May. But this motherhood season, many of the stories shared an unusual frankness. The current raft of stories is not interested in exalted, sanitized, Instagram-filtered perfection. They’re stories about exertion and shortcomings. This moment in motherhood stories is interested in authenticity.

There’s been a lot of great writing about these new works, too — Sady Doyle on the Madonna/Misery binary, Sarah Blackwood on whether motherhood now constitutes a genre, Willa Paskin on Sheila Heti’s Motherhood and the looming art-monster self, Jennifer Schaffer on Heti and Meghan O’Connell. Molly Fischer on Motherhood in the eyes of different beholders. Most of the writing, in one way or another, is about posing questions: can you be a mother and your own person? And if you are, then how exactly can you tell a story about motherhood? How can you escape the narrative pitfalls of a protagonist whose life is defined by boring repetition? How can you depict something that feels simultaneously mundane and otherworldly?

There are endless, unsatisfying answers to the question of what motherhood feels like. But when you tell a motherhood story onscreen, the question is never “what does the story of motherhood look like,” because nearly all of the stories are the same. The scenes are familiar: the stroller that careens out of control, the baby wailing in a public place, the wheeze of the breast pump, the emotionally detached sex scene, the mother having a meltdown, often inside or in the vicinity of her car. The child who says an unfathomably cruel thing and then walks away without flinching. The mother’s stunned face. The themes are familiar, too: the sleeplessness and the physicality of early motherhood, the way your body belongs to someone other than yourself. The painful, joyful transitions between the child you know at home and the child out in the world. The worry that you are not enough. The familiarity of these moments represent the slowly hardening tropes of a genre, much like crime stories are full of repeating well-worn images of dead bodies and witness interrogations.

The scenes are familiar not just because they’re touchstones for all of these stories, but because they are familiar in real life — increasingly, stories of maternity delight in and rely on verisimilitude. They are quotidian. (This is another frequently implied indictment of the genre of Real Mom Stories that drives me absolutely bonkers: that they’re dull because they’re so stuck inside the everyday. To which I say, no kidding.)

The fascinating thing, then, the thing that thrills me and surprises me about so many of these onscreen stories about motherhood, has less to do with what’s in the story, and is more about the different ways to present them, the different forms and frames these stories are taking. As the genre has grown, as the tropes have begun to harden, the best stories about motherhood onscreen have reached beyond the important but underwhelming act of simple representation. Increasingly, there are stories about what it feels like to be a mother that combine an impulse toward realism with a distancing lens, through formal experimentation or genre hybridity. And those works — the ones that combine verisimilitude with artistic transformation — are the ones that arguably feel the most representative. They’re the ones that best speak to the transformative, magical, grinding exhaustion of motherhood, an experience that is both transcendental and banal.

Pamela Adlon’s Better Things is one model for this, a fragmentary, mood-driven meandering that’s driven more by feeling than plot. (In this sense, it most directly echoes much of the motherhood genre in book form, which Paskin describes as “discursive and epigrammatic,” with “short sections, bursts of paragraphs.”) The show’s protagonist, Sam Fox (Adlon), is caught between the demands of her aging mother and her three teen and preteen daughters. And although Sam does not apologize for being her own person, the questions of how much she’s allowed to need and how much of the story can actually be hers burble perpetually underneath the show’s spoken concerns, like an underground spring of constant existential uncertainty. It’s a question gorgeously enacted in the way Better Things is told — the show’s splintered, disconnected stories are one way to represent a daily grind without actually replicating the sensation of boredom. And even more effectively, the scattered bits and pieces of Better Things feel like a representative glimpse into Sam’s life, where all the little pieces feel enormous in the moment and then disappear completely, soon to be replaced by some new, entirely different, equally intense emotional obstacle.

The show’s short episodes bear more than a little resemblance to the tone and structure of Louie (no surprise, given his extensive involvement with the show’s first two seasons), and it breaks my heart to think of how thoroughly C.K.’s creative eye is interwoven with the show. Because the form, which is in no doubt largely thanks to him, is so astonishingly well suited to Adlon’s fictional preoccupations. In Louie, the various pieces of story and observation and memoir revolved around C.K., with himself as the self-deprecating but ever-present center. His existence was a foregone conclusion. In Adlon’s Better Things, with her Sam Fox as the show’s defining, maternal presence, the form becomes its own commentary on the subject. The story pieces spin away, always almost out of her control, and yet Sam’s always there. None of the story works, none of the narrative would exist, without her. She is the glue, which means she’s also stuck.

When you watch a whole slew of these onscreen motherhood stories, you realize that the most successful, most gutting ones are those that, like Better Things, figure out how to harness the genre to something else, some distancing lens. It’s as though looking at the thing too directly fails to capture the breadth and immensity and weird stultifying minutiae of it. This is the problem of both Sharon Horgan’s Motherland and Sarah Scheller and Alison Bell’s The Letdown, two recent series that lean into the constant nervy frayed edges of parenting. Both shows are accurate, sure. Motherland’s opening episode depiction of a woman just trying to get some child care so she can go to her job is so intense, so funny-haha-actually-I’m-devastated, that I could hardly watch it without breaking into hives. Anna Maxwell Martin brings a frantic, barely contained energy to the role that exhausted me even as I understood that its point was to exhaust me. Yet, it didn’t matter that it was effective; the impact was still my blinding exhaustion. There’s merit in something that shows you your experiences are not unique, your desperation is not because of your personal failures. But watching these shows does not feel revelatory.

The most moving, most thoughtful of these onscreen stories have all looked at motherhood, embedded in some other thing. And they’ve all looked wildly different from one another. Ali Wong’s comedy special uses stand-up as a delivery mechanism, a way to package her all-consuming, palpable fury about the truths of what happens to women’s bodies inside the guise of a joke. Jane the Virgin carefully weaves the emotional authenticity of new motherhood into its high-keyed, jewel-toned telenovela. Being Serena, the currently running HBO documentary about Serena Williams’s return to tennis after pregnancy, offhandedly slips a few telling shots into its otherwise gauzy, soft-focus approach: Serena hurriedly unstrapping her pumping bra and rushing onto the court; Serena succinctly explaining that if she hadn’t advocated for herself, she’d have been killed by a blood clot. Being Serena could just be an unremarkable, hagiographic sports documentary. That’s all it would be, if her maternity were not also part of the story. But the recurrent theme of her new motherhood gives the otherwise conventional series a different edginess, turns it into a more loaded and original story about ambition and identity.

Tully, my favorite of these stories, initially looks like an exception to the rule that motherhood needs a mediating framework, that looking at the naked reality of the experience is too boring and intense and surreal and dissociative and inescapable. On its face, Tully is the most realist, most direct motherhood story of the bunch, and the presence of another mediating genre doesn’t become clear until the ending. Charlize Theron’s performance as Marlo, hollowed-out mother of three, has all the hallmarks of the genre: her bodily ruination, her vehicle-centric meltdown, her sweaty desperate sprint up a flight of stairs to get her son to school while hauling her infant in a car seat. Her exhaustion. Theron’s able to summon a look on her face that suggests she’s been transported to a lonely, faraway planet, even as she’s also buried in a pile of children. The film’s promotional trailers all focus on this element of the movie, and it made me afraid to watch it. Truthful though it might be, I did not need to be re-submerged in an un-interpretive, jittery, desperate new-mom land that showed, but did not push further.

I’m going to spoil the end of Tully now. I say this as a warning, even though I think the best way to watch the film is if you’re “spoiled” going into it, and understand from the beginning that its motherhood-as-genre identity is set inside another kind of story. Marlo’s night nanny savior, Tully (Mackenzie Davis), ultimately turns out to be a postpartum dissociative disorder delusion. But more importantly, Tully is a fairy tale. Its roots are in the stories of selkies and mermaids and in Mary Poppins, in women who arrive from nowhere, change the family, and then leave when their jobs are done. But rather than showing up to help the children or to be a love object for a worthy prince, the mystical Tully arrives to save Marlo. In the movie’s final scenes, Tully appears to Marlo once more so that she can say good-bye, and Marlo bemoans the youth she’s lost and the possibilities that are now gone. “This is the gift,” Tully tells Marlo. The sameness, the repetition, the impossible regularity, this is the gift Marlo gives her children so that they can grow up in a “circle of safety.”

Tully is a gift, too, although it took me a while to figure out why the movie hit me so hard, what helped it slip past my critical defenses and wallop my psyche so thoroughly. (I’m usually a TV critic who works from home, often in the short slices of the day when my children are asleep. I worried for a bit that my love for Tully was entirely thanks to the rebellious pleasure of having left the house to see a movie by myself.) But I slowly realized that what had so taken me aback was that combination of the new mother story with a fairy-tale wish fulfillment. It is a gorgeous double-edged knife. There’s the beauty — the sobbing, gasping, hopeful beauty — of telling a fairy tale where the powerful mystical figure arrives to save, not the child or the maid or the man, but the mother. And then there’s the simultaneous knowledge that it is a fairy tale. That Tully is not real; in fact, she’s a symptom of something gone terribly wrong. That the only person who can save Marlo is herself. That there isn’t really “saving,” in any true sense of the word. There’s just doing, and then doing again. What Tully does so well is not only represent what motherhood looks like, but the ways it also feels transcendental, like a Donne poem about the nature of existence come to life, and then incongruously coated with saliva and sweet potatoes.

I already have mirrors in my home. What I need from these stories is for them to be more than perfectly reflective. I don’t need them to just be gritty (even this word is wrong; motherhood is soggy and sticky, with a distinct sour smell), but for that sensory-based realism to also grasp after the big, abstract, holy-shit-I-made-a-new-person-ness of it all. It’s so hard to hold both of those things at once, the monumental and the ordinary. But this is why stories about motherhood are compelling, and why I want to watch more and more of them. They are stories about the most ordinary, and the most monumental.

The Beauty and Banality of Motherhood Stories Onscreen