Better Things: Mothering with All You've Got
It's the pandemic, and I'm staying home, hence my latest string of blogs on popular tv shows. This time, I'm writing about an FX show called "Better Things". Spoiler alert: I loved it! Sam Fox (Pamela Adlon) is a single mother who is raising her three girls, looking after her own mother and working as an actress in Los Angeles. She financially supports her ex-husband, even throughout his chronic absence and frequent disappointments.
The show immediately grabbed my attention, as it begins with her youngest daughter, maybe around 8 is sobbing at the mall while Sam completely ignores her, attending to her phone. A woman sitting on a shared bench, a spectator much like us, stares in what Sam perceives as judgement--I admit, I was judging her too--to which she responds "Then you buy her the earrings...or stop looking!". Sam and her daughter Duke complete their mall experience, and the scene cuts to the theme song, "Mother" by John Lennon. "Mother...you had me, but I never had you...", he sings. As a therapist especially attuned to relational trauma, I was intrigued.
Shortly after, we meet Sam's other children, her eldest daughter, a young high schooler, is asking her to buy marijuana, while her middle child barges into her mother's room and, in response to Sam's expression of frustration with her lack of privacy, she tells her mother that she's "Bipolar" and effectively, to "chill out". It seems that Sam's relationship with her daughters is a rocky one. Then we meet Phil, Sam's mother. It's again clear that this is a very rocky relationship. Phil is aloof, she speaks in tangents about her own life, virtually ignoring what's going on in Sam's world, certainly not offering to help or support her in any way. Sam is many ways caring for her mother, and I might make the guess that Sam's parenting of her isn't anything new, or that at least Sam has had to be relentlessly self-reliant for many years, if not her entire life. Sam's evident anger and frustration toward her mother might be seen as a natural consequence of such a burden.
So from the beginning, I'm starting to see a dynamic that I hear about so often in my sessions: Mothers who have difficult relationships with their own mothers, and as a result have fear around their relationships with their own children. Mothers often want "Better Things" for their kids, for their relationships with their kids, and at the same time are scared. Will I be good enough? My mom and I weren't a good match, what if I'm not a good match with my kids? What if my kids hate me? What if I don't know how to be a mother, since I never really had an attuned, responsive mom?
I feel all of this, while at the same time, Sam to some extent lives a more typical LA lifestyle: sunny days after sunny days, beautiful home in the Hollywood Hills, make up, hair done... Despite this allusion to something more, the show remains at a somewhat superficial level. But then something happens. Louis CK who was the Director, is exposed in the #MeToo movement. The show had just finished its second season; Adlon expressed serious concerns about the future of the show. Would the show be good enough? Would Adlon have what it takes? What if the viewers hate it? It sounds like it was another rocky road.
But something amazing happened. It started raining in almost every episode. Pouring rain...in LA! Sam was still her beautiful self, but without the makeup and hairstylist. She was simply an average person. Her beautiful house even had a leaky roof. Life with her teenage girls got even rockier. With little support, there were moments when I wondered if she would make it. But she did.; in fact, Adlon birthed and mothered the show with everything she had!
Suddenly, her middle school daughter grows from abstract and intellectual angst to writing and performing spoke words poetry about her disappointment and anger in response to her parents' divorce. Her oldest daughter transitions from something of a wounded, self-centered, angry high school girl to a more empathic, understanding and caring young adult. The youngest daughter leaps into adolescence, and even Sam's ex-husband attempts to make amends. Sam herself takes steps toward forgiving her ex-husband. But the most significant transformation comes from Pamela herself.
She moved the show from an interesting, sunny-everyday story about a scorned actress in LA to a moving, meaningful, emotionally deep piece of art. In the shadow of Louis CK's betrayals, she pushed the show forward in the spirit of women, young, old and everything in between. She makes feminism personal, as she illuminates the heartbreak, hardship and joy that comes especially with girl and woman hood, but more generally, in human life. It becomes evident that she puts everything she has into the show. She is relatable, smart, creative and real. There's something about her that becomes trustworthy--I come to know where she's going and that it's going to be good.
And then I think back to the beginning, and to all the mothers who worry about their relationships with their kids. And I wonder, ironically, if one of the best thing we can do as parents is to become our whole, real selves. To connect with our creativity and to let ourselves shine, fully. To be who we are, with confidence, even in the face of doubt and uncertainty. Maybe our kids need to feel that, to trust in who we are, so that they can trust in themselves. And find themselves. What better gift could there be?
Maybe that's exactly the way to give our kids "Better Things": ironically, to let our full selves shine with vitality, integrity and creativity.
Thanks Pamela Adlon! I loved your perspective of Mothering and creating Better Things!