How Modern Family isn’t modern

I loved Modern Family during the first season.  It was hysterical.  TV critics said it had single-handedly saved the network sitcom, edged out by reality shows and cable television productions.  I watched it, I loved it, I rented the DVD and watched the season again.  As time has gone on I have watched it less, mostly because I don’t have time to make sure that I watch it, but also because it wasn’t as fresh after a while.  And now it is in competition with inspired shows like The New Normal, all of which have (hopefully) begun to change American’s understanding and acceptance of families that look very different from the homes of yesteryear.  Whatever that is.

But for all its breakthrough power, particularly with adoption and same-sex couples, there is a side to Modern Family that makes it seem stuck in the same pattern as the homes of yesteryear.  When I really thought about it, I don’t know why I had been so blind to it before.  Maybe because the stereotype is so commonly used in storylines that I didn’t think to question it.  I didn’t think it was so weird to see on tv.  In fact, I began to question myself and my own choices…. am I the weird one?

So what is it that pervades the lives in the Modern Family?  Divorce?  Same-sex couples?  Three generations happily living within the same school district?  Remarried older man and trophy wife?

Nope, nope, no, and nope.  It’s that each couple has a stay at home parent.  Both Claire and Gloria stay home, even though all the kids up to this point were school age (of course now Gloria has an infant).  And Cam, one half of the gay couple – and the one without a permanent career – stays home.  How is this modern?  Especially when the nation has gone through a recession that puts even more strain on families, even dual-income ones.

Maybe because I work – which means I work with parents who balance family and career daily – I don’t see this side of American life.  I didn’t go through college to start and then give up a career.  And over 60% of college students are women, and have been for the last decade or so.  So are they all dropping out of the workforce once they hit mommyhood?

Don’t get me wrong.  Given the choice, I’d much rather stay home with my little one.  But I do like working, and being useful, and using my brain.  If I were Claire Dunphy I would have hopped back in the workforce saddle the minute Luke went to pre-k.  I know people who have become stay-at-home moms and dads, but mostly because their wages were so low it wouldn’t have made sense for them to go back to work and pay for childcare.  And, most of those stay-at-home parents (both moms and dads that I know) each have some other job on the side, whether it be selling jewelry, an Etsy shop, or DJ business.  Other than Cam’s stints as a clown or drama substitute, I don’t see Gloria or Claire bringing in any kind of extra income for their broods.  So is it modern or realistic that that would be the case for any one of those suburban, middle class (one would argue upper middle class) families on that show?  I find it hard to believe, considering the cars they drive and the houses they live in.  Unless they’re up to their eyes and ears in debt.

I don’t mean to be a hater.  I thought the show was pretty quality stuff.  It just doesn’t represent my family or my choices.  It doesn’t show the heartache of going back to work and being separated from your little guy, entrusting him to the hands of strangers day in and day out.  Spending only a few hours a day with him – an hour in the morning, maybe two or three at night if you’re lucky, and you’re even more lucky if he’s awake for some of those hours.  Packing family time, home maintenance and chores, and errands like shopping into two-day weekends is just as exhausting as having to go to work every day.

But I should also be clear that I know I am fortunate to work as a choice, and not as a necessity.  And while I have moments where I’d like to be a stay-at-home mom, and I thoroughly enjoyed my three months home, I recognize my skill set as a mom.  My son is likely to be an only child.  We don’t live in a neighborhood with younger children.  His next oldest cousin is 5 years old.  I see a huge benefit in having him in day care because he is a wickedly social guy, and he gets to play with toys he doesn’t have at home, go on walks and play outside, and learn to be cared for by someone other than Mommy and Daddy.   I never felt I was missing “adult interaction” by being at home and not being at the office, but it is nice to have a place where I can solve problems, make connections, look at the wonderful students I work with and think, “How do I get my son to be just like them?”  My days home with my son are, to be super cheesy and cliche, chicken soup for my soul; my days at work are chicken soup for my brain.  Without both being cared for and nurtured, I wouldn’t feel like a whole person.  I am thankful I live in a modern enough world that I am able to satisfy both.

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Infertility in the style of Downton Abbey

DH and I just finished watching season three of Downton Abbey. It was a season watched hurriedly over many meals together, squeezing in 20 minutes when we could find them when the little one was quiet and satisfied. This season is its most unbelievably soap opera-ish season yet, which, at the end of the season, left me less interested in the show and terribly upset. Yet this season sought to humanize one of the main characters, Mary, and make her into a nicer, more supportive person, though in my opinion she gets very two-dimensional character development toward that end. 

If you are a Downton Abbey fan and have not watched all of season three, do not keep reading!  ********SPOILER ALERT*********

Mary and Matthew Crawley are the heirs apparent to the Downton Abbey estate.  Now happily married, Matthew starts talking about filling the house with their children.  This talk is especially escalated knowing that Mary’s sister Cybil is pregnant and due any moment.  But whenever Matthew brings it up, Mary gets a little sullen – her eyes dart to the side and you sense her hesitation in sharing Matthew’s optimism for filling the house with kids.  We as the audience begin to wonder immediately if Mary knows something we don’t… is she pregnant?  Is she unable to get pregnant?  Is she not thrilled about having kids?  We don’t know.  But Matthew is nothing but googly-eyed over it.

A few more months go by and Matthew begins to wonder if the problem is with him due to his war injury.  He keeps talking to Mary about it, wondering out loud if he’s to blame for her not being pregnant, but she remains kind of silent on the issue.  Matthew goes to a doctor and is assured he’s not the problem.  He is quite relieved and returns home to Mary.  Mary, in the meantime, is reassured by her mother that with a certain doctor she would be in good hands.  We as the audience assume this means she’s either pregnant or looking into the issue herself.

Finally we learn that Mary had some anatomical problem that required a minor surgery that was hindering her ability to get pregnant.  She relates to Matthew that now there shouldn’t be a problem.  And lo and behold one year later, she’s well on her way to mommy-hood.

At first I thought Downton had missed an opportunity to talk about infertility.  After all, Mary and Matthew were married long enough without children that everyone began wondering when they were going to have kids (presumably one to two years).  That would fit the definition of being infertile.  But then I reflected on the values of the 1910s and 1920s in the UK.  Women don’t have the right to vote, they can’t inherit property (otherwise Mary wouldn’t have had to marry, which was the whole premise of Season 1), and gentrified women don’t hold jobs outside of charity work.  It would make sense that Matthew felt absolutely comfortable being open and honest about his own fears of being infertile.  Meanwhile, Mary knows she’s got a problem – a problem that is never defined – but can’t even share it with her husband.  It is a silent, unnamed shame that she has to bear until she is able to go alone to a doctor for assistance.  As a woman once in her shoes, I couldn’t help but feel oppressed for her. 

I don’t know if the show meant to show that dichotomy and contrast Matthew and Mary’s societal cues about having children.  If they did, kudos to them for being honest about it – but I wish they still didn’t keep it a silent, undefined issue.  After all, Mary’s hesitancy seemed to be written in more for dramatic effect and as a plot device rather than an actual thoughtful presentation of infertility.  Which was kind of my problem with the season finale, actually – but we won’t get into that.  It was just too upsetting.

What did you think?  Did Mary and Matthew’s fertility arc this season make you feel validated or distanced?  Did you see Mary’s “minor surgery” as a convenient afterthought or an honest portrayal?