“Wife and I watch a few episodes of Catastrophe,” a recent subject of New York magazine’s endlessly addictive Sex Diaries series wrote last week. “‘So us!’ we say, like every other overworked, undersexed Amazon subscriber of the land,” he continued.
Catastrophe, if you are not familiar, is a very funny half-hour comedy starring Sharon Horgan and Rob Delaney as an eponymous couple that gets married after Sharon becomes pregnant following a quick few days of sex. The six-episode first season encompassed their decision to keep the baby and stay together, with Rob (who is American) moving to London, where the two of them met. Season 2, now available on Amazon Instant, is equally brief (Horgan and Delaney write all the episodes just between the two of them), but picks up a couple years after Season 1 ends: Sharon and Rob’s first child has been born, and they have a second on the way—also apparently unplanned.
Like Sex in the City, which featured sometimes hard-to-believe relationship situations that the writers insisted were all pulled directly from their lives, Horgan and Delaney say they write their show only from their experiences. So, if Catastrophe is a brutally honest and highly naturalistic depiction of two people who like and love each other, whose newfound positions as parents exacerbate their ability to be terribly mean to one another and then five seconds later move on (for now)—then that’s what love mixed with parenting feels like in real life for them, too.
It’s a dark comedy, even by British standards, and Season 2 of Catastrophe is considerably more so than Season 1; after the cliffhanger ending of the first season, we learn that Sharon and Rob’s first child was born very premature and for all their day-to-day minor struggles, they’re still dealing with that traumatizing event. At this point, as a middle-class, white couple in possession of those inherent legs up, Sharon and Rob are weighed down not by the impending possibility of being parents, as they were in the first season, but rather by the constant reality of it. For people who are living this reality, Catastrophe may be comforting, in the way it can be comforting to watch others struggle in similar ways to you. But for those of us who are still single and not yet parents, it is a bit of a horror to witness; between the laughs, the show is a depressing warning of what you probably won’t be able to avoid. These two disparate viewing experiences bring up questions that have hovered around the childless/parent divide for a long time: are honest depictions of parenthood supposed to be a consolation or a caution? Are shows like this starting to challenge the bottom line of even the most evolved parenting talk, which is that, despite all the trouble that comes with having children, parents always still say it’s worthwhile?
This new wave of shows aren’t centered on the family as much as they are on the family effect. Catastrophe is about the parents as people, first and foremost. Sharon and Rob’s baby daughter cannot talk, and their toddler son rarely does, if he can. There are few moments where Sharon and Rob are seen joyously interacting with their children, or at least enjoying their presence at all. In this way, it’s like the recently-cancelled Togetherness: a look at the experience of parenting and marriage for those who do not seem thrilled by the experience. In Togetherness, Mark Duplass and Melanie Lynskey play LA couple Brett and Michelle, who are struggling to maintain excitement in their relationship. They sit in contrast to Michelle’s sister Tina, beautiful but perpetually single, and Brett’s best friend Alex, a schlubby struggling actor. The children in both these shows are weights, whose presence exhausts their parents and make it so they don’t want to have sex (if they even did, with their longtime partners, in the first place).
Parenting, like most things, is traditionally understood to be more difficult when you lack resources. Both Catastrophe and Togetherness are shows about middle-class (let’s say upper-middle class) white families, which makes their leads’ deep frustration with their relatively lucky place in the world slightly difficult to sympathize with, despite the fact that they are accurately representing how many middle-class parents feel about struggling to balance their obligations at work and at home.
They are hardly the first shows to paint parenthood as a difficult slog with rare moments of bliss; older, more traditional sitcoms like Home Improvement got their humor from tropes about teens fighting with their parents, typically relying on the stereotypical husband who wants sex and the wife who is mostly uninterested. But Home Improvement, or Roseanne, or any other show of that type, were not “dramedies” airing on cable networks. They were bleak in their own way, but the characters never seemed to feel quite as sorry for themselves as modern leads do.
And as Wesley Morris recently pointed out, sitcoms of those types featured truly middle-class families, who are rarely depicted these days; where there once was a bevy of programs about families with some money but not tons, they’ve been replaced with families who might not be Bill Gates rich, but certainly might seem that way compared to the majority of Americans. It’s the rare exception of a show that tells the story of a blue-collar family. Raising Hope did, before it was cancelled after four seasons; it also gave equal weight to the stories of children and adults, showing how both parties exhausted the other.
What has replaced these middle-class shows is a bevy of implicitly richer ones, which sit as part of an overall culture that has in recent years welcomed, if not downright embraced, a normative depiction of parenthood as difficult, exhausting, and begrudgingly worthwhile—even (or especially, in some cases) for people whom, at first glance, one would assume should have a more enjoyable life.
This hasn’t been isolated to scripted programming. Take Bravo’s new show There Goes the Motherhood, which “follows six dynamic Los Angeles mothers, who meet through parenting expert Jill Spivack’s highly-coveted, eight-week course” as they struggle with their families and in their “mom group,” where they talk through their issues. Almost all of them are white stay-at-home mothers, and while some of them might have more money than others, none of them are remotely struggling financially (unless you consider struggling to be, as it is in the case of one mother in the midst of a divorce, not being able to buy literally whatever you want anymore). What they are struggling with, rather, is the state of being a mom specifically, as indicated by some of their quotes at the start of the premiere: “Moms are under a ton of pressure from the moment they give birth.” “Everything changes when you become a mom.” “Motherhood; I love it. But then I might hate it. But I love it.”
It’d be impossible to pin down exactly what intersection of factors has prompted this shift towards stories that foreground the difficulty of being a parent, most often a mother. But certainly, we’re experiencing a moment: one that’s either been fueled or indicated by the rise of the type of shareable personal writing that’s allowed women, who’d for so long written or been written about as if being the perfect mother was their only goal or joy in life, to express the flip side of that experience. In years since, the floodgates have opened: women (on this website and many others) have written about what having children has done to their bodies, their relationships, their sense of self. Men have, to some degree, followed suit, writing about how they fantasize about sleeping with coworkers or the lack of respect stay-at-home dads get.
This overwhelming message that having children is sometimes not as much joy as it is struggle has also seemed to be a response to the relatively new way children are treated. To put it in sweeping terms, children were usually seen and not heard until into the 20th century; now, they are often positioned as the focal point of their parents’ lives. There’s been an observable backlash to that trend; people have broken down the nuclear-family ideas of what it means to be a mother or a father, and what it means to choose to be neither. But, despite the discussions surrounding “helicopter parenting” and treating children too delicately, despite the growing number of women choosing not to have children, our world still does revolve around how to care for them—particularly in the US, where parents, regardless of their station in life, have some of the worst parental leave options in the world. For many new parents, who have spent their lives being treated as people in their own right, being defined by their role as mom or dad has frustrated them more than anything. And now, they have the option to talk about it with (sometimes) less judgment, and be widely heard.
As such, we see characters on television who have swung away from submitting to their role as parents and into parental rebellion. But even shows that purport to be realistic can seem fabricated; scenes from Togetherness where the parents are off doing whatever they want with no sign of childcare frustrated a coworker of mine with children. “I wish my life was like their lives,” he said, “where they could run off and play Capture the Flag or pull all-nighters stealing sand while apparently there is some magic unseen entity caring for their kids.” It’s slightly rich, then, to watch a show that’s all about how hard and exhausting it is to be a parent when in actuality the parents you’re watching don’t even have it as hard as the ostensibly well-off, real-life parents they’re supposed to be mirroring; when even a version of reality that’s supposed to be comically shitty is better than what you’ve got.
Then again, the stories we take in—fictional, non-fictional, or a mix of the two, like Catastrophe—will rarely be representative of those who are struggling “the most.” On the television side, that’s because aspirational programming will always be greenlit, and on the essay side, because those are the people who most often get the opportunities to share their stories. And perhaps that doesn’t matter much for the viewing audience; even if your resources are fewer than those that you’re watching, those shows can offer comfort and connection by demonstrating that it sucks for someone else too.
But for viewers who aren’t yet at the parenting stage, the inundation with negative stories about that next step is frustrating and depressing. Watching them, it’s easy to wonder why anyone would procreate at all. (Perhaps one answer is that the generation of people being depicted weren’t watching programs like the ones they’re getting now.) The idea of mostly enjoying parenthood seems impossible through many mediums today—though that’s a feeling that dissipates once you talk to members of previous generations in real life. Consider what my grandmother has always said when asked how she raised three kids, kept her house running and held a full-time job: “We just did it.” Or, as Rob says in Catastrophe, “I’m gonna be a husband and a dad once, I’m gonna do a good job, and then I’m gonna die.” In different ways, they’re both acknowledging the same thing: sometimes dwelling is your biggest problem.
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