After I became a mother, my vision changed, and I watched movies and TV shows with entirely new eyes. When my husband and I debriefed about something that we watched together, I inevitably said some version of a sentence that began with, “Now that I’m a mom, I think that…”
Since my son was born in 2020, I have rewatched the movie Spanglish and every episode of Schitt’s Creek, and I binged Maid on Netflix almost immediately after it debuted. Each presents its own iteration of a mother, and some of them even offer a portrait of a good mother, that holy grail toward which we are all reaching. Now that I’m a mom, I see these characters with so much more clarity, nuance, and empathy. By considering them next to each other, we can better understand how motherhood is portrayed in Western media and ultimately be more discerning when choosing the mother figure we’d most like to be like.
Before I offer some criticism of Maid, I must say that I loved the show and think that its message about the crippling effects of poverty is essential. Margaret Qualley’s performance as Alex more than makes up for some of the series’ shortcomings, and I think she is deserving of whatever acting awards she receives. My first viewing of Maid left me idolizing Alex; she is #momgoals. I now sing “we’re going on a bear hunt; we’re gonna catch a big one” when my son and I venture outside, just like Alex does in episode 8. Alex is The Perfect Mom: though she lives her life on the precipice of poverty, homelessness, mental illness, and physical harm, her daughter Maddy almost always feels safe because of the strong-as-adamantine arms of her mother. Alex can do anything - she wills herself out of a domestic violence shelter and into a liberal arts college - and will do anything for Maddy. Yes, anything, including cleaning up other people’s actual shit.
Alex is surely a balm for any of her daughter’s pains, but I’m not sure that she has that same effect on real mothers, who are two years into a pandemic that has caused so many of them to scream in frustration and desperation. Most mothers have had to manage their children’s virtual learning while working from home and trying to abide by the CDC’s ever-changing safety protocols to avoid a deadly virus. Maid’s Alex equates good mothering to a willingness to sacrifice and to work one’s self to exhaustion, all the while never resenting the child for the many ways that they make life more difficult. It’s easy to see why real mothers would feel chastened by Alex’s near divinity and incredulous at what she suggests that we do. Sacrifice without complaint? Never raise our voices at our children? Riiiiiight.
Like Alex, Paz Vega’s character Flor in Spanglish is a Perfect Mom. She is a savant at sacrifice, a professional at protecting, but the crown jewel of her goodness is her morality. Flor faithfully abides by her own motto: “There are some mistakes you cannot risk when you have children.” Flor’s foil, Deborah, played by Téa Leoni, exists in the film to illustrate the consequences when a mother makes those mistakes: irreparable damage to the entire family. Because of her selfishness and bald desperation for affirmation, Deborah is a Bad Mom. These two mothers – one Mexican, one American; one brunette, one blonde; one single, one married; one poor, one rich – are so opposite of each other that they both become caricatures of motherhood and therefore useless for actual mothers who are looking to see themselves represented in the media. Deborah’s mother Evelyn, played by the late Cloris Leachman, acknowledges as much at the end of the film. She is speaking about herself, but the quote easily applies to Deborah: “I lived my life for myself. You live your life for your daughter. None of it works.” As I’m writing about a movie titled Spanglish, a translation feels appropriate here: Something is broken in both the Bad Mom and the Perfect Mom. Real mothers need another, more sustainable option.
Schitt’s Creek is a fantastic TV show that contains the most exquisite character development of any series I’ve watched. But, I didn’t like it at first, mostly because I found the characters deeply off-putting. I rolled my eyes at Alexis and David’s materialism, and I was aghast at Moira’s solipsism. Her husband Johnny sees her as his greatest treasure, and I couldn’t understand why. Now that I’m a mom, I love Moira and offer her as an example of what we should try to be. Alex and Flor are The Perfect Moms; Deborah is The Bad Mom; Moira is The Every Mom.
Moira Rose is both a fashion AND mothering icon (to me, at least).
I can imagine how one would argue that Moira is better classified as a Bad Mom. She can’t remember her daughter Alexis’ middle name, nor does she have her daughter’s phone number. She was more concerned about the whereabouts of a crocodile leather bag than her own son, who had also gone missing. She entertained her children by making them throw anti-anxiety pills into her mouth.
As low as these moments are, Moira’s highs are impressively high. When she praises her children, they know her words are given sincerely and without expectation of anything in return. Her children’s happiness is her guiding light. Moira knows Alexis and David better than anyone else and accepts them as they are.
Moira is The Every Mom. She makes terrible mistakes, puts herself first more often than not, and considers her children to be “burden[s]” at times. The love she has for her children is even more poignant because Alexis and David can be so…well, unlovable. Alex’s daughter in Maid is a well-mannered angel; Flor’s daughter Cristina is an incredible combination of beauty, brains, and character. Moira’s children are challenging, but she holds them close even though those maternal feelings are anything but instinct for her.
After I became a mother, I saw a lot of Moira in myself. No, I haven’t forgotten my son’s middle name, but I have turned off the baby monitor so that I couldn’t hear his cries. He has fallen down the stairs on my watch. The American Academy of Pediatrics would frown at the amount of TV and macaroni and cheese that he consumes.
Still, I am a Damn Good Mother.
Dr. Becky Kennedy, founder of Good Inside, offers this mantra to all parents: Two things are true. I can let my son cry in his crib so that I can sleep a little longer AND I can be a good mom.
So, what kind of mom do I want to be? I want to be Moira; I want to be The Every Mom. I don’t want to be a Bad Mom, but I don’t want to be a Perfect Mom either. Imagine being raised by a Perfect Mom. When it came time to become a parent yourself, you would only know one way — Do everything right, or else. No, my son will come to see me as a regular mom who made mistakes - some grievous - every single day. When he becomes a father and he inevitably slips up, he will remember me and think, “My mom messed up, and I turned out just fine.” One of the greatest gifts The Every Mom gives her child is unlimited grace.
When NBA superstar Giannis Antetokounmpo delivered his acceptance speech after being named the 2019 league MVP, he thanked his mother for her role in his success. He called her “a good parent” and his “hero.” Two things are true: I can be good enough, not perfect, and I can still be my son’s hero. That is good enough for me.