Bad Moms, Odd Moms, and Everything In Between

I’m a mom, so I run primarily on adrenaline and guilt. Throw in some coffee […]

Stephanie Phillips / 8.22.16

bad momsI’m a mom, so I run primarily on adrenaline and guilt. Throw in some coffee in the AM, some wine in the PM, and you’ve covered the structure of most of my days–but I’ll be damned if anyone but me reduces my life to a cliche. I’ve seen some pretty bad representations of the pulled-in-all-directions nature of motherhood, so when the trailer for Bad Moms popped up on the internet a few months ago, I approached it warily. A major Hollywood studio accurately portraying my constant ambivalence? A script penned by two men (the writers behind The Hangover, no less)? Don’t get me wrong–I have no problem with men writing scripts about women, as long as they get the laundry and dishes done first. I just had my doubts as to how nuanced this depiction would be.

I remember reading a New York magazine film review of He’s Just Not That Into You in which the critic quoted an old anecdote about how people read books to be told the truth and watch movies to be lied to. Such would seem to be the case with Bad Moms: the narrative structure is polished and predictable, the main characters (slightly) flawed yet likable, the tropes present and accounted for. Take, for instance, the fact that every husband in the film is either (spoiler alert! except not really!) a cheater, an embezzler, an orders-barker, or just absent. My husband turned to me toward the end and whispered, “Are you going to need to cover me with your purse when we leave?” Because yes–my husband and I saw this movie together. Truth is, most days I kind of like him. He’s not (except maybe in my most self-pitying moments) an enemy to be worked against; he’s a partner. So when I see his kind reduced to one-dimensional representations because that’s the only way the makers of this movie feel they can thoroughly portray the complexities of being a mom? Yeah, I’ve got a problem with that–both on behalf of many men, and in the interest of good storytelling.

kathrynTo be fair, the film wasn’t a total wash. Overused montages of girls-grown-wild behavior set to power anthems notwithstanding, there were some truly LOL moments (most of them perpetrated by the sublime Kathryn Hahn, who never met a joke she didn’t know how to deliver the hell out of). But the most telling appraisal I can give is that the height of authenticity was reached while the credits were rolling, when the stars each appeared alongside their own mothers to tell stories of their formative years. The real emotion in these exchanges surpassed any of that in the film’s climactic moments.

If movies lie to us and books tell the truth, then TV must fit somewhere in between. Such is the case with Odd Mom Out, a show I’ve recently been enjoying after having it suggested to me by a couple of friends (hint hint?). The Bravo comedy, based on creator Jill Kargman’s comic novel Momzillas, pokes fun at the Upper East Side mom-set while quirkily exposing Jill’s (also the main character) anxieties about motherhood, which are magnified by her feeling of not fitting in with the women around her. The show–to repeat, a comedy–shies away from after-school-special-type moments of deep emotion, choosing instead to convey its point with moments like the one where Jill feels like an outcast for not having seen Hamilton and spends the episode searching for tickets. Hey–there are only so many soul-baring moments you can have in thirty minutes, right? But the point still resonates: Julie Rottenberg, Kargman’s co-showrunner, says that, based on viewer responses and independent of the zip code in which it’s set, the show is “striking a chord with all kinds of parents united by being overwhelmed with advice and uncertainty.”

ODD MOM OUT -- Episode 101 -- Pictured: (l-r) Jill Kargman as Jill, KK Glick as Vanessa, Alice Callahan as Stephanie, Byrdie Bell as Simone, Abby Elliott as Brooke, Ilana Becker as Danielle -- (Photo by: Barbara Nitke/Bravo)

I remember when, fresh out of school, I got a job as a pediatric dentist in that very neighborhood and moved my life to New York. After a few weeks of being told by too many kindergarteners that their favorite food was sushi, and regaled each September with stories of summers spent in Europe, I became convinced that these families, and their maternal showrunners, were living on another planet. Over a decade later, watching a woman who lives among them rolling her eyes and jotting enough material down to write a book and TV show convinces me of something else: our insecurities about motherhood are just our insecurities about ourselves. The idea that we could screw up our children’s tiny lives with our own flaws is…not so funny. It’s deeply upsetting. The realization I had shortly after my older son was born–that for the first time in my life I was completely prepared to die for someone–is more than unsettling. It’s terrifying. It’s also not an idea that any one-hundred-minute movie, or hopefully long-running TV show, or even book, can ever adequately express. Life is barely big enough for glimpses of this kind of sacrificial love.

There’s a moment in Bad Moms when Kristen Bell’s Kiki confides to her new friends that she entertains an occasional fantasy about getting into a semi-serious car wreck that lands her in the hospital for a week, where she finally gets a chance to sleep. She asks the other women if they can relate. While I prepared to raise my hand in the theater, Kiki was met with shaking heads and light ridicule. All the while I was thinking about how much I looked forward to my second son’s birth, because besides meeting him, I’d get a solid three nights’ stay in a hospital where I would neither cook nor clean for the duration of my stay. I wish Bad Moms had entertained the darker places a lot of us go rather than limiting them to gas-station donuts and grocery-store escapades. 

At a time when conformity is shunned on TV, where a cleaned-up “badness” is embraced in film, it’s easy to cling to the extreme versions of ourselves that pop up on screens and provide a ready-made identity that explains our flaws away. We’re just tired, after all. Our husbands are dickheads. The reality is, we’re just human, and we’re flawed, and we’re not enough–and we know it. We’re all somewhere in between the good and the bad versions of ourselves in any given moment–we’re whom the witch is singing to, and we’re the witch herself, from Into the Woods:

You’re so nice.

You’re not good,

You’re not bad,

You’re just nice.

I’m not good,

I’m not nice,

I’m just right.

I’m the Witch.

You’re the world.

I’m a good mom, and a bad mom, and I’m neither. I fit in sometimes, and often I don’t (I still, five years in, haven’t responded to any of the Evites for my neighborhood’s monthly Mom Wine Night). The emotional range of being a mother–of being a human–leaves me all over the map at any given moment: joy in being the earthly guardian of these creatures mixed with utter terror over my insufficiency fills in the structure of my days alongside the coffee and wine. I need more than a girls’ night out or Hamilton tickets or even another Bible study. I need a truth-teller who exposes my badness, and my attempts at goodness, and my outsider status and then swallows it all up with love. And while no TV show or movie or book could fully show it, the glimpses of this love that grace reveals are enough light even for my darkness.