Bad moms: why messy motherhood is finally being accepted on screen

Thanks to Better Things and Bridget Joness Baby, the dated depiction of mothers as apron-wearing goddesses has been replaced by a more realistic portrayal

Better Things opens with its protagonist, Sam Fox, texting at a shopping mall while her eight-year-old daughter wails by her side. A nearby woman looks on judgmentally. Do you want to buy her earrings? retorts the hard-pressed single mom. Cause thats why shes crying. Cause I wont buy her earrings.

Thanks to TV shows such as this and films such as Bad Moms and Bridget Joness Baby, a messier view of motherhood is having a moment in pop culture. No longer depicted as a sanctified state in which women don an apron and remove expertly prepared baked goods from the oven, motherhood with its manifest challenges and residual body fluids is increasingly being portrayed as more complex and more real.

Sam embodies all those synonyms for tired attributed to single and/or working mothers: fraught, frazzled, overworked. She is a jobbing actor and so is constantly putting herself in a situation in which she has to prove she is good enough. Shes dating but far from glossing over the logistics, as other shows have always done, Better Things offers a candid illustration of what that actually looks like.

Sam invites an attractive director shes working with back for dinner with her family and he is subjected to her teenage daughters anecdote about a school friends impromptu public defecation and her mothers latently racist compulsion to acknowledge that the director is black. Needless to say, they dont hook up. Sam cant even watch porn without being intruded upon.

Yet perhaps the most radical aspect of Better Things is that Sam has motivations and ambitions that have nothing to do with being a parent. And while she is a sometimes imperfect mother, its almost incidental; she doesnt particularly characterise herself as such, only acknowledges that shes a product of her circumstances just doing her damned best.

This summer, Bad Moms also railed against polished, prescriptive modes of motherhood. After kicking out her husband for an online affair, Mila Kunis throws down the gauntlet at a sham-PTA meeting: Im done, she announces, throwing off the weight of expectation. The film tackles an interesting and rarely aired topic: stay-at-home-mothers (sometimes I fantasise I get into a car accident, not a bad one, but I get injured, so I can stay in the hospital for a couple weeks). Beholden to four children and an unsupportive husband, she is underslept and undersocialised, with no life to speak of beyond her role as mom.

Mila Kunis, Kristen Bell and Kathryn Hahn in Bad Moms. Photograph: Michele K Short/AP

The message is that the role of mother has extended far beyond keeping ones children happy and healthy to encompass a host of thankless auxiliary duties (bake sales, extracurricular activities and looking hot while doing them) that it is fundamentally impossible to be a good one. To be a modern mother is to be a bad one, doomed to failure; so why not stop trying to meet an impossible standard and instead retain ones sense of self? Bad Moms points the finger at mothers perceived as perfect, as opposed to a patriarchal and innately sexist socialisation that demands women relinquish their careers, personal lives and humanity to focus squarely on their children.

In the UK theres Motherland, Sharon Horgan and Graham Linehans sitcom about middle-class motherhood and all of the appearance maintenance that comes with it. Why dont we have a nanny? her husband asks, to which she responds: Because I want to be raised the way I was, by my mother, and not because we are not Sheryl Sandberg and David Goldberg, which gives you an idea of the stakes here. When Julie is pitted against a gang of so-called alpha mums, the alphas pour scorn over her for working. Dont you hate yourself? they inquire. Julie finds an ally, whose non-middle-classness is denoted by the fact she doesnt have herbal tea, in Liz. Single and working class, Liz is reviled by the other mothers, who are both terrified she will steal their husbands and discomfited because she doesnt fit their prescriptive mold of parenting. Motherland aligns our notions of idealised parenthood with wealth, revealing the heinous classism innate to it. Why are fetishised symbols of middle-class liberalism (organic food, extracurricular activities) fundamental to good parenting? What does that mean if you cannot afford it? The mothers who are flawed here are the seemingly perfect ones.

Bridget Jones is perhaps the most renowned modern emblem ofnon-traditional femininity; in Bridget Joness Baby, she is struggling to identify the paternity of her unborn child. Though Bridget Jones puts the traditionally maligned female narrative front and centre, her imperfections still rest heavily on a few attributes: she is not teetotal, enjoys sex and is slightly heavier than most female actors in films. The Bridget Jones series has always been about wish fulfillment, later deconstructing the fairytale, usually to get content for the sequel. Pregnant at 43, Bridget wonders: This might be the only chance I get, noting that she always imagined myself in OK! Magazine with the man of my dreams. Bridget has always outsourced her happiness, previously to partners and romantic interests, now to her baby and the childlike notion of the happy ending. Like getting together with Colin Firth, having the baby youve always dreamed of doesnt guarantee personal contentment. We take responsibility for our own happiness, mothers or not. And as the credits roll, we cant help but wonder whether well meet her again as we did at the beginning: crying on the sofa.

Winona Ryder in Stranger Things. Photograph: Netflix/Everett/Rex/Shutterstock

Perhaps the most viscerally frazzled mother to grace our screens in very recent memory is Winona Ryders Joyce in Stranger Things. While being drawn and overwrought in the wake of her son being abducted by an unknown paranormal entity is largely expected, there is much to imply she was every bit as nervy, chain-smoking and chaotic pre-abduction mostly because shes left raising two teenage boys without any support, financial or otherwise, from their deadbeat dad. Uncomfortably, the end seems to imply she gets it together having come to appreciate what she might have lost (her child), serving up an idyllically all-American meal, despite having no obvious additional support or income.

Throughout Better Things there are flashbacks to the person who we assume is the father of Sams children. In one, we see him wake up one of her children to tell them about what sounds like a spurious career opportunity. Ive got irons in the fire! he says. Dont tell your mother I woke you.

Later in the same episode, as she struggles to get through the mountainous list of shit that just needs to get done taking out the trash, cooking dinner for her family, making sure her daughters havent gone to sleep without brushing their teeth it becomes apparent. Are these mothers struggling only because of inadequate fathers?

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