By Kelly Sokol
I can’t wait to introduce my two daughters to MTV’s reality series Teen Mom. In each episode Amber, Caitlynn, Farrah, Leah, Maci and the other stars deliver a message I’ve been too chicken shit to tell: motherhood as defined in 21st century America is hard as hell. When they are reduced to tabloid headlines, the cast of Teen Mom look like tragic caricatures of motherhood too soon: bad hair extensions, plastic surgery, drugs, convictions, domestic abuse. However the full story line tells an honest, gritty version of motherhood truth that society (and every other television program) chooses to ignore. The women of Teen Mom were the only on-screen role models to which I could relate as a new mother.
I wish I could hate the series; as an educated feminist, perhaps I should. It’s easy to dismiss the show as exploitative and its cast members as too young and too poor to have agreed to have their lives documented. However these young women are brave, and maybe naïve, to invite cameras into their mothering, with all of the trolling commentary and armchair parenting of an audience that lives their lives behind closed doors, in privacy. I can’t stop watching.
Because no matter how badly I wanted and tried to be, I wasn’t a great mother to my daughters, at least not right away. In the early months, breastfeeding and then pumping and bottle supplementing and breastfeeding again was a non-stop treadmill at ten percent incline. Once my daughter had finally drained both breasts it was time to start again. And my breasts were huge (seriously huge, an H cup) so there was no nursing with my baby in a sling, hands-free, multitasking and cheerily completing all of the other jobs that came with motherhood – the bottle washing, the diaper changing, the compilation of a baby book, the writing I was certain to accomplish. Instead I had to cram myself into a far corner of the couch, with a perfectly positioned Boppy and my baby in my lap, the remote within reach. I’ve never watched as much TV as I did in the first three months post-partum. Perfectly lit, lithe celebrities were my company during the day. While I tried to savor the rare quiet times while my girl gulped, swallowed and dozed, more of the time was spent trying to crack the lock of her disinterested mouth from my bloody nipples or wrestling her back, writhing, to my breast. My brain was riding a hormonal tilt-a-whirl.
Her quiet times made me edgier than her colicky hours: when she was screaming I’d pace the floors, rock her, bounce on an exercise ball, vacuum with her strapped to my chest. Only constant movement soothed us. In quiet and stillness, though, anxiety, fear and regret born of mourning my “selfish” pre-mother me needled into my mind, stronger than the oxytocin laced let-down designed to force the mother-baby bond. I needed company that would make me feel better about myself, because inside the plaster walls of my home, alone with my daughter, I felt like a dead end. I’d blithely read every pregnancy book and blog during my pregnancy but I still ended up alone and scared as a new mom. I consulted new grandmothers who were convinced I should quit nursing, formula would solve it all, and seasoned grandmothers who insisted nervous mothers made nervous babies. I even turned to my newly married friends who had Manga cartoon starry eyes for newborns. I flipped through the channels, zoning in and out of cooking shows, and indulged in elaborate fantasies involving one celebrity chef, his cooking and my pre-baby breasts. My husband’s car lights would sweep the front of the house by the end of the second recipe and I could finally escape for a blessedly baby free walk.
I tried to watch the Real Housewives of Anywhere but their bickering made me even more anxious. I flipped to MTV. I love MTV, and yes, I’m thirty-seven. My excuse is that I was never allowed to watch it growing up. What’s yours? I watched an episode of 16 and Pregnant, which made me weepy and deeply sad. And angry. Young girls with braces and big bellies held hands with their pimpled boyfriends and gushed over sonograms and baby showers. Such bullshit. I’d just fled the same nonsense on TLC’s Bringing Home Baby, all the sweet bibs and rattles, none of the yowling and frustration. The teenage mothers-to-be hadn’t dropped out of school yet, confident and glowing that they could mother and finish high school. They were so hopeful it hurt to look. Their boyfriends hadn’t broken up with, or worse, proposed to them yet.
But Teen Mom is where 16 and Pregnant gets real. The babies have been delivered. The boyfriends have either taken off or said their hasty I-do’s. The young women’s faces suddenly resemble mine: gray, dark half circles where their thick eyeliner was once painted on in perfect swoops. Their friends’ lives are proceeding without them. The help they were counting on from their parents has faltered. They’re cut off from their former selves. They’ve made grownup decisions and have to behave like grownups. Most of these girls never intended to get pregnant. They made a risky lust- or pressure-filled choice, or the equipment intended to protect them failed. We differ in this way: I wanted a baby. I was ready.
The first time I watched, I was thirty, sitting on a leather sofa in the home my husband and I owned, with the luxury of maternity leave and a career I loved that I had waved away. I was as clueless as the children I shook my head at on screen. At times I found myself jealous of the new-mom teens. My daughter could latch only if I wore a weird silicon cone over my sideshow-sized nipple, but these girls were bursting with milk, and their babies were born knowing how to suckle. I thought ugly thoughts: maybe it was actually easier to have a baby as a high-schooler. The girls on TV couldn’t even know the fullness of the world they were missing out on. I was angry at everyone, but angriest at myself. I was sad when I wanted to be happy, when the world expects you to be happy. I felt like I’d written my own life sentence; my daughter was my unwitting jailor.
Then my daughter’s navy eyes would fix on mine and I’d rip somewhere deep inside, some soft, messy, unsuturable place. She tore me a second time, with a love that was too big for my body to hold, and a deep awareness that this beautiful creature had chosen the wrong woman to trust as her mother.
I don’t watch Teen Mom to feel better about how I parent, though I joke that I do. I haven’t been to jail (Amber, Jennelle) nor have I hit my spouse or my kids, though I grabbed the scruff of my Leonberger’s neck more roughly than necessary a few times. I left the scary drugs behind in college, unlike Amber, Jennelle and Leah, who never had the chance to experiment while straddling youth and adulthood, responsible for themselves alone. But I have sobbed through a bottle of wine. And I passed the buck of blame onto my daughters’ father when I was resentful of the world and all of its activity happening just outside my door. No, I never made a sex tape (Farrah) but I ached for the sexual attention given so readily to a body that’s never expanded to grow and feed a life.
Neither my parents nor my former in-laws (Catelynn) have ever been incarcerated. I have more money. Lucky for me, people’s expectations are higher for an educated mom at 30 than a girl of 17, and rightly so. I perform to expectations, always have. And there were simply more and stronger tethers in my life to keep me in place. Still, I watch Teen Mom because I see myself in the girls on the screen. I took on motherhood without thinking about how well suited I really was to the job. I assumed that it would make me into who I needed to be (and perhaps it has), but it was a long, liminal infancy. I was insecure in myself and in my husband’s affection and would lash out like a toddler demanding attention. Something seven pounds undid me. I had frightening visions of harm coming to my newborn. I’d been so confident I would be a great mom and that we’d make a perfect nuclear family. I’d bought the flim-flam version of motherhood that society continues to peddle as reality.
I am now divorced, as are all of the Teen Moms who married their baby daddies (except for Catelynn and Tyler, and I’m pulling for you guys). We have that in common, too. I signed up for motherhood without reading the fine print of the job requirements: self-sacrifice with a smile, exhaustion, putting myself last, detonating a grenade in my daily routines, indefinitely delaying plans for world travel, pressing my once delightfully recreational body into service as a utilitarian mammal, no raises, no promotions, no days off. Ever.
I struggled with new mom reality without any microphones or cameras capturing every moment, while before their twenty-fifth birthdays, the Teen Moms endure newborns with chronic illness, postpartum depression, the choice between placing a child for adoption and raising a child while still a child, single-parenting, divorce, custody battles, co-parenting, poverty, addiction, caring for babies and their own parents simultaneously, and stubborn baby weight. The girls of Teen Mom are as real about motherhood as TV gets.
I worry about the young stars of Teen Mom and their children. Am I exploiting them and their privacy by watching? No way could I withstand the scrutiny of my parenting life broadcast on television. I know we live digitally, electronically now, though. A baby hasn’t smiled if her toothless grin hasn’t been posted on Instagram and Facebook. There are few secrets left. It would be easy to rewrite my first years of motherhood into something blissful or where I at least appear more adept, natural. It would be easier on me, anyway. My daughters may read this one day. I fear they will think I don’t love them if I admit how difficult it was to be their mother at first. But this is where mothers have been failing daughters for generations: we don’t tell the truth. I wasn’t brave enough to talk about the isolation, fear and resentment I experienced during those startling early years as a mother, so I watched the girls of Teen Mom live it, instead. Now I am ready to start talking. I’ll still keep tuning in.
Kelly Sokol’s work has appeared in print and online publications including ConnotationPress, The Quotable and The Pitkin Review and has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. She earned an MFA in creative writing at Goddard College. She contributes regularly to AltDaily.com and teaches fiction and creative nonfiction writing at The Muse Writers Center in Norfolk, VA. She can be found online atkellysokolonthepage.com.