Single Motherhood on “Parenthood”

Amber and Sarah share a special moment at Amber's baby shower (nbc.com)

Amber and Sarah share a special moment at Amber’s baby shower (nbc.com)

According to Twitter, I’m in the minority. Everyone else who tweeted about a recent episode of #Parenthood found it heartwarming. Viewers especially enjoyed Amber’s baby shower, which was held at a hospital, after her grandfather Zeek’s heart attack.

Amber’s baby shower certainly showcased the bonds of family and warmth of motherhood, but it was hard to ignore the elephant in the room: Amber is on the verge of becoming the first Braverman-by-blood who’ll start parenthood as a single mother.

Given the heartfelt advice that the Braverman women offered Amber at her shower, it is striking that no character suggested that she might want a partner for her journey. Yes, the show is set in the San Francisco area and the family leans left politically, but both Sarah and Jasmine have lived the challenges of solo parenting, and the others have led relatively traditional family lives. For example, the show’s matriarch and patriarch have been married for over four decades, and their four children all wed their grandchildren’s other parent.

Amber and her younger brother were raised primarily by Sarah Braverman, their single mother, since Sarah’s marriage didn’t last. Sarah periodically jokes about disappointing her parents, based on her romantic history and related challenges, including economic instability.

Interestingly, when Amber shared the news of her pregnancy and decision to parent solo, Sarah kept her disapproval mild. She gently focused on “how hard” it is to be a single mother—and undoubtedly, it is. In the next (most recent) episode, Amber begins voicing just that concern, as the birth of her child rapidly approaches.

However, Sarah never pushed Amber to consider that reality in detail. Nor did she urge Amber to consider how this choice might complicate her child’s life, a train of thought Amber was well positioned to consider. Sarah also didn’t urge Amber to involve the baby’s father, suggest Amber and the baby move in with her for support, or raise the subject of adoption. That last part was surprising given Amber’s relationship situation, seeming emotional unreadiness for motherhood, and financial difficulties.

Watching this, I couldn’t help but recall another onscreen mother-daughter talk from about 25 years ago. On Degrassi Junior High,13-year-old Spike told her mother on that she was pregnant, clearly expecting some sort of support, if not approval. But Spike’s mother, who had also been a teen mother, yelled that Spike was destroying her life. There was no equivocation.

Sarah’s calmer response may reflect Sarah’s non-confrontational personality and Amber’s older age, but it may also represent shifting societal norms and audience expectations. As a 20-year-old woman without a college degree and limited earning power, Amber embodies a new societal trend. The National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy reports that “among unmarried women in their twenties [like Amber], 69% of pregnancies are unplanned.”

Further, the recent American Community Survey and Decennial Census found that “Americans are getting married later in life, or not at all. And the share of children born outside of marriage has jumped to 41 per cent, compared to just 5 per cent in 1960.”

That shift is associated with harsh consequences. As the National Fatherhood Initiative notes, children raised without their father at home face numerous challenges, including the increased likelihood of struggling academically, living in poverty, and engaging in risky behavior. “Forty-five percent of children who live without a father,” in fact, know poverty.”

Women also lose out when they forego marriage. Not only are they more likely to struggle financially, but as a new National Bureau of Economic Research study that “controlled for pre-marriage happiness levels [demonstrated] . . . being married makes people happier and more satisfied with their lives than those who remain single—particularly during the most stressful periods, like midlife crises.” Raising young children can also be stressful, especially if a parent doesn’t have a partner to share the crucial and often exhausting work.

Amber may learn this the hard way. It’s a shame, because she has countless fans wishing only the best for both her and her baby.

This article appeared in Acculturated.

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