One night last March, when my family was asleep and I was bolt upright with anxiety, I rewatched the My So-Called Life episode “Other People’s Mothers.” Angela, the show’s teenage protagonist, longs for her mother to be more like her best friend Rayanne’s—a classic TV cool mom who, in the ultimate sign of ’90s with-it-ness, allows Angela to call her by her first name, Amber. Angela becomes more and more enamored of Amber until Rayanne overdoses, and then, she is nowhere to be found. So Angela does what all girls lucky enough to be raised in loving, secure homes do. She calls her mom.
I cried a great deal during “Other People’s Mothers,” and not just because Angela’s mom, with her short hair and unflappable calm, reminded me of my own mother, or because the pandemic clarified what even as a teenager I managed to grasp—that parenting requires you to be the adult in the room. I cried because instead of identifying with Angela, whom I’d come of age with and who captured all the agonies of being a teenage girl, I identified with her mom. The one trying to hold it all together.
My So-Called Life was the first show I ever watched that presented parents as people—individuals with their own interior lives and hopes and longings. When I was a child, marriage and kids seemed like the end of the line, the place where the books I read stopped. I didn’t understand what becoming a parent actually was—a complex, overlapping set of identities that no story can ever fully excavate.
Complicated on-screen motherhood has always been a staple of prestige TV, but it’s taken on a different flavor during the pandemic. In Borgen, the Danish sleeper hit that first aired in 2010 and now streams on Netflix (a fourth season is slated for next year), the fictional politician Birgitte Nyborg becomes Denmark’s first female prime minister. Birgitte has a teenage daughter and a young son; her appealing, supportive husband, Philip, jokes about having to schedule sex and juggle the school pickups. It feels like we could be watching a show about a powerful woman with a healthy work-life balance and a supportive partner—a sort of COVID fever dream. Instead, within a year, her marriage is over.
For a show as sophisticated as Borgen, the disintegration of Birgitte’s home life should feel too on the nose, too obvious for the world leader who tries to have it all. But it works because it’s believable. Philip isn’t some villain. He seems as astonished as we are to realize he can’t hack it as the husband of a prime minister who is never home and can’t take the kids to school. In return, what allows Borgen to explore the choices Birgitte makes, without pat moralizing about working mothers, is her role as the leader of Denmark. If she had any other job—a C-suite position at a Fortune 500 company, an artist, whatever—no audience, especially not an American one, would tolerate watching her stay late at the office and handle crises while her children suffer (in Season 2, Birgitte’s daughter, Laura, starts having anxiety attacks). Perhaps Birgitte’s job is more important than being there for her children. We are left to grapple with how uncomfortable that makes us.
I loved everything about Borgen, but the honesty around the price Birgitte is forced to pay for her political success is what I appreciated most. As her power grows, you feel her other identities ebb away. She tries to confront the problems in her marriage as she would a political negotiation, and it backfires. When her family faces a true crisis, she has to step back from her duties. The show drives a stake through the mythic idea of balance. For women like Birgitte, it doesn’t exist—you have to pick one lane or the other.
This brutal calculus of how to spend your time when you have a family and work, whether inside or outside the home, has been the central drama of pandemic parenting. I remember how frightened I felt, in those early months when I was unloading the dishwasher seven times a day and trying to maintain a shred of normalcy for my kids, that my career would just fold in on itself and disappear. As this tension has played itself out in millions of households this year, COVID has brought no answers. It has only forced an honest reckoning.
WandaVision, Disney’s new series based on the Marvel Cinematic Universe, forces us to reckon with a different theme from the past year—namely, how do we process traumas that defy understanding?* While filming began before the pandemic started, the show—which picks up a few weeks after the events of Avengers: Endgame, when half of the world’s population has suddenly returned—could easily serve as a parable for life after COVID . How do we go forward? How do we make sense of an event that happened collectively, but is experienced individually, leaving us holding separate griefs?
In a reveal that the writers spool out with just the right amount of patience, the audience realizes that Wanda Maximoff, the Avenger with staggering telekinetic powers, has created her own alternate reality in the tiny town of Westview, New Jersey, where Vision is alive and they are raising twins. We see in a flashback what exactly happened: Wanda, dazed with grief after losing the love of her life, on top of the older losses of her parents and twin brother, releases her power in an explosion that not only transforms Westview and all its inhabitants into a sitcom-perfect idyll under her mind control, but brings a new version of Vision back to life and, eventually, allows her to give birth to twin boys.
Watching Wanda’s pain and rage explode, creating a scarlet dome of energy that literally walls off her grief and keeps her family safe, felt pretty dead on for the way a lot of us would cope if we had superpowers. Her ability to control everything—what to let in, what to keep out, editing and rewinding whatever doesn’t go according to plan—is like the ultimate pandemic parenting fantasy. She has control over every last detail. The rest of us have had control over almost nothing. Not whether the people we love get sick, not whether our kids can go to school, not whether we can keep ourselves and our families safe.
Of course, the vulnerability of parenting is that, even in normal times, you can’t protect your family from every danger—that’s what living in the world is. But the perception of control, and the reality of risk, was different before. The idea of how far Wanda will go to protect her family—will she continue to hold the other inhabitants of Westview against their will to maintain her parallel universe?—explores the basic vulnerability of parenting. Being a mother means that suddenly you’re responsible for another life, and that brings the fear of mortality—yours and your child’s—closer. We don’t like to talk about this fear, but it’s always there, and WandaVision drags it out into the open.
Bridgerton understands this central truth as well. For all its frothiness and fun, the show is stone-cold serious about the risks of childbirth, and what it takes to bring yourself and your children into adulthood intact. It’s not an accident that the Duke of Hastings, haunted by the absence of his mother, who died giving birth to him, falls in love with Daphne Bridgerton, the oldest daughter of a large, loving family. The Bridgertons have not escaped loss either—their father died while their mother was pregnant, and the difficult birth that followed almost killed her as well—but they have come through because of their strong family bonds. TV dramas usually treat happy families as kryptonite, the place where plotlines go to die, but I find them fascinating, and so does Bridgerton. Growing up in a happy family does not give Daphne or any of her siblings protection from pain or heartbreak. What it gives them is resilience instead of brittleness.
The show often pits Daphne’s mother, Violet, against her more scheming neighbor Lady Featherton, who has less material to work with when it comes to wealth, status, or eligible daughters, but I felt compassion for both of them. What makes Violet more successful as a mother, though, is that she shows her children how to love in the way she loves them, while Lady Featherton is more manipulative and transactional. And there lies a core truth of parenting. Who you are as a person is just as important as what you do. Every day counts.
Watching these shows over the past year, when the bogus idea of “having it all” was obliterated for good, and our collective year of loss brought so many of the unspoken fears of parenting to the surface, I found myself struck by the idea of how tightly bound together love and fear of loss are. As Vision asks Wanda, “What is grief, if not love persevering?”
That’s the deal, the bargain we strike. Whether it’s Wanda finally letting go of Vision and her sons when she releases the town, or Daphne longing to become a mother even though she knows the risks, or Birgitte facing not only her fears for her children’s health but then, eventually, her own, each of these mothers resonate in a different way. They make me think of my own mother, who died when I was in high school, and how this year has sharpened that loss, along with the fear that I might die on my kids too.
But I also see, more than ever, how she did the most she could with the days she had. On screen or off, that’s all any of us can do.
In my decade at Slate, I’ve worked on everything from investigating how wearing your backpack with two straps became cooler than wearing it with one strap to adapting The Great Gatsby as a video game to inventing a highly scientific systemic for determining whether new movies are too scary for you. The support of Slate Plus members has allowed us to continue to do the kind of ambitious, irreverent, and service-y cultural coverage you won’t find anywhere else. Thank you! —Forrest Wickman, culture editor
Correction, April 21, 2021: This article originally misidentified the Marvel Cinematic Universe as the Marvel Comics Universe.