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'Better Things' Made Me Realize How Thankless It Is to Be a Mom

Co-creators Pamela Adlon and Louis C.K. nail the role of parenting with the right balance of insight and humor.

by Sarene Leeds
Oct 20 2017, 3:56pm

Credit: Jessica Brooks/FX

Last year, I became a mother. As rewarding as my new life as a parent has been, it's also been savagely draining. Despite a strong support system and an endless rabbit hole of parenting sites offering life hacks and solidarity from fellow moms, it's still a challenge finding an outlet that gets what's in my head.

Turns out, all I needed to do was look to FX's Better Things, from co-creators Pamela Adlon and Louis C.K. It speaks to me on a much deeper level than any mommy blog. Now in its second season (and just renewed for a third), Better Things is a sharp, unapologetic commentary on motherhood, feminism, and life's simple pleasures, starring Adlon as Sam Fox, a single-mom actress raising three girls. (Adlon also directed all ten episodes of season two while sharing the writing duties with longtime collaborator C.K.)

When I first checked out Better Things last year, I thought the Peabody Award–winning series was blisteringly funny and smart on its own. However, after I became a mother, it was as if I discovered a hidden layer to the show that was just now welcoming me into its secret club. During my viewing of the season two episode "Rising," I realized Adlon and C.K. had somehow invaded my soul in order to craft the perfect heart-tugging half-hour of television: Sam hops a private jet and leaves her demanding daughters behind for a weekend of golf-cart-driven luxury at the estate of her friend's wealthy new beau. But once she arrives, the culture shock of child-less, sun-drenched bliss is too much for her, and she bails for a quiet, seaside motel.

A few moments of long-coveted solitude give way to a montage of Sam renting a car, picking up her girls, and taking them for a fun-filled day at the beach. And that's when I started bawling: Like Sam, all I desire these days is the occasional break so I can feel like the person I was before I became "Mommy": The girl who delights in marathoning Call the Midwife and baking pies. But the very second I get some time to myself, I feel lost and empty, and I start counting the minutes until I can hold my baby girl in my arms again.

Since I became a parent, no one has nailed that insatiable feeling better than Adlon and C.K. did with that scene. But that's only half the story: What made this sequence in "Rising" even more genius is how the episode ends not with Sam and her girls on the beach, but of Sam sitting on the veranda of the motel. That fantasy ending was just that, a fantasy—because she still needs that time off. We all do, but the guilt of self-care never goes away.

Sam doesn't need to say a damn word in that scene in order to express any of this.

There does come a time though when Sam needs to speak out, and it went down mightily in last night's episode , titled "Eulogy." Here, Better Things made the bold statement that moms actually don't need to be the silent, selfless caregivers society has programmed them to be since time immemorial. We can demand appreciation from our loved ones—and such praise can even be about our careers.

While the show regularly displays examples of Sam's exhausting work life—the audition scene from the pilot remains a personal favorite—the first act of "Eulogy" reminded us that Sam not only loves what she does, but that she's really good at it. The audience gets to be a fly on the wall of her acting workshop, where she refuses to sugarcoat the realities of her volatile industry while offering constructive advice to her aspiring students. (Well, telling one guy, "You're boring. Work on it" isn't exactly constructive, but it's still hilarious.)

Then we move on to Sam filming a car commercial. Again, she doesn't let the repetitive slog get her down, demonstrating years of carefully honed talent: Take after take, she delivers her one banal line differently. Every. Single. Time. So when Sam's daughter Frankie continues channel-surfing after stumbling on one of her mother's TV appearances (to be fair, RuPaul's Drag Race is awesome) later in the episode, Sam isn't the only one stung; the audience is too. We've just worn ourselves out watching what this woman goes through every day, so, yeah, Frankie, to quote your mother, it does suck that you didn't go back.

Instead of taking it on the chin, Sam demands recognition from her two self-involved daughters, Max and Frankie (the youngest, Duke, isn't a sarcastic teenager yet, so she's off the hook). She delivers a killer speech about the pride she takes in her career, and doesn't mince words when describing how the teens' indifferent attitude affects her: "It really hurts my feelings that my work means nothing to you."

Now, this scene didn't resonate with me because I'm frustrated that my 14-month-old doesn't tell me on a regular basis how insightful my essays on prestige TV shows are. Because Better Things doesn't only get how I feel being a mom; it also holds up a mirror to my younger self (and by "younger" I mean up until the day I saw this episode) and points an unforgiving finger at the decades I spent not appreciating my own mother's career.

In lieu of an apology, Max and Frankie stage a faux funeral for Sam, and their eulogies are a direct message to all of us to get our faces out of our phones and use them to call our mothers to tell them how special they are. That, right there, is some powerful television.

So bravo to Better Things for removing the stigma of moms daring to ask for praise. Because everyone deserves a little ego boost now and then.

Follow Sarene Leeds on Twitter.

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