Monday, June 14, 2010

The United States of Mom (1.28.09)

Have you seen the new Showtime series The United States of Tara? The premise of the show supposes that suburban mom Tara (played by my girl Toni Collette) reverts to multiple personalities in response to stresses in her life. For instance, when her daughter is shook up by a threatening boyfriend, Tara's male tough-guy persona Buck comes to the rescue, whomping the bully in a way that Tara as a regular mom could never do.

Tara has no memory of her alternate lives, who include a bratty 15-year-old who befriends and relates to Tara's daughter and a prim starched apron Superwoman type.

Toni Collette is a terrific actress (I can't even think about the scene in The Sixth Sense when Haley Joel Osment gives her a message from her dead mother without getting all weepy) and she makes each of the different personalities convincing.

The sometimes overwritten but often witty dialogue comes thanks to writer Diablo Cody, who penned Juno. My favorite line: "Looks like someone forgot her pants," says horny husband (played by cutie John Corbett) to half-dressed Tara. She replies, "I like to call it remembering my ass."

What's disturbing about the show, however, is the way it plays fast and loose with psycho-babble, referring to multiple personalities as a symptom of schizophrenia, a misconception that's been floating around since Sally Field played Sybil in 1976. The United States of Tara oversimplifies and romanticizes mental illness, portraying it as a convenient way to solve family problems, rather than as the heartbreaking and destructive disease that it really is.

But I'll still be watching the show. Instead of being offended by the shows wildly, nearly irresponsibly inaccurate portrayal of mental illness, I've decided to see Tara's switching between alters as a metaphor for the altered states required by motherhood. Sometimes we moms not only wear different hats, we need to take on identities that are as various as the colors in the crayon box.

So in the spirit of embracing my other mothers, I've complied a partial list of my own "alters":

Martha can do it! Design that class newsletter, fill out the new school applications, write thank you notes, laundry, craft projects, check-writing, sink scouring, pie-baking, button sewing, no problem! She juggles, multitasks, says "yes" to all volunteering requests and is always dreaming up new projects.

Angelina. Hardass, cool as shit, unflappable. Looks equally good in aviator sunglasses, pregnancy dresses and evening wear.

Mommy Dearest. When I'm tired, Joan Crawford takes over and the tiniest thing seems to grip me with a torturous irritation. Spying the caps left off the magic markers or stepping on a sharp Lego piece at bedtime can rouse Joan to life. She doesn't bang into the room screaming, "No wire hangers EVER!" but she might pace and mutter and obsess until a good night's sleep makes her disappear.

Sasquatch. This alter roars into life when we are rushing out the door the tiniest bit late and one of my girls decides to take a detour to the toybox. My voice drops an octave, the decibels crank up and I'm howling like a wolf "NO! GO! GO! GO! GO! GO!!"

Evil Stepmother. Not only does she expect her Cinderellas to clean their rooms, but she has a cold implacable air that will hear no excuses, nor bend at the sound of tears. You might even see her crack a tiny haughty smile when the little princesses whine, "I don't want to! I'm too tired! You do it!"

Baby is starving. Baby needs to go to bed! Baby wants a hug NOW!

Mrs. Doasyouwouldbedoneby.
This alter comes courtesy of Charles Kingsley's classic 1863 book The Water-Babies, a book I loved, but only half understood, as a kid. Mrs. Doasyouwouldbedoneby "has the sweetest, kindest, tenderest, funniest, merriest face they ever saw, or want to see...she was the most nice, soft, fat, smooth, cuddly, delicious creature who ever nursed a baby; and she understood babies thoroughly... All her delight was, whenever she had a spare moment, to play with babies, in which she showed herself a woman of sense; for babies are the best company, and the pleasantest playfellows in the world...."

Guess who's my favorite?

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