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Back when I first started dating my now wife I naively imagined that after we moved in together our lives would resemble a home-school for film, with me filling in the gaps in her education with an ongoing private screening series of my favorite movies. Instead, I ended up watching old movies on my own time and instead of immersing her in my passions, I found myself watching an awful lot of her favorite reality television shows, most notably "Teen Mom".
"Teen Mom" is one of the rare reality shows that actually says something about what it's like to be young, overwhelmed and struggling in our society right now, that has value as a sociological document as well as entertainment. And though cast members like Farrah Abraham have devolved into a sleazy realm of tabloids, sensationalism and adult entertainment, the initial appeal of the show's mothers lie in their relatability. The girls the show followed were dramatic enough for reality television, a medium that feeds upon drama, yet normal enough that audiences could identify with them.
And though I have missed the last few seasons of "Mad Men", "Breaking Bad" and "The Wire" I have remained ferociously invested in the emotional lives of "16 & Pregnant", "Teen Mom" and later "Teen Mom OG" stars Farrah Abraham, Maci Bookout, Catelynn Lowell and Amber Portwood. I was invested enough in the show's cast that when Catelynn and her boyfriend Tyler appeared on "Couples Therapy" I worried for them.
"Couples Therapy" is the worst, and most addictive kind of reality show, an ugly exploitation of emotional exhibitionists that revolves around celebrity couples with all the resources in the world trying to overcome their mutual awfulness and understandable contempt for each other for the sake of appearances. But Catelynn and Tyler have always been good, fundamentally decent and compassionate people doing their best against daunting odds with very few resources at their disposal. I didn't want their innocence soiled by being professionally obligated to spend time with the toxic likes of Joe Francis and Flavor Flav.
So it's strangely reassuring knowing that the cast of "Teen Mom" has far fewer resources than I have in terms of experience, maturity and family yet their children seem to be turning out alright.
Catelynn and Tyler chose to give their baby up for adoption and it's impossible not to feel for them and a loss they both obviously feel keenly down to their bones. The show invites empathy by implicitly asking us to put ourselves in their shoes, to imagine how we would deal with a situation where every option involves pain and sacrifice.
Tyler has every reason to be a creep. His father is an oft-imprisoned dirtbag and Tyler became famous for fathering a child while still a teenager. Yet despite everything, Tyler is a good, loving and sensitive person, someone worth rooting for, as is Catelynn, who has a maturity and perspective far beyond her tender years.
I always liked "Teen Mom" , but when I became a first-time father about eight months ago I developed a whole new appreciation for it. Like a lot of new parents, I worry that I brought my child into the world with far too much uncertainty, that as a recently laid off freelancer with no benefits or steady paychecks I do not have the financial resources to provide for my child in the way I would like. So it's strangely reassuring knowing that the cast of "Teen Mom" has far fewer resources than I have in terms of experience, maturity and family yet their children seem to be turning out alright.
Television parents of the non-teen variety tend to be either of the neurotic and worrying variety, already wracked with terror about their children's chances of getting into an Ivy League school while their tot is still in diapers, or impossibly perfect in a way that's difficult, if not impossible, to relate to. But the moms and dads of "Teen Mom" are refreshingly committed to living life in the moment, taking their responsibilities one day and one hour at a time rather than obsessing about the distant future or the mistakes of the past. In its own way, that is healthy and something I have embraced as a parent myself.
But the grand strokes of parenting are universal. I could relate to the girls' complicated and often tense relationships with their parents, with the way the sins of the past and their own mothers and fathers' failings continue to inform their lives...
What makes "Teen Mom" so inherently compelling is that its cast had parenthood thrust upon them at an age when most people are figuring out who they are. Yet parenthood is such an all-consuming and immersive experience that it tends to become, if not the primary component of one's identity, than at least a hugely central part of how people see themselves and the world. Usually people find out who they are long before they become parents. The drama of "Teen Mom" lies partially in the cast becoming parents, then trying to figure out who they are, beyond people whose identities and sense of self is inevitably rapped up in the age at which they conceived.
The details of the girl's lives are uniquely their own. Unlike Farrah, I will never have to deal with the public's perception of me as a porn star, something that enrages Farrah despite her deep involvement in the adult entertainment industry. Unlike Amber, I have never been to jail for drugs or physically assaulted someone on television. But the grand strokes of parenting are universal. I could relate to the girls' complicated and often tense relationships with their parents, with the way the sins of the past and their own mothers and fathers' failings continue to inform their lives and their struggle to juggle the responsibilities of parenthood with their professional aspirations.
Parenthood entails enormous sacrifice regardless of the circumstances but it requires an additional level of sacrifice for teen parents. Yet "Teen Mom" captures that for teen parents, having babies can be a blessing as well as a sacrifice, although heaven knows a blessing delivered at the wrong time can feel like a curse. No one would ever suggest that these people became parents at the right time.
The show is a stirring example that while extraordinarily difficult, parenthood is also manageable. In that respect, I'm glad that "Teen Mom" exists to show the rest of us neurotic non-teen moms and dads that even teenagers can do this most demanding and rewarding of jobs but I'm even gladder that I waited a good two decades after I exited my own teen years to have a baby. "Teen Mom" has much to say about parenthood, including that it's best entered into long after your own teen years have ended.