Bastard Night

Parenting in the Age of Irony with the WB’s Tuesday lineup

It’s Tuesday evening. I’m walking briskly from the bus to drop off my bag — quick, before turning on a quick pivot to get my baby from the daycare center next door. She dives into my arms, bounces on our return walk home, razzes me with insolent delight while I feed her. She claims every fat second of my attention until she finishes her goodnight bottle and sprawls backwards into sleep.

Now the real work begins. I need to wash dishes, put the kettle on to boil, wash her bottles, prepare my own dinner. But tonight, I face the kitchen with a smile. I work quickly so I can have the food ready by 8 o’clock, so I can be sitting on the couch in front of the television, so I can get my weekly treat.

It’s Bastard Night on the WB!

It took me a while to make the thematic connection in the WB Network’s Tuesday night lineup: the tried and true “Gilmore Girls” followed by the premiering “One Tree Hill.” This is my second season of loyal GG viewing, and the rapid-fire dialogue and kitschy setting has long obscured the show’s premise in my mind. “One Tree Hill,” marketed aggressively to a demographic 15 solid years my junior, was the obvious replacement for “Dawson’s Creek.” It was just something that happened to my TV after the Gilmores bid their weekly adieu, pretty images of pouty teens flickering while I prepared bottles of formula, did laundry, or zoned off in a pre-slumber stupor.

But those pouty teens have more on their minds than unrequited crushes and existential brooding, oh ho ho ho. Lucas and Nathan, the male leads, are half-brothers from (brace yourselves) opposite sides of the tracks. Their father impregnated two girlfriends in rapid succession, staying with and marrying the college coed and leaving the high school sweetheart to struggle alone. Apparently, everyone’s kept more or less out of everyone else’s hair until now, when both brothers get spots on the varsity basketball team. A midseason subplot reveals that one of their teammates is the teenaged father of a baby girl, the whereabouts of the mother concealed.

That’s probably when I started paying attention: when the teammate reveals to Lucas (the illegitimate son) his shocking secret, and Lucas responds with a tremulous plea to make sure the baby girl never feels like she’s something to be ashamed of. Although I’ve never seen anything so maudlin and self-indulgent on “Gilmore Girls,” the connection hit me like a ton of trailer park bricks. Single parenting in saucy outfits to single-parent children hitting the sauce: Bastard Night has it all!

I’ve been on the job eight months now, with, of course, nine months of prep work preceding. I have been pleasantly surprised by the almost universal social graciousness, tact, and open-mindedness shown me in terms of my situation. I have been, at times, dismayed by the unpredictable controversy of court-ordered child support. And I have been shocked by some of the assumptions made about the single parent’s concept of responsibility.

It seems like there are three different stereotypes of the single mother: Welfare Leech, Joyless Martyr or Professional-class Independent. We all have a clear image of the welfare leech, thanks to the late-’90s push for welfare reform: she sits on her kiester all day watching trashy talk shows, stuffing her kids full of junk food while numerous boyfriends stop by to light up the crack pipe and have fast, demeaning sex. The Joyless Martyr is generally a nurse or secretary, or maybe a waitress. For a quick reference, see Julia Roberts as Erin Brockovich, Helen Hunt in any number of roles (two come to mind, in the films As Good As it Gets and Pay it Forward), Rene Zellweger in Jerry Maguire, etc. She doesn’t date until the kid is old enough to sassily insist he can take care of himself, or at least when some close friends or family members can step in to do the light-duty babysitting. Her relationships go very quickly from the first sexual experience to marriage, because years of hard work have reformed her morally, and she knows how important it is to find a daddy for sweetums.

And then there’s the third, and most delicate, category. The Professional-class Independent is Diane Keaton in Baby Boom, Murphy Brown, Rachel Green. She’s any number of Hollywood actresses, because hey, we all know that marriage is as slick as petroleum in the biz, but the maternal urge is fundamental. The Professional-class Independent is entitled to do what she wants, because she’s rich. Long hours in the office, on the set? No problem! She can afford to get the very best caregivers. She’s not a burden on the taxpayers like the Welfare Leech, and we can’t expect her to rush into marriage because let’s face it — a woman as powerful as she is probably emasculates her sexual partners. And since we know she’ll be able to afford the very best private school, the very best tutors and, if it comes down to it, the very best psychologists, we don’t need to worry about her parenting decisions. That’s her business, no one else’s.

One of the many draws of “Gilmore Girls” is the refreshing sparkle of Lorelai Gilmore. The show’s synopsis on the WB website makes her seem woefully contrite: “Thirtysomething Lorelai Gilmore has made her share of mistakes in life, but she has been doing her best to see that her daughter — and best friend in the world — Rory, doesn’t follow in her footsteps.” All traces of self-condemnation have disappeared in later seasons, and Lorelai’s breakdown in a recent episode over her loneliness and sense of futility was all the more poignant for its rarity. She’s funny as hell, flakey and bouncily defiant of the world’s judgment, which is most often channeled through her mother. Sure, okay, she’s fictional. One of the things the show likes to emphasize is her absolute financial independence while raising Rory: from her parents, presumably from her also-teenaged boyfriend. But what’s even more thrilling for me than Lorelai and Rory’s perpetual fun-time relationship is Lorelai’s individuality.

At the end of the day, though, none of the stereotyping or the strange expectations of single motherhood matter to me as much as they did when I was pregnant. What kills me are the daily reminders of fatherlessness that someday, much sooner than I’d like, my daughter will be old enough to understand. She doesn’t need a daddy. The tragedy of the absentee father is a myth, one I’d like to feed into a giant, country-sized shredder. (It has nothing to do with financial responsibility, but let’s not touch that hot potato right now.) It will be traumatic if she’s made to feel somehow deprived by popular culture, by her teachers, by her friends. And this is where “One Tree Hill” comes in, a show not for me, but for her. I hope in the lightning-fast revolution of cultural fads and norms, “illegitimates” will be commonplace, the very concept of paternal illegitimacy a dinosaur whose bones calcify beneath a more inclusive turf.

So, say what you will about the corporate and consumerist nature of network TV programming; Bastard Night is ours. (Ours in the way that I’ve expropriated the word “bastard,” let it be noted. I’ll stop that until a time when my daughter is of the age of irony and can decide for herself what expropriations she’d like made on her behalf, thank you very much.) I’m pouring a glass of red wine. I’m rushing back and forth from the laundry room during the commercials. And when I peek in on my baby, before I climb into my own bed, I’m feeling the glow of commiseration brought on by the most sublimely realized art.

Art?

Yes, art. Now, sssssh. I’ve got to get up at the crack of dawn, warm the bottle, change the diaper, brew the coffee, dress the baby, feed her the bottle, run in and out of the shower, pack the bag, put on the jacket…