Most mothers have never glued lashes to their daughters’ eyelids for pageants. They’ve never, as the moms on Toddlers & Tiaras have, gotten their children’s legs spray-tanned. They haven’t stood in the audience, cuing their kids’ routines with kissy faces and arm sweeps, hollering, “Get it, girl!” and “Sparkle, baby!”
But they may have let their kids sit too long in front of the TV, faces slackened and minds empty. Allowed themselves to get flustered by their children’s obstinacy, throwing up their hands, yelling. Bribed their daughters with chocolate to wear itchy dresses for Easter photos. Become overly invested in the outcomes of elementary-school spelling bees.
Indeed, the moms on reality TV are not as different from other mothers as they initially appear: They are judged by—and often fall short of—the same rigid standards as those in other spheres. The conceits of unscripted programming may put these failures into sharper relief, but the supposed deficiencies are deeply familiar.
Take I Didn’t Know I Was Pregnant. The series, as the title suggests, is about women who don’t know they are with child until they find themselves giving birth. Some of these women have medical conditions that obfuscate their pregnancy symptoms; in other cases, the signs are clearly there. Those in the latter group are easy targets for our ridicule. In a bit during her 2010 Bravo comedy special, Whores on Crutches, Kathy Griffin exaggerates a southern drawl as she describes all the classic markers of pregnancy (weight gain, morning sickness), only to add: “How could I have known?!”
I can’t look away from I Didn’t Know I Was Pregnant, and I know from talking with other moms that I’m not the only one. Perhaps we get voyeuristic glee from watching circumstances different from our own; we smugly feel that we could never be so foolish. Or maybe we watch for the same it-could-happen-to-me jolt we enjoy during a scary movie. One reason for the show’s resonance among a certain group of my friends, though, is undeniable: All of us are mothers, and I Didn’t Know I Was Pregnant shakes us to the core.
The show’s premise violates a notion that the sociologist Sharon Hays refers to as “intensive mothering”: the cultural idea that women should singularly devote their time, resources, and emotions to their children. The women on I Didn’t Know I Was Pregnant, who aren’t aware that they’re about to be moms, fail at this before they’ve even given birth.
“Intensive mothering” is a narrowly defined yet widespread model for parenthood. It may seem biologically self-evident: Obviously, moms should closely attend to their kids, right? Yet, as Hays points out, the idea that they should be constantly emotionally available to their children, monitor them fully, and occupy them with organized activities is a modern, Eurocentric ideal. Even in the United States, in late-17th-to-early- 18th-century New England, fathers were the ones charged with instilling discipline and “moral fortitude” in their children. As the historian Stephanie Coontz has written, “Exclusive child care by mothers and sole breadwinning by fathers have been exceedingly rare in history.” And the extent to which moms lavish love and affection on their kids is certainly new.
Despite its historical novelty, intensive mothering now seems to define what many consider acceptable parenting. Reality-TV shows may be filled with a wide array of moms (celebrity moms, survivalist moms, polygamous moms, drag moms, Kris Jenner), but ultimately each is measured against this strict standard—and, often, found lacking.
Viewers are harsh in their rebukes. On social media, fans dissect and debate these mothers’ choices, from what their children eat and how they dress to their very presence in the spotlight. Articles, listicles, and tabloid items feature titles such as “The Worst Parenting Moments From Reality TV Moms” and “The 10 Worst Moms on TV Who Had No Business Having Kids”—a list including fictional characters such as Cersei Lannister from Game of Thrones as well as Kris Jenner. References to the fathers are minimal or absent in these pieces. For instance, on a 2012 list titled “The Worst Parents on Reality TV,” all were mothers, except for two cases in which fathers—Stephen Fowler of Wife Swap and Jon Gosselin of Jon & Kate Plus 8—were listed alongside their female co-parents.
Jon and Kate are a particularly egregious example of the collective assumption that the responsibility for children’s well-being lies primarily with their mother. Their show, originally titled Jon & Kate Plus 8 and later Kate Plus 8, initially focused on the couple’s everyday lives with their toddler sextuplets and older twin daughters. Eventually their marriage unraveled and Jon moved out of the home. During the show’s heyday, and even in the years following, Kate’s alleged misdeeds were regular tabloid fodder. Is she getting plastic surgery? Is she dating her bodyguard? Should she have really gone on Dancing With the Stars? Implicit, and sometimes explicit, in these questions is purported concern for her children’s welfare. One website, for instance, included an array of 15 photos “proving” Kate’s lack of fitness as a mother. “Is Kate Gosselin a good mom?” it asked. “Does she have the temperament to raise eight kids with love, calmness and kindness? Evidence to date says the answer to both questions is ‘no.’” The article briefly mentioned Jon but did not dwell on him. Indeed, although he is reportedly now estranged from at least some of his children, he is still largely left out of these discussions.
It’s not that the mothers on reality TV are all “bad moms,” because there’s no universal, objective standard to measure them against. When it comes to the intensive model, however, many do fall spectacularly short. From the Toddlers & Tiaras moms who wax their 5-year-olds’ eyebrows to Jenelle in Teen Mom 2, who has been accused of flouting the rules of car-seat safety, these women fail the litmus test of modern motherhood—and, in doing so, reveal the parameters of the test itself. Viewers’ reactions to them highlight the narrowness—and the tensions inherent in—the intensive model.
Mothers are expected to be involved, but not so involved that they border on helicoptering or smother their children, for example. Unscripted TV often tells the cautionary tales of these extremes. Kris Jenner, for instance, is portrayed as simultaneously too inattentive and too attentive to her kids. On the one hand, in early episodes of Keeping Up With the Kardashians, when Kylie and Kendall are preteens and young teens, they appear to have copious amounts of unmonitored free time; in the first episode alone, Kylie swings on a stripper pole and the two mix cocktails. On the other hand, as a “momager,” Kris has her hands in every aspect of their professional lives—something they often complain about on the show. Her ability to somehow straddle these negative extremes is likely part of what lands her on so many “Worst Mom” lists.
Navigating this balance is a central narrative thread on Celebrity Wife Swap, a show on which two spouses (usually wives from very different social backgrounds) temporarily switch families. In the inaugural episode, the former Growing Pains actor Tracey Gold trades places with the singer Carnie Wilson of Wilson Phillips fame. Carnie, clearly the more laid-back of the two, begins by sharing that their family motto is “Love before rules” and that she has a set of people who help with the children and the house, because she has been traveling extensively for performances. Tracey describes her family as “extremely organized” and lists the set of chores she completes personally every day. Throughout the episode, the show hints that Tracey does too much for her kids (say, picking out her teen’s clothing for him) while Carnie does too little. As the narrator explains, Carnie “isn’t used to running a house without an army of help.” In the end, when the two come together to talk about what they’ve learned, Tracey tells Carnie that her family should spend more time together and be more physically affectionate, and Carnie says that Tracey could stand to be less of an “organization freak.” Each learns not to stray too far from the sweet spot of the intensive ideal.
Intensive mothering also carries the paradoxical expectation that women have a natural aptitude for parenthood but still must solicit the input of other, better-informed people. This tension comes into play on Supernanny, where the British nanny Jo Frost teaches American parents how to deal with their unruly children. From the beginning, the show frames Jo as an expert with “15 years of child-care experience.” While seeking Jo’s professional advice, the women on the show often express guilt about not knowing how to handle their own kids themselves, as they ostensibly should be genetically predisposed to do.
But Supernanny does more than expose the individual impossibility of intensive motherhood; it also reveals how, at the societal level, the model falls apart. One episode from 2005 follows a “stay-at-home working mom,” who has difficulty attending to her 4-year-old twins and their older brother while sitting in front of the computer for her job all day (a scenario that likely seemed far more unusual before the coronavirus pandemic). Ultimately, Jo suggests that she cut back on her hours to be more present for the children. While this was seemingly an easy fix, viewers may be left to wonder whether it’s economically feasible for this family. More broadly, they might wonder what happens to those who are unable to provide the expensive labor of intensive mothering.
The idea of continuously monitoring your kids is class-specific, in part because it has to be. Indeed, in a study analyzing several dozen kids from different backgrounds, the sociologist Annette Lareau found that while middle-class parents tend to place their kids in organized extracurriculars, working-class parents are more likely to “leav[e] leisure activities to children themselves.” The framework of intensive mothering tends to label these as “good” and “bad” strategies, respectively. Just look at the real-life arrests of those who, struggling to arrange child care, leave their children unattended while they go to work or participate in job interviews. Ultimately, only the privileged have the bandwidth to be intensive.
Of course, some moms, on reality TV and elsewhere, stray from this model and don’t get as much flak for it. On Snooki & Jwoww: Moms With Attitude the two Jersey Shore cast members laugh together about their deficiencies as parents. But, as the media scholar Racquel Gates has pointed out, one reason some viewers are able to find their narratives compelling and smile along with their misadventures is that the two women appear white—or “in Snooki’s case [she has] a certain degree of racial ambiguity.” They “get to be ‘bad’ with no consequences by adopting the same markers of rebellion that would characterize Black mothers as unfit,” Gates writes. Not only are the relatively privileged more able to adhere to the ideal, but viewers are more forgiving of them when they do stray from it.
The expectations of intensive motherhood are culturally specific and cannot possibly apply to everyone, yet many cling to them as though they are universal truths. Which moms are legitimate? What are their “natural” roles within families? Reality television highlights the inconsistencies and tensions in these expectations but also shines a light on how surprisingly conservative they are. For all of the bizarre premises and zany personalities, these shows enforce some extremely rigid social rules.
This article was adapted from Danielle Lindemann’s forthcoming book, True Story: What Reality TV Says About Us.