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Growing Up with a Single Mom Isn’t Like Life on “Gilmore Girls”

Gilmore Girls

Courtesy of Warner Bros Television

Alysse ElHage - published on 11/10/14

Single mothers do their best, but life without a father hurts.

For the past month, I’ve been binge-watching my favorite TV show Gilmore Girls along with millions of other fans. I’ve been a Gilmore Girls groupie since the show’s debut in 2000 on the WB, and I was thrilled when I heard the entire series would be available on Netflix beginning this October. For the uninitiated, Gilmore Girls stars Lauren Graham (now in Parenthood) and Alexis Bledel (The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants) as the inseparable single mother-daughter duo known for their witty banter and coffee and junk food addictions.

Yet while I adore the show, I’ve always been bothered by how it glamorized single motherhood. Gilmore Girls made life with a single mom look mostly fun, while completely ignoring the negative effects of growing up without a father, and portraying dads as basically unnecessary extras. As a woman who grew up with a single mom, I can’t get through an episode of the show without comparing my radically different reality to Rory’s idyllic life on Gilmore Girls.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m not saying single moms can’t make it on their own and even beat the odds. My mom raised three kids by herself, ran a successful business for 20 years, and put me through private schools. In fact, she is one of the strongest women I know, and she proved time and again that a woman can raise kids alone when life demands it. But that doesn’t mean that life with a single mom is anything like Gilmore Girls.

A recent Daily Dot article noted, Gilmore Girls “led the charge for alternative families on TV,” presenting “a mother and daughter who are more like friends than family, an important representation of a changing America.” Gilmore Girls represented the reality in America back then and today of more single women raising children. In the years since the show aired, births to unmarried women have soared and now account for more than 40 percent of all births, causing researchers to dub unwed childbearing the “new norm.” Gilmore Girls was on the cutting edge of this new normal, but the show missed a golden opportunity to present an honest picture of single motherhood from Lorelai’s perspective, and of life without a father from Rory’s.

In fact, Gilmore Girls’ depiction of single motherhood is lacking in three distinct ways that I believe are important to acknowledge.

1. Single motherhood is hard.
There are times when women and children are better off away from the child’s father, such as in cases of domestic violence or child abuse, but I am not addressing those situations here. For most people, single motherhood is a “make the best of it” experience, particularly for children. My mom did the best she could with limited resources. But the message of Gilmore Girls is more “we are better off on our own.”

When the show opens, Lorelai and Rory share an idyllic mother-daughter friendship in picture-perfect Stars Hollow, where neighbors look out for one another. When they need help, someone is always there to lend a hand — mainly Luke, who owns the local diner and not only feeds the Gilmore girls but helps out around the house, loves Lorelai, and serves as a fill-in father to Rory.

We never witness much of the early years, but Lorelai’s backstory is dramatic: a 16-year-old runaway and teenage mom who raises a child with no help from the child’s father or her own parents until Rory is a teenager. We learn that Lorelai earned her GED and worked her way up from maid to manager at a local inn. While there are hints of past hardship, the early years are so romanticized that any sense of Lorelai’s struggle as a single mom gets lost in the translation.

Most single moms, including my own, would admit that, while rewarding, raising children alone is extremely difficult. Single moms are forced to do the job of two parents and are often overworked and stressed. I remember times when my mom was so worried about how to support us she just curled up in a ball on the bed, sobbing. Never one to stay down long, she always managed to find a way, but nothing about raising three kids alone was easy.

Single mothers can succeed financially, but this often comes after some economic deprivation (in fact children in single-parent families are four times as likely to live in poverty). Single moms who do make it do so at great sacrifice to themselves and sometimes their kids, and they need a lot of support. But unlike on Gilmore Girls, it rarely comes from an entire town of great neighbors. More often, assistance comes from other female family members, government aid, daycare, and unfortunately boyfriends/new husbands who sometimes turn out to be total losers.

2. “Life without father” is often unstable.
The reality of “life without father” — a term made popular by sociologist David Popenoe’s book to describe the experience of growing up without one’s biological father at home — is never even hinted at in Gilmore Girls. In fact, Lorelai does just about everything at an impossible level of perfection. She always puts Rory first, and works hard to build a stable life for them both. More importantly, she never allows the men she is dating to sleep over at her house (with the exception of Max), or to move in with them (while Rory is at home). All of these things are excellent in theory but very hard for most single mothers to implement.

Growing up, I experienced a very different life from Rory’s. It was often stressful and chaotic, and I had to grow up too fast. While I never doubted my mother’s love for us, she was lonely, and understandably went searching for Mr. Right, but usually found Mr. Wrong. A series of men came in and out of our lives, bringing disruption and sometimes danger to our world.

When I was around 12, my mom ended her second marriage to a man who was a danger to me. It was the difficult but right decision to make, but it left her with two additional children who would be raised without a father, and required her to work even harder to support us. As the oldest, I was often left in charge of my siblings and had to do a lot of the cooking and cleaning. It was a role I resented at times, especially during my teen years, and one that sometimes interfered with my relationship with my mom.

Research shows that I was not alone in my experience. In general, children of unmarried moms suffer increased levels of family instability, as their mothers form new and often fleeting romantic relationships. As a result, children of single mothers face a number of negative social, emotional, and psychological outcomes, including a higher risk for abuse or neglect (especially from mothers’ live-in boyfriends), teen parenthood, and dropping out of school.

Instead of reality, though, Gilmore Girls gives us a superwoman single mom who successfully shields her daughter from the negative effects of life without a dad. But even if we assume for the sake of argument that women like Lorelai exist, there is one role even the best single mom cannot play.

3. Longing for a father has a lifelong impact on girls.
Gilmore Girls is also missing the painful reality of father hunger, which can loosely be defined as a child’s natural longing for a dad. Rory’s father, Christopher, is mostly absent, although he shows up during her teen years. Several times, Lorelai comments that if she had married Christopher, they would not have “made it” or done as well in their individual lives. On one hand, Lorelai is correct that getting married as a teen is risky, and Christopher is a bit of a drifter. But we get the message that because she chose not to marry the father of her child, all of them, including Rory, are better off. Intentionally or not, Gilmore Girls communicates that fathers are nice to have around, but not necessary.

To be fair, there are moments when Rory reflects on her absent father and even admits to wishing her parents were together. Rory is always overjoyed to see Christopher, and when he asks Lorelai to marry him, she is visibly disappointed when her mother says no. Still, we rarely see Rory experience the fullness of desiring her father and its negative effects.

Father hunger has been a constant in my life since my parents divorced. Saying goodbye to my father after a visit always ripped my heart in two, leaving me in tears for hours and sometimes depressed for days. No matter how much time I spent with him, it never felt like enough, and I have always struggled with sharing him with the other people in his life. His absence impacted me in other ways, leaving me insecure and prone to depression. My hunger for more of him also led me to form unhealthy emotional attachments to young men as a teen and young adult.

Here, again, research shows my experience was not uncommon. For girls, father absence has been linked to lower self-esteem, emotional and behavioral problems, depression, early sexual activity, and teen pregnancy. It can lead girls to form unhealthy emotional attachments to unworthy men, leaving them vulnerable to exploitation and abuse. It can be more subtle, too, such as an unexplained emptiness and an attempt to fill that void in unhealthy ways.

On the flip side, research shows that girls raised by involved and loving fathers deal with stress better, and are more likely to succeed academically, as well as in their careers and their relationships with men, including in marriage. When a father is missing — for whatever reason — a little girl loses something irreplaceable. And no matter how amazing her mother is — and Lorelai is an awesome mom — she can’t fill that void in her daughter’s life.

Can a single mom and her children make it on their own and even thrive? Of course they can. In some ways, I am living proof — I made it through high school, college, and even graduate school, and have now been happily married for years. But that doesn’t mean that my life was easy, and it bothers me to see single motherhood depicted as fun when it is extremely difficult for mothers and their children. Those of us who grew up in divorced families or with absent fathers are not any less than those who grew up with married moms and dads, but we do have more obstacles to overcome that deserve to be acknowledged.

I still rate Gilmore Girls as one of most entertaining TV shows ever produced. But it lacks credibility in its failure to reflect the real-life struggles that millions of women, like me, actually experienced growing up in single-mother households.

Alysse ElHage is a freelance writer and associate director of research for the North Carolina Family Policy Council. This article originally appeared in Verily Magazine  and is reprinted here with permission.

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