I am not kind to my mother. I’m not generous, playful, or affectionate. I’m not the kind of person my friends and other family members know me to be. When I speak with my mom, I’m cold, detached, and bitter, resentful over how I was raised and treated when I was growing up.
In recent years, she’s made sincere efforts at connection—she calls me every Sunday to talk—but restricting her access to my life is how I cope with my perception that she only loves me now that she’s older and lonelier. She didn’t get to know me growing up, I tell myself, so she doesn’t get to know me now.
My mom doesn’t know where I work.
My mom doesn’t know my partner’s name.
My mom won’t read this newsletter.
My mom doesn’t know I write for The Atlantic.
My mom doesn’t know I’m featured in The New York Times today.
My mom doesn’t know my successes or struggles.
My mom will get a phone call from me twice a year, on her birthday and Mother’s Day.
I’m not proud of my relationship with my mother. I hate that I’m uncomfortable when I see Mother’s Day posts on Instagram, and that I’m even more uncomfortable with those sympathy posts about people who lost or don’t have close relationships with their mothers. I’m embarrassed when my mom calls when I’m with company, and my friends overhear me grunt my way through a one-sided conversation. I must sound like such an asshole, I think. And maybe I am. I’m such an ungrateful asshole.
I think about it the most when I watch Better Things—a series on Hulu that will end its fifth and final season next week—because the kids on that show are such assholes. But the show is wonderful.
Better Things is an offbeat comedy-drama about family, but without the kinds of cohesive, traditional plots that you might expect. Instead of a clear story, the show’s loose structure is more like a series of vignettes that follow Sam (writer and creator Pamela Adlon) as a divorced single working mother of three kids. The unfocused narratives might make it hard to hook into the show at first, but if you stick with it, you’ll be rewarded with a funny, sad, and often unspeakably beautiful look at the intersections of being a parent, child, friend, and provider. You can’t help but love Sam as she tries her best to be a loving, responsible parent in a family that often doesn’t notice or care about her efforts.
What sets Better Things apart from other dramedies is how it doesn’t scrub the ugly, confusing mess of human interactions. Character development isn’t neat, linear, or organized; instead, Better Things makes art out of everyday family struggles by reflecting the messiness of your own.
There are a million tiny moments I fell in love with, but my single favorite episode is “White Rock,” in Season 2. And if you’re not up for starting a new series, the episode is worth watching as a standalone. In it, Sam takes her three adolescents on a short vacation from Los Angeles to visit her uncle and aunt on the Canadian coast. After arriving in White Rock, Sam learns over dinner that she has another aunt who she never met, and it sends her down an emotional spiral; meanwhile, Sam’s kids, who are normally bickering, angsty balls of emotion, transition from their L.A. selves into different people—more thoughtful, calm, and caring—as they unexpectedly bond with their great-uncle and great-aunt.
Each of Sam’s kids has small moments of self-discovery in White Rock. The scenes are subtle enough that they’re easy to miss or take for granted, but watching each kid learn about a different kind of life outside of L.A. is to watch them find new parts of themselves.
For the oldest daughter, Max, those moments come through a bond with her great-aunt. Max is struggling with insecurity as she feels like her friends back in L.A. are doing so much better than her, and her great-aunt helps talk Max through her feelings.
“The worst part is seeing all my friends get smarter,” Max says. “I’m so stupid … I feel stupid.”
“That’s because you’re aware,” her great-aunt says. “And you’re starting to catch a glimpse of what a big world you’re in, and you feel small.”
For the middle child, Frankie, it’s a conversation with their great-uncle about the life he built in White Rock, and the possibility of another kind of life than the one they knew.
“You made all these chairs?” Frankie asks.
“Aye. And the table. And the roof above your head and the floor beneath your feet.”
“You made all of it?” Frankie asks again.
“Aye … That’s how life goes. You build it. And you grow old. And you die in it.”
For the youngest, Duke, it’s finally speaking with a woman whom she had seen looking out at the ocean for days. Duke believes the woman is a ghost—a “Sad Lady” from an old tale—and finds the courage to approach her at sunset, swallowing her fear in favor of compassion.
“I don’t know if you’re here right now,” Duke says. “Or if you’re real, or if I made you up, or if you’re dead, or if you’re the Sad Lady … But I brought you these flowers. And I wanted to just say that I hope you’re okay, and that you can not be sad, and that you feel better. And I’m not scared of you.”
Better Things thrives in those small moments.
As I slowly build a new relationship with my mom, the series offers hope that even though my family is messy, it can also be beautiful if I learn to recognize those fleeting seconds of meaningful connection, or affection, or growth. And if I can catch them, if only for a moment, Sam’s kids won’t feel like such assholes. And I won’t feel like one, either.
Thanks to everyone who shared their moments in response to last week’s essay about Tony Hawk: Until the Wheels Fall Off. They were inspiring to read, but I have to refocus on Marc: He indeed convinced his wife to watch Everything Everywhere All at Once, and now I have to hold up my end of the deal. I told Marc to convince his wife to watch the movie, and that if she didn’t like it, I would give away five books this week. And as much as Marc loved Everything Everywhere All at Once, his wife couldn’t get past the chaos, dildos, and hotdog fingers.
Welp, here goes: This week’s book giveaway will have five winners, and the books are The Martian by Andy Weir (if you’re into science), Clean by James Hamblin (if you’re into debunking skin-care myths), Beginners by Tom Vanderbilt (if you want motivation to learn something new), Deep Work by Cal Newport (if you’re into productivity), and They Called Us Enemy by George Takei (if you want to read the graphic memoir of an icon). Just send me an email telling me if you’ve ever gone on a family trip, and which books you’re interested in, and I’ll send one to five random people who hit my inbox. You can reach me at email@example.com, or find me on Twitter at @JordanMCalhoun. And if you’re in New York, here’s your reminder about my book launch at the Strand next Friday, April 29. Just make sure to get your tickets online, because they won’t sell them at the door.
In the meantime, 4 days (!) until my memoir comes out. We’re in the endgame now. Preorders help the book a ton, so it’s your last chance to support in that way. And coincidentally, Barnes & Noble has a 25% off sale for preorders that ends today.