Over the holidays, I binge-rewatched “Parenthood” on Netflix. It’s an almost-oldie but goodie. I know there are more current and cutting edge tv shows about special needs, but hey, at my age, it’s fun to watch shows where the parents are played by actors I recognize. And since some of my blog readers still watch “Friends” devotedly, we can all be retro tv dorks together. Heh.
“Parenthood” is about The Parents Braverman, and their four children, their children, and spouses. That’s about it. As my husband likes to tease, I just like watching shows where people go about their lives and have adventures, and everyone shares a bottle of wine and chops radicchio and takes pleasure in being who they are at the end of each episode. He gets me. This is why I keep him around.
I’m amused at how much fun I have watching fictional special needs families go about their make believe lives. I could just look at my own family.. Part of the appeal is the wishful thinking aspect–in some ways, the Braverman family and its many offshoots are what so many of us wish we could be. They have a large and closely knit extended clan, so they never have to face crises alone; everyone in the family wants to learn about autism, and they all want to help (the show somewhat predates the Aspergers-no-longer-exists-as-a-diagnosis-moment, and Aspergers and autism are often used interchangeably); Kristina, the autism mom, gets cancer, and the family rallies around–so many of us put off even significant health issues because we worry that there is no one to pick up the slack and keep the all-important routine going; they are not a particularly religious bunch, so they come together for secular American family time–baseball and football, trick or treating, Thanksgiving, working endlessly on old cars and tractors and whatnot–you know what I mean; the characters engage in wholesome activities like gardening, painting, boat maintenance, directing school plays, etc, and no matter what, they all troop out to watch one another face fears at open mic night, or to help a kid win a school election, or even to spend quality time at the downtown food pantry; can’t find a special ed school that will suit, so they open their own!; and best of all, everyone, even the kids-in-law, gets to be valued for being themselves, and there’s always someone to talk to. What’s not to love.
The autistic character, Max (played by Max Burkholder) is the son of the oldest Braverman offspring, Adam (Peter Krause) and his wife Kristina (Monica Potter). They also have an older daughter, Haddie (Sarah Ramos). Because the show’s developer is an autism parent, so many moments slide into place effortlessly. The-various-conditions-formerly-classified-as-Aspergers diagnosis means that the show can play around with mainstream vs special ed, and of course, allows for plot lines that place the family more often in inclusive settings where meltdowns are often mistaken for brattiness by bystanders, and also allows us to see how desperately a kid like Max wants to fit in.
Of course, not everything about the family resonates with me, and that’s fine, since autism manifests in such varied ways. For one thing, I cannot imagine a scenario where “overlapping chatter” would be fine with A, whereas in Adam’s house alone, they do that constantly–Max will go off on an obsessive tangent, talking incessantly, while Kristina tries to explain, Adam tries to troubleshoot, and Haddie tries to siphon some of the parental attention for herself. It drives me mad to listen to it because years of G and A have changed me irrevocably. I find myself falling silent in group settings, overwhelmed by the overlap. This morning, I was standing behind A zipping up his jacket, and I was singing softly in his ear, and I was keenly aware of him listening, not only to my song, but to the rustle of his jacket, the teeth of the zipper, the traffic going by. This is a detail-oriented parenting that makes us experts in hyper awareness, but can also diminish our crowd coping skills..
Additionally, Kristina is too often portrayed as the classic helicopter mom, and her over-explaining monotone sets my teeth on edge. To be fair, I do know plenty of moms like this, haha, so she’s being true to a certain type. And she’s so pushy about getting Max invited to birthday parties and play dates! Honestly, I would run away screaming from an overeager, overbearing fellow mom like her. And yet I love Kristina. She is all of us autism moms; she cries too easily, loves her twitchy kid even when his screams are driving her to insanity, and wants to learn whatever it takes to be a better advocate for Max. Plus she isn’t just about autism parenting–she is that sister-in-law everyone wishes they had, and she works with other people so beautifully, putting only good vibes out into the universe because it’s what you strive for when said universe has socked you with a tough row to hoe, and you want to be someone worthy of that challenge.
It’s in the small details that the show excels at special needs portrayal. For one thing, any time they show special needs kids other than Max, they take such care to aim for diversity and varied behaviors. And I also love the unspoken trust that flows between Adam and Kristina. They’ve learned out of necessity to lift each other up. So much is conveyed through just those two–how Kristina has buried her career goals for too long, and how Adam has to force himself to make time for leisure that isn’t just slumping wearily on a couch after a day with too many demands. How, when they argue, they don’t tear each other down, and they hear each other out as equals. And they never forget that before everything happened in their lives, they were friends and lovers first, and somehow, the show manages to strike that perfect note without getting all preachy and tedious.
I’m sure I will return to this show in future posts, just because it’s my cozy old buddy, but for now, I want to focus on two specific storylines pertaining to special needs.
One of them is kind of melodramatic because it needs to be interesting for tv, but it involves Adam’s younger brother Crosby succumbing to impulse and sleeping with Max’s behavioral aide, Gaby. The fallout is terrible for Adam’s family. Gaby quits and goes to work with another kid. Max is left with no therapist, and his deteriorating behavior and high stress affect everyone. Adam, usually the levelheaded and uniting force, refuses to forgive a repentant and bothersome Crosby, and I always stand up and cheer when, in a scene where the parents come over and ask Adam to look kindly on Crosby’s misdeeds, Adam calls out the whole family on their refusal to see that autism is everything when it’s actually in your home. You can’t put it on par with “I was late for work” or “Oops, drunken night of debauchery.” It’s every day, summoning up patience you don’t have, putting your own needs somewhere so low down that you forget to retrieve them later, and YASSSSS, it is jarring to be asked to act like it’s not by family members who get to go home and do something else but you don’t because autism. The show doesn’t even say these things, it just implies them, which is wonderful.
It’s powerful to see that idea on screen. So often, we get emotionally blackmailed into giving more to everyone around us when, the fact is, we (special needs parents) became the strong ones out of stark necessity. And we can’t always give that strength to people who aren’t our kids because the terror always lurks–that we will have none left. That our kids will never need less from us, and we’re never going to be done. That we’ll start to resent beloved people who mean well but are asking too much. That we won’t give enough to our marriages, and what will we be without this person who has walked through fire with us. And that we can never adequately explain this to people who think we are retreating into self-absorption.
The other storyline I wanted to touch on is when Max learns he has Aspergers, and his parents are figuring out how to explain it to him. Adam can’t stand the idea that Max may now see himself as a limited person, and he convinces a reluctant Max to play hooky and go to an amusement park for a father-son day. Unfortunately, the roller coaster they were excited about is shut down for repairs, and Adam ends up having to chase after Max, who melts down hysterically after having been promised a now-denied reward for deviating from his cherished routine. The irony is heartbreaking. Max didn’t even want to skip school, and he was actually doing it to make his dad happy.
Anyway, when Adam is talking to Kristina about it, he cries. And you know I cry too. I find it so real, the way he has no ego around his wife. They are each other’s judgment-free refuge, and they both know what it means to keep hoping for a transformative parenting moment that remains elusive, one where you and your kid manage to have a good time without feeling like you had to coerce your kid. And where you get to share something meaningful with a kid who never asks about what you used to be like. Where you don’t feel lonely, with all these words to say but a kid who only wants to live in the moment.
I don’t know. I just really respect a show that can draw a portrait so honestly. Thanks for wallowing with me in special needs tv land!
Jason Katims, Ron Howard, creators. Parenthood. Imagine Television and Universal Television. 2010-2015.