Thursday, April 29, 2010

Food for thought: Sunshine chronicles one family's intergerational story of motherhood

One college summer in the 90s (when we lived in different cities), Jim and I swore off television.  It was too easy to fall into a cavern of sitcoms when working 40+ hours a week in the fast food industry.  The safety valve for our media-obsessed hearts was an exception for PBS.  At the time we made the agreement, the PBS clause felt like agreeing that we could eat our fill of baby carrots: wholesome and oppressively dull.

While the agreement ended up dramatically reducing our overall television time and cultivating a load of in-jokes about Jack Horkheimer's trippy astronomy program, it also gave us hours of engaging conversation about great documentaries.

In my opinion, PBS has only improved since the 90s.  Nova's episode on cuttlefish introduced me to the geek of the seas.  I now admire the clever little cephalopod despite my general repulsion for mollusks.  A documentary on the last day of Herculeaneum (the town smothered by Versuvius' explosion) started an important internal dialog regarding fear, disaster, and extinction.

PBS consistently shows me unusual perspectives that spur different considerations of the universe.  Independent Lens is a household favorite because we live over 2 hours from any independent cinemas that show documentaries.  Every Tuesday offers the opportunity of seeing an independent filmmaker chronicle some aspect of human life.

On Tuesday, May 4th (check your local listings) Karen Skloss' autobiographical Sunshine chronicles two women who find themselves unmarried and pregnant during college.  One, a young woman in the 1970s (and not incidentally, Skloss' birth mother), does not tell her parents, moves to a home for unwed mothers, and gives the baby (Skloss) up for adoption.  The second woman (filmmaker Skloss) chooses, in the 90s, to raise her child as a single parent sharing responsibilities with the father.

The contrast between the mothers' choices and experiences is engaging, but (for me) the incredible social change regarding unwed/single motherhood in just one generation is astounding.

At one point Skloss and her birth mother visit the now deserted home for unwed mothers.  A former staff member guides them and comments that although there are still young pregnant women, the home became obsolete and was replaced with service centers.  They ponder when and how mores shifted to bring single motherhood out of quiet cloisters and into the mainstream.

Community ends up taking a central role in the film.  Skloss' Catholic parents love and support their daughter and granddaughter despite ideological differences regarding her single motherhood.  The father of Skloss' daughter articulately compares single fatherhood to single motherhood.  Skloss' birth mother, aunt, and grandfather open their lives to Skloss and her cameras.  The viewer sees the community that supported the birth mother's decision to give up her child, the community that supports Skloss in keeping her child, and the present day community of the birth mother.

For all the single mother is discussed in the news, the conversation rarely transcends stereotypes and statistics.  Sunshine offers a personal perspective that illuminates a cultural need to talk more effectively about parenting without partners.

When I read the excellent Queen Bee Moms and King Pin Dads, Wiseman's observation that the single mom is the most likely target for exclusion in a parent community surprised me.  It makes sense though that we may struggle with people whose position we cannot easily articulate.  And while we have brought unwed mothers into the light redefined as single mothers, social structure hasn't made many accommodations.

The film spurred some household discussions about current attitudes toward domestic adoption.  At times, the film presents the idea of parents giving up unplanned children as antiquated.  Maybe domestic adoption fell out of practice after the highly publicized adoption reversals of the 1990s, but (as the great-grandchild of an adopted son) I truly hope adoption remains a viable choice today.

Watch the show next Tuesday and let us know what you think.

***Baby Toolkit is the hobby blog of geek parents who would otherwise squander their time watching television and boring their family, friends, neighbors, and coworkers with all its incredible content.  Instead we now pester you with it.  DICLOSURE: PBS' Independent Lens sent us a preview disc so we could watch Sunshine in advance (rather than saying "hey, did you catch that great show in May?" sometime around August).  Being on Independent Lens' advance viewer list makes us very happy, but probably has minimal cash value.  We received a burned DVD and a brochure (total value: $3 with a huge side of happiness).  We are also Amazon affiliates, so if you buy through our links (thank you!) a portion of your purchase goes to power the syndicate that is Baby Toolkit.


Anonymous said...

This was my second viewing, and once again my heart was full!

Karen raises a question about changes in society. The term “fallen woman” is no longer in our lingo, at least, it’s never said out loud. “Single parent” has replaced “unwed mother”. I am happy about these changes. I am relieved that we are now living in times when someone, like Karen, can make a film about her journey, and a television station is willing to broadcast it. This would not have been possible in the 1970s.

I wonder, what process triggered these changes in our thinking and prompted society in the US to be willing to think more inclusively?

Thanks, Ramona Kar
PS: I have begun a blog on the film at

Travis Spence said...

I have some very good friends currently going through the domestic adoption process. My sense, from what I hear from them, is that international adoptions are falling out of favor because there is such a huge potential for things to go wrong (like the recent case where the woman sent her adopted son back to Russia). I can't cite statistics but I think that domestic adoptions have gone down in number as more women choose to be single mothers (as the stigma has decreased while social support has increased) but it's far from going away.