Athena's Head

On Writing, Parenting, and Pop-Mom Culture

Martha Nichols

Martha Nichols
Cambridge, Massachusetts, USA
March 18
Editor in Chief
Talking Writing
I am Editor in Chief of Talking Writing, an online literary magazine. I'm also a contributing editor at the Women's Review of Books and a freelance journalist in the Boston area. Martha on Twitter: (I cross-post most OS entries on my website Athena's Head. I am not paid a cent for any reviews or product references—these opinions are mine alone.)


Editor’s Pick
OCTOBER 27, 2011 6:49PM

Adoption on TV: "Modern Family" or "Parenthood"?

Rate: 9 Flag

A gay dad sits at the dining-room table, making a scrapbook about baby Lily's adoption. A tiny conical hat perches on his head. It's all the funnier because this dad—ex-college-football player Cameron—is so large.

"Look at this." Cameron reverently holds up the hat.

"Oh my God!" cries Mitchell, his partner. "Lily's little hat that we bought her at the airport in Vietnam!"

Cameron puts it on, its red ribbons trailing beside his cheeks.

Mitchell eyes him. "Remember how cute she looked in that?"

"Remember how I used to wear it and walk around and act like I had a giant head?" Cameron giggles.

"That was good acting," Mitchell says.

Politically incorrect? Over-the-top satire? Yes on both counts, but that's why a sharply written sitcom like ABC's Modern Family gets at the uncomfortable  aspects of adoption—especially for us white middle-class adoptive parents.

In many ways, Cam (Eric Stonestreet) and Mitchell (Jesse Tyler Ferguson) are the fruitiest of gay stereotypes, but the hat episide of Modern Family that aired last spring ("Two Monkeys and a Panda") veers plenty close to my own adoptive family. My Vietnamese adoptee is older than Lily—and he's not been saddled with an Asian flower name—but he's got his own tiny conical hat.

It's taken me awhile to appreciate Modern Family, so I'm only now watching Season Two on DVD; the show is currently in its third season. But I'm up to date with another show also in its third season—NBC's Parenthood—and lately I've been struck by the contrast between the two when it comes to adoption.

I used to enjoy Parenthood, even when this drama about the Braverman family in Berkeley, California, slopped into preciousness. Zeek (Craig T. Nelson) and Camille (Bonnie Bedelia) Braverman oversee the clan from an artsy Berkeley house that's probably just up the hill from Chez Panisse. The four adult Braverman children are by turns believably angst-ridden and annoying. But their kids make the show engaging. And the evolving story of young Max, diagnosed with Asperger's Syndrome in Season One, is notable for its unvarnished look at how hard this can be on a family.  

Yet, the current story involving the quest of Julia Braverman-Graham (Erika Christensen) to adopt a baby is not only an inaccurate portrayal of the ups and downs of the adoption process. It leans heavily on a heroic adoption narrative—just the sort of thing Modern Family skewers brilliantly.

The basic narrative goes like so: Two prospective adoptive parents, after battling with infertility, deeply long for a child. They have plenty of money, a huge extended family, a homey house. Meanwhile, the pregnant birthmother is destitute, without family, friends, or the child's birthfather. She struggles mightily over whether to give up her baby for adoption, but when she decides to do so, the music swells. She tearfully surrenders her infant. The End.

In Parenthood's version of this cliché, Julia and her husband Joel (Sam Jaeger) have a biological daughter, but Julia can't get pregnant again. They decide to adopt, and Julia, a high-powered lawyer, flings herself into the bureaucracy of private domestic adoption. Before you can say "adoption agency," she's frustrated. She can't just make it happen by writing a check.

This isn't what bothers me about the story, though. On many levels, adoption is a financial transaction. Julia's chop-chop way of going about it is true to her character. One of her brothers even says she's trying to "buy" a kid. To whit: In the September episode "Hey, If You're Not Using That Baby," a young woman named Zoe (Rosa Salazar) conveniently turns up pregnant and ready to get rid of "it." Zoe runs the coffee cart at Julia's law firm, and Julia shadows her like a vulture. Before long, she asks Zoe flat out if she can have her baby.

It's improbable soap opera, but I like Julia's upper-middle-class myopia. I like the fact that Zoe, who's attractive and bright, responds, "Um, no."

But here's what I don't like: In under a month of TV air time, Julia has become a saint. She's apologized to Zoe. In a recent episode, Julia takes her to the hospital when she feels ill, then brings Zoe home for the night. In Julia's fancy kitchen, the unhappy pregnant girl gets to observe perfect-dad Joel playing with their daughter. Soon after, Zoe shows up on their doorstep again, saying, "If you still want to have my baby, you can have it. You have a nice family."

On Parenthood, it's all hugs and tears—though maybe not The End, because the adoption plot is still unfolding. Maybe once Zoe has her baby, she'll change her mind. And if the adoption does go through, maybe it will be an open one in which Zoe remains part of the Braverman saga. Wouldn't that be cool?

The run-up isn't promising, however. I can just picture the Braverman clan rallying around the new adoptive parents after a few predictable twists. For example: Zoe almost revokes her consent; her ne'r-do-well boyfriend shows up and tries to stake his own claim; the baby is born with a disability—but saint-like Julia and Joel love the child anyway.

If only adoption were being handled as realistically on Parenthood as autism is. The heroic baby hand-off is never the end, as many real birthparents and adult adoptees will tell you. Even the broad satire of Modern Family, which portrays only the adoptive parents' point of view, gets across how much these gay dads have changed over the months they've been parenting.

With Parenthood, there's reason to hope that the ensuing adoption complications may yet rise above clichés. I'm drawn to the Bravermans, a big happy clan, TV fantasy though they are. I long for a form of community my own tiny family of three doesn't have.

But when a drama like this strikes too many false notes, I end up feeling manipulated. As someone who grew up in a working-class suburb south of Berkeley in the same era, I already have a tough time suspending disbelief. I know how much the Bravermans reek of a particular kind of groovy privilege.

Most TV families—and Modern Family is no exception—are middle-class and inwardly focused, and they generate an ever-expanding tangle of unrealistic plotlines. But if the characters expose all their nasty, unpretty edges, I stay hooked. That's especially true for an adoption story, which is why I've grown fond of those argumentative, accessorizing gay adoptive dads.

Their comic outrageousness—and obvious self-deceptions—cut far closer to the truth than a thinly disguised melodrama with a pretty soundtrack.



Links to Episodes:

"Two Monkeys and a Panda" (Modern Family, aired March 2, 2011)

•  "Hey, If You're Not Using That Baby" (Parenthood, aired September 20, 2011)

"Nora" (Parenthood, aired October  11, 2011)

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I watch both of those shows. As an adult adoptee, I marvel at the simplicity in these stories. A few weeks ago the gay couple were actually throwing a party to celebrate that they were "planning" to adopt again. In real life adoptions take months, if not years. It seemed a bit too soon for celebrations and congratulations. And Julia, I lost count of how many times they said "buying" a baby. That sounds so crude. Even if it is partially true, paying for medical care and legal expenses could constitute buying, I can't imagine the "talk" they will have with their adopted child. "Honey, we wanted you so much, money was no object. We paid top dollar!."
Thanks for the post Martha. Rated.
Thanks, Joan. I know what you mean about the chatter about "buying" the child on Parenthood—it's almost as if the writers felt this made the story more edgy so they could get away with the usual adoption melodrama. As for the gay couple throwing a party to announce their next adoption, I read that as satirical.

But still, even there, the adoptive parents get through the process with ridiculous speed and ease.
I'm an adult adoptee who was born in the secretive, closed-adoption era, so I'm continually amazed and somewhat envious of open adoptions and acceptance of difference in our culture -- that was so not the case when I was growing up. I've never watched Modern Family but I used to watch Parent hood, more for the exquisite interiors than anything else. The acting, and the air of "groovy privilege" eventually wore thin.
My ten year old son is adopted. We waited too long to try to get pregnant, and after several IVF's, a run in with a local attorney driven adoption agency that boasted of its ability to coerce the birth mother's into keeping their promise, we met my son's birthmother through an agency whose allegiance was solely with the birth mother.

As an attorney, dealing with a teenage birth mother, I was relieved and beholden to the agency for their professionalism and their concern for this young girl. We brought the baby home from the hosipital as foster parents. The birth mother and father had until the hearing to terminate their parental rights to demand their son back. It was made very clear that they could, with the agency in attendance, come "day or night" to take their baby.

We agreed to this to avoid our son being placed with a 3rd party foster family pending the termination. The wait was 3 months. I don't think the birth parents ever really considered changing their minds. When our attorney notified us that the parental rights were terminated, we then schedule our "Big Ass Adoption Party" and invited everyone we knew to attend. The date was on the week end following the adoption hearing during which a District Court Judge held our son loveingly in her arms while she executed the order that made our son official.

We would have agreed to anything with his birth mother to keep him. She could have had an open adoption, but she declined. She is not a part of his life at all. And he rarely asks about her.

I have read extensively on the potential feelings of loss an adopted child typically experiences at some point in his life. I have had many conversations wth my son about this. He seems to feel no loss and to feel that he exactly where he wants to be. This may change in the teen age years and we will deal with it.

BTW, my son is columbian and we are german-irish. And I love Modern Family.

Yes, it is over the top, but Mitchell and Cameron, the gay couple, and Gloria and Manny. the Columbian mother and son, are my favorite characters - oh bother, I like all the characters because the writing is supurb. For all the sterotypes, the writers deftly brust them one by one with their comic twists.

I especially like the time that Gloria had her WASP husband, Jay, shouting and beating on chicken breasts with has shoes tied around his neck when he quesitoned her Columbian traditions. Her screen shot through the fourth wall admitting that she just made that stuff up was priceless.
I don't have much personal knowledge of adoption but enjoyed very much your take on these two shows and what they are doing with the subject.
I actually liked the "planning to adopt" party because I think everyone needs a giant store of goodwill and fortitude to go thrugh the process.

Parenthood I stopped watching because I just wanted them all to STFU to often to keep watching. However, from your description it seems they are taking on both the concept of "just adopt" as in "why don't you just adopt?" and the concept of the angst of overseas adoption and private adoption where, let's face it, money is being exchanged for a child, regardless of whether you call it expenses or "they way business is done in that country" or some other euphemism. That element has a lot of issues for people and is one of the majot reason we didn't go either of those two routes. I'd bet money they aren't handling these topics well, but I give them points for even raising the topics and not just going down the trumpets from heaven adoption is easy arc.

Modern Family's characters are all over the top, but contain so many grains of elemental truth that it all works. I like that the relationship between Cam, Mitchell & Lily is about the challenges of *parenting* not the challenges of *adoptive parenting*.
I don't care how well-off a family is , adopting a baby is excruciatingly difficult these days. No way could the Bravermans' affluence assure them of ever being able to adopt a baby -- though it's true that their middle class status and extended family might give them an advantage over less affluent folks.

I agree with Martha, though. Right now Julia is just too darned nice to be believeable, and the coincidence of a pregnant woman turning up in her office is also too much to believe.

But I love "Parenthood" and I'm counting on the writers to make this scenario more realistic.

We adopted our son 30 years ago. And I still feel like he's a miracle in my life. And I'm so, so grateful to the woman who was willing to carry her pregnancy to term and entrusted him to us.
I will not speculate about a situation that I am completely removed from. I can only agree that none of it is cut and dried or easy. As for the T.V. show, I have a quarter that says before all is said and done both mother and child will be adopted.
If you want realism, the story line would take close to two very emotional years, would likely as not involve one or more trips overseas, thousands of dollars (5 figures), and a lot of inactivity concluded with an amazing flurry of hyper-activity when that call finally arrives and you find yourself caring for a baby that you've had about 5 days to prepare for.

Yeah, the Braverman story line is very unrealistic, but then again, the entire Braverman clan is about as close to depicting a typical American family as, well, the Beverly Hillbillies were 45 years ago. (But I still kind of enjoy watching Parenthood for some strange reason.)
i watch Parenthood and think despite it's flaws is still one of the best viewing experiences currently on TV. given the sorry state of what is on that's not saying a tremendous amount. i have steered clear of Modern Family because i perceived it was an agenda driven vehicle for trendy PC types. maybe at some point i will give it a go given the dearth of other interesting programing. what surprises me is that anyone still wants to adopt. given all the crap folks have to go through it is amazing. if i am not mistaken though the rates of adoption have been falling and there have always been more children in need than parents available. given the economic situation i would not be surprised if the number of adoptions didn't fall further down.
Modern Family really does have some of the sharpest, funniest writing on TV, but it's interesting to see that there are others out there who like Parenthood, despite its manifest flaws. It makes me feel like it's less of a guilty pleasure.

With the Julia adoption scenario, though, I'm not sure I can hang out with the Bravermans much longer. I'm not asking for strict realism; actually, I don't think I want that. But I would like something that feels more accurate and emotionally genuine in the adoption scenes that do go racing by.

If this does become a depiction of an open adoption, with Zoe still in the picture, then that would actually be a wonderful thing--taboo-breaking in the sense that divorcedpauline means. On Parenthood, it will probably end up being soapy and way too sloppy sweet, but I'd put up with it if the show creators go in that direction. I'll applaud.

As to why people still adopt, paultunes, it's because they want a family. I know it's more complicated than that, and that there are all sorts of reasons--good reasons--for not having children, and my husband and I almost went that route. It would have been fine, too. But with our son, it's now more than fine. Raising kids, biological or adoptive, is one big heck of a crap shoot, but it's also transformative.

As for adoption rates dropping, that's true for international adoptions, but I don't think that's the case for domestic adoptions.
I really liked your explanation of the cliches and had to remember back to EVERY movie about adoption I have ever seen...and you're right. It's nice to hear your perspective. Thank you!!
Really insightful comments. I like both shows and usually enjoy the portrays of complex characters. You made me think.
Interesting insights into both shows. I agree that the adoption plot in Parenthood was not done well--I was disappointed in the show for the way they've been making it seem so simple. Cam and Mitchell, on the other hand, are my favorites and the way they portray adoption is much more refreshing.
I am an adoptive father of two girls from China, 13 and 15 years old. Most stories, especially on television never portray the reality of adoption. But, very rarely do any prime time TV shows convey reality. My pet beef is with newspapers who always refer to adoptive children as, well, adoptive children when the issue isn't germane at all. This is often the case when you read obituaries. I wouldn't mind a reporter referring to a child as adoptive if the story was about adoption. But once a child is part of a family, it doesn't matter how they got there.
I'm a lesbian adoptive mother of two African-American children, so this post immediately drew my attention.

Like others, i have a love-hate relationship with Parenthood (the show, not my life). Adore Lauren Graham and Peter Krause, so hard to turn away... but the quick neat endings drive me batty. I havent even seen the adoption episodes, so thank you for sparing me that aggravation.

As an LGBT parent, i've been resistant to Modern Family, but for a different reason. Through our local Rainbow Families group, i've met scads of gay dads and lesbian moms, and none of them act as ridiculous as Cameron and Mitchell. With one notable exception (which reminds me, I should blog about HIM), the parents in our group are responsible, conscientious, pragmatic people who adore their children but refuse to raise over-indulged mini-tyrants. We're also too much aware of our secondary role of community educators about LGBT people/parents/families. to squander it in the kind of over-the-top antics shown on Modern Family.

When my partner and I started the domestic adoption process eleven years ago, we knew it would be expensive and lengthy but somehow didn't fully appreciate what a roller-coaster of not knowing when we'd get the call, or if the birthparents would change their mind before the final hearing. I didn't really start breathing again until the official adoption decree was in my hands.
Outtacontext: I agree about the "adoptive" tag being added to references to adoptees in print. It's often not relevant. But sometimes "adoptive" or "adoptee" is relevant—or writers avoid the terms because they still carry the whiff of taboo—and I wonder what you think of the way the media has handled adoption and Steve Jobs of late. I'm thinking of writing about that at some point.

CiceroGal: Yeah, I know. Cam and Mitchell are over-the-top gay stereotypes, and that's one of the reasons it took me awhile to warm up to the show. And yet, I've grown unexpectedly fond of them. The "Mother's Day" episode in which Cam gets cast as "Mom" and is pissed about it was telling, I think—especially when Cam is dragged into a photo with a bunch of women and kids as an "honorary mother."

So many of Modern Family's characters are over the top—including my favorites, Gloria and Manny—that I usually forgive the excesses of the gay plotline. Maybe I forgive too much. But I see more of my own family life in Mitchell, Cam, and Lily than I do in the straight couple with three bickering kids.
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