‘Gilmore Girls’ Was the First Time I Saw a Family Like Mine Thrive
I was always looking for mirrors of myself in books and stories, but I had no mirrors of my single mother experience
“Have you seen that show Gilmore Girls? You should really watch it. You would love it.”
I must have heard variations of this recommendation dozens of times over the years, to the point where I was almost determined not to watch the damn show. It was irritating how many people would say things like “Oh! You’re totally Lorelai!” which I didn’t understand because I hadn’t seen the show, because I didn’t really watch any shows, because I was too busy being a single mom and raising my daughter on my own.
So by the time I finally sat down to watch the show, it was with my daughter, who was 14 now and finally old enough to watch with me. All seven seasons had already aired, but thanks to the miracle of syndication, we started from the beginning. We curled up together on the couch to watch a show that, it turned out, looked achingly familiar. There was Lorelai Gilmore, raised in an upper-middle-class family, throwing her future away by having a baby as a teenager, and yet building a life and a family with her daughter centered on authenticity and humor and love.
Oh. So that’s why people kept trying to get me to watch this show.
I know how important it is to see yourself in narratives. Even as a young girl, I recognized how crucial “mirrors” were in my voracious reading, as I was continually drawn to characters like Jo March, and Harriet the Spy, and other independent, bookish girls. Each time I read a story about a girl compelled to scribble in notebooks or flout social convention, it seemed more and more possible for me to do those things too. And maybe it was, at least in part, my love of rebellious girls in literature and movies that made me think it was possible, when I found myself pregnant at 17, to make the choice I did.
But I didn’t have a roadmap for what my and my daughter’s life could look like after I took that leap. I didn’t have a template for a family that was just one mom and one daughter. I had to create something new out of my own wild imagination, and I can only now see in hindsight how limited that imagination was.
I didn’t have a template for a family that was just one mom and one daughter. I had to create something new out of my imagination, and I can only now see in hindsight how limited that imagination was.
There was only one college narrative of which I was aware, sheltered as I was. You graduate from high school at 18, you go away to college and live in a dorm and stay up late talking about philosophy and go to parties and go to class and eat terrible dining hall food and have exciting hook-ups and maybe do a study-abroad semester or a summer internship (unpaid, of course, but the experience!) and in four years, you’re done.
That wasn’t what college looked like for me. I finished high school at 19 because it took me an extra year because baby, and I went off to college with my one-year-old daughter in tow. We lived off-campus, because you can’t have a baby in the dorms, and my college life was less about parties and philosophy and more about getting my daughter to daycare and taking the bus to campus and rushing back as soon as class and my work-study job were over and fixing terrible meals with the cheapest ingredients possible in our tiny kitchen and pulling all-nighters when she had the croup and staggering to class without the reading done. It didn’t look anything like the brochures, because there were no brochures for my experience; there were no models in my personal canon of narratives for what I was trying to do.
In preschool, when the teacher asked my daughter to draw her family, she drew two identical figures, one taller, one smaller, smiling under a yellow sun. She was happy with her drawing, but when I saw it, I cried. That wasn’t a family; that was an incomplete drawing. A holding pattern. That was a temporary arrangement, a blip along the way to becoming a real family. Determined to give my daughter everything she needed, I was convinced that a “real family” was an essential piece of that.
My inability to see that a two-person family could be full and whole and complete led to some of the worst decisions of my early adulthood. I was fixated on creating a family structure for my daughter that echoed what she saw on television and in her picture books. I was trying to fix her reality so that she would see herself mirrored in those stories. I was single-mindedly husband-searching in order to lend some legitimacy to our little family unit, rather than recognizing how rich our life was already. This obviously put enormous pressure on the relationships I got into during that time, as each person I dated was immediately being put on trial as a potential husband and stepfather. I’m ashamed to admit that, in those relationships, I acted like the worst stereotype of a needy woman, unable to reach any kind of actualization without a man in her life.
I was fixated on creating a family structure for my daughter that echoed what she saw on television and in her picture books.
The irony was, I wasn’t really needy at all. I wasn’t looking for someone with whom to share the load of parenting — I had that shit handled. I didn’t need financial support — I preferred to be financially independent and insisted upon carrying my own weight in any partnership. It was as if I didn’t really want a partner for myself, but just to fill in the picture so we could look like a “normal family.” As if normal was a thing that really existed.
In kindergarten, my daughter drew another family picture. This one had the two of us in the center, but she also drew her grandparents, and her dad, and her aunts and uncles, and my closest friends, the ones who had stepped up to be honorary aunts and uncles in her life. The paper was crowded with figures; they barely fit on the page, all surrounding the little girl at the center of the picture with wide smiles and open arms. My daughter was wiser than me. She didn’t see anything lacking.
But part of me still thought our life was somehow lacking — until I started to find other cultural narratives, new mirrors that reflected our family the way my daughter saw it. In Gilmore Girls, Lorelai and Rory have built a life independent of Rory’s father, independent of Lorelai’s parents, but still emotionally interconnected with the family of choice that surrounds them. They are not lonely, or incomplete. In the sixth episode of the first season, Lorelai throws Rory a birthday party and the whole town comes, and it’s wild and fun, and it’s crystal clear that everyone in attendance adores this kid and has contributed to her upbringing in various loving ways. Of course Lorelai can’t be everything her daughter needs all on her own. But she has set up their life, welcomed others into their world, so that Rory’s life is as rich and warm as Lorelai’s own childhood was lonely and cold.
I didn’t discover the show until later, but I wonder how my life would have been different if it had existed as part of my own internal bibliography of possible narratives when I first took that leap at 17. If I had had Lorelai Gilmore as a model, back when I was first trying to figure out how our life could still be rich and worthy and joyful, with just us two. Knowing how susceptible I am to these narratives, knowing how desperately my younger self in particular hungered for examples and archetypes, would it have made a difference? Would I have been just a little more confident, seeing a prototype of how this had been done before? Could I have been just a little more comfortable, a little more relaxed, if I could have seen a little bit of my own possibility in the fast-talking, entrepreneurial, independent Lorelai Gilmore? I don’t know. But I do know what it meant to my daughter.
I wonder how my life would have been different if I had had Lorelai Gilmore as a model, back when I was first trying to figure out how our life could still be rich and worthy and joyful, with just us two.
When she was in high school, we often watched the show together. Even though our family had expanded by then, with the addition of my husband and two more children, watching Gilmore Girls was something we did together, just the two of us. And I saw how important it was for my daughter to see herself in Rory, to see her experience of having a young mom mirrored on television — and to see an echo of our own unusually-close bond, the product of having grown up together, of living for years as a solo pair, knowing each other more deeply and completely than a parent and child in the midst of the noise of a larger family usually do. It was important for her to see, too, the darker side of that closeness — Rory’s need to break away, to establish an identity separate from the sometimes suffocating love and attention of her mother. My daughter got to reap the benefits of having those experiences modeled for her.
When they released the reboot mini-series, Gilmore Girls: A Year in the Life, of course we watched it together. My daughter — now 23 and out of college, living in her own apartment and leading her own independent life — came over and we camped out on my bed, bingeing as much as we could get through in an afternoon. We grabbed each other’s hands, we cried, we laughed, we threw our arms up in frustration at Rory’s directionlessness. But mostly we just reveled in the nostalgia — not just for characters we’d grown to love over years of watching the show (Lane! Sookie!), but for the feeling of being seen, of being recognized, of having something of the truth of our strange and marvelous life reflected on the flickering screen before us.
This is why we need diverse stories, why the world hungers for a multiplicity of narratives. Not just so we can understand the experiences of others — though I did have several friends over the years who admitted that Gilmore Girls had provided a window through which they could understand my weird life a little better — but so that everyone can have that delicious and uncanny feeling of seeing some aspect of their own truth resonating within someone else’s story. To see a roadmap for their own possibilities. I know that for me and my girl, it meant the world.