Monday, May 03, 2010

Unwed Mothers and Daughters: Sunshine

Evidently, we now live in the Murphy Brown era. As a case in point, Karen Skloss’s story demonstrates history repeating itself, but during radically different times. The adopted daughter of a single birth mother, Skoss became an unwed mother herself, yet never faced any appreciable social stigma for her decisions. Contrasting her experiences with those of her birth mother, Skloss examines evolving norms of motherhood in Sunshine (trailer here), which airs tomorrow on PBS as part of the current season of Independent Lens.

In the early 1970’s, Victoria, Texas was the sort of small town where everyone knows everyone else’s business. That meant Skloss’s birth mother Mary had to take her business elsewhere when she got pregnant while a college student in hippy swinging Austin. That place was Marywood, The Home of the Holy Infancy, a Catholic refuge for unwed mothers. However, when Skloss and Mary revisit Marywood together, they find the dormitory in mothballs, because “its services are no longer required.”

Watching Sunshine (Mary’s name for Skloss that was not to be), one gets a sense that the filmmaker may well be the most fortunate single mother ever. Her adopted-real parents, Pat and Jerry Skloss, seem loving and supportive, not even resenting Mary’s reappearance in her life. Though they never married, she can also count on Jeremy, her daughter’s father, who is committed to remaining a part of their lives. Yet, Jeremy tellingly illustrates the atypical nature of her experience when he tells Skloss: “On a social level I find it sad how many times I get complimented for doing what I should be doing, and it bothers me.”

Throughout Sunshine, viewers will be waiting for Skloss to broach a blindingly obvious subject, considering she was born two years after Roe v. Wade. Yet she never asks if Mary ever considered an abortion or even felt she had sufficient access for it to be an option. Perhaps, the filmmaker was afraid of what she might have heard. Though conceding there might be some social costs resulting from the de-stigmatization of out-of-wedlock child rearing, she assures viewers she would never want to turn back the clock on women’s rights. (Of course, it is always possible Skloss raises this issue in a festival edit, but cut it for the broadcast version.)

Despite Skloss’s apparent politics, Sunshine could easily become staple viewing for the pro-life movement with a few minor edits. Indeed, it shows two single women choosing life under vastly different circumstances. Although the film’s highly personal perspective might limit the audience, it has some interesting insights to offer on societal attitudes towards illegitimacy. It airs tomorrow (5/4) on most PBS outlets.