MTV's 16 and Pregnant came out the summer of 2009, when I was finishing up my freshman year of college. It was the only reality show I watched, and for an hour, it didn't matter if I didn't know what I was going to major in, or what I would do with the rest of my life, or even the rest of my summer. I was not 16 and pregnant, so everything was okay.
I still tune into Teen Mom, the 16 and Pregnant spin-off following four now-twentysomething women raise their young children, for a very different reason — they are a portrait of a young adulthood I'll never have, but am fascinated and impressed by. They balance childcare, careers, their own education, their romantic relationships, and complex family dynamics as I struggle to motivate myself to pack a lunch the night before work. For years, Teen Mom has made headlines with the kind of drama that is needed to sustain a reality show. But in between are quiet moments of modern young motherhood that are incredibly compelling. It's easy to get lost in the Teen Mom drama (Google "Teen Mom" and "arrests" if you want to lose an afternoon). But the small parenting moments, examined almost in slow-motion when compared to most TV shows portrayals, make the show so watchable. We see Maci, who's currently pregnant with her third child, go over her 7-year-old son Bentley's school supply list item by item, gently teasing him about his chances of finding a first grade girlfriend. We watch Tyler and Catelynn, fan favorites, who gave up the daughter they had as teens, feed their new baby as they figure out honeymoon plans. These small moments can be tinged with drama (while their adorable baby enjoys lunch, Tyler's dad, fresh from prison, tries to wiggle his way into their honeymoon plans) but they're really what moves the show along.
What makes a compelling show, even a reality show, are the stakes. While watching Teen Mom, it's hard not to compare the stakes to other shows depicting the lives of twentysomethings, like Girls. Beyond the obvious difference (characters versus real people) it's become hard to be invested in the ever escalating drama of the Girls girls since there always seems to be an escape valve. They can go to grad school or move to Japan or do whatever they want to leave an uncomfortable situation behind, as they're only responsible for themselves. Throughout Teen Mom, even as some of the women have made questionable parenting decisions (and life decisions in general), there has always been the inescapable weight of responsibility. Their decisions to take a job to make a better life for themselves and their kids, their choices in partners, in how they spend their Friday night, for good or bad, affects their child. This also includes the decisions of the "teen dads," and watching their evolutions has been consistently fascinating.
The Teen Mom OG finale highlighted the relationship between the moms and the people working behind the scenes. It was a reality show third wall break, that yes, led to extended footage of Farrah, the teen mom best known for her foray with adult entertainment, screaming at producers. But it also featured frank discussions about what postpartum depression can mean for mothers and their partners, and showed that even after years of tension, estranged parents can come together for the sake of their kids. Teen Mom is not highbrow entertainment, but it is entertaining, and the subjects it tackles are things we still need to be talking about.