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Popular Culture Association in the South

"I'm the Worst Mother Ever": Motherhood, Comedy, and the Challenges of Bearing and
Raising Children in "Friends"
Author(s): Eleanor Hersey Nickel
Source: Studies in Popular Culture, Vol. 35, No. 1 (FALL 2012), pp. 25-45
Published by: Popular Culture Association in the South
Stable URL: https://www.jstor.org/stable/23416364
Accessed: 19-03-2019 10:21 UTC

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Eleanor Hersey Nickel

"I'm the Worst Mother Ever":

Motherhood, Comedy, and the Challenges of Bear

ing and Raising Children in Friends

In season nine of Friends (1994-2004), Rachel Green brings

her infant daughter home from the hospital and experiences her firs
crisis as a mother when Emma will not stop crying. Phoebe Buffay
and Monica Geller search through child-raising books and call ou
suggestions, but nothing works. Rachel wails: "I'm the worst mother
ever!" Although Monica reassures her that she is just new at this, Ra
chel's statement rings true. She conceived the baby by mistake during
a one-night fling, realized at her baby shower that she knows nothing
about children, and has just made the unwise decision to wake the
baby from a sound sleep because she believes that "I can do whateve
I want—I made her." In the end, Monica puts Emma back to sleep by
applying a method from a book: swinging the baby from side to side
("The One Where Emma Cries"). This scene of three women and
baby exemplifies many aspects of mothering for these characters: the
have almost no instinctive knowledge about raising children, they re
ceive little help from their own self-absorbed mothers, and they learn
primarily from trial and error. Mothering does not come naturally to
any of them as they make their way through the dizzying array of
reproductive options and ideological battles surrounding motherhood
at the turn of the twenty-first century. Through its humorous explora
tion of lesbian parenting, surrogacy, single motherhood, and adoption
Friends demonstrates how comedy can be used to subvert norms an
make visible the dilemmas of motherhood in a postfeminist age. Whil
its writers challenged the traditional view that families must include
married father and mother with biological children, they appealed to
a diverse audience by exploring a liberal expansion of possible family
forms rather than a radical redefinition of gender roles.

Subversive Comedy on Friends

Friends enjoyed ten years as a popular and profitable series
and continues to thrive in syndication, but critics have argued that i
lacks a feminist agenda and fails to represent real social problems.
Lynn Spangler claims that "Friends has had little connection to i

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Eleanor Hersey Nickel

sues" and questions its slight attention to feminism and birth control
(223). Naomi Rockier points out that the "self-absorbed" Monica,
Rachel, and Phoebe are hardly feminist role models since they "do
not exhibit a consciousness that their personal struggles with careers,
relationships, and even issues such as single motherhood are part of
a systemic, political context" (245). This is certainly true, since the
characters display no interest in political action and seem unaware that
they are benefiting from that of the feminists who came before them.
My main point of disagreement with these critics is their fail
ure to consider Friends as a comedy, whose purpose is not simply
to reflect the bleakness of reality but to find humor within viewers'
everyday struggles. With its wide array of motherhood types—Carol
Willick and Susan Bunch as lesbian mothers, Phoebe as surrogate
mother, Rachel as single mother, Monica as adoptive mother, Erica
as birth mother —Friends demonstrates an ingenious ability to bring
out the comic potential of the quotidian realities of bearing and raising
children. Nothing is too minor to receive comic treatment, from bro
ken condoms to pregnancy mood swings, from breastfeeding to diaper
genies, from baby showers to babysitters. While the show does not
teach women to become feminists, it does recognize the daily chal
lenges that are often misunderstood by spouses, bosses, and co-work
ers, allowing women to join in a community of laughter that supports
their need to maintain self-respect, sexual fulfillment, and careers dur
ing their child-raising years.
Scholars have remarked on the potential of sitcoms to be lib
erating despite the powerful limiting factors of corporate sponsorship
and network greed. Darrell Hamamoto argues that "the situation com
edy has offered oppositional ideas, depicted oppression and struggle,
and reflected a critical consciousness that stops just short of political
mobilization" (2). Gerard Jones recognizes the genre's realism: "Of
ten sitcoms try to duck away from external realities, using gimmicks
to distract us, but if they fail to grapple at some level with the fears and
desires of a significant number of Americans, they usually die fast" (6).
Feminist critics argue that sitcoms have played a unique role in rep
resenting the fears and desires of women. Bonnie Dow's Prime-Time
Feminism examines The Mary Tyler Moore Show ( 1970-77), One Day
at a Time ( 1975-84), Designing Women ( 1986-93), and Murphy Brown
(1988-98), arguing that sitcoms are the type of program "in which
women are most often and most centrally represented and from which
television's most resonant feminist representations have emerged"
(xviii). Lauren Rabinovitz gives further examples such as Laverne &

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Motherhood in Friends

Shirley (1976-83), Kate & Allie (1984-89), The Golden Girls (1985
92), and Roseanne (1988-97), claiming that the sitcom "has been the
television genre most consistently associated with feminist heroines
and with advocating a progressive politics of liberal feminism" (145).
In the conclusion to Television Women from Lucy to Friends, Spangler
admits: "As I approached revisiting these sitcoms, I fully expected to
be righteously indignant about most images of women and girls on
television throughout the past fifty years, but I was not" (237). Perhaps
because Friends is an ensemble show that does not focus only on fe
male characters, critics have yet to consider its extensive treatment of
women's issues in relation to the liberating and subversive possibili
ties of its genre.
Friends should also be considered in its specific institutional
context, as one of a series of "Must-See TV" hits of the 1990s that
brought critical recognition to NBC due to their targeting of upscale,
educated viewers and their highly literate humor. Amanda Lötz argues
that shows like Friends, Seinfeld ( 1990-98), Frasier (1993-2004), and
Will & Grace (1998-2006) represent a high water mark of quality that
was recognized by multiple Emmy awards: "The network produced a
programming brand of distinction by delicately balancing the need for
popular success with the need for artistic innovation and critical excel
lence" (273). While NBC was owned during this period by the giant
corporation General Electric, Christopher Anderson shows how GE's
solid economic base and stable leadership allowed for more freedom
to experiment and create quality programming. David Marc includes
Friends on a list of 1990s comedies that captured his attention and
exemplified "the genre's increasing capacity to adapt itself to higher
standards of traditional dramaturgy and language play" (xv). These
critical assessments provide a context for a sympathetic viewing of
Friends as a sophisticated comedy that opens up a space for examin
ing modern motherhood.

Introduction to Unconventional MotherhoodrThe Lesbian Couple

Friends begins to subvert traditional concepts of motherhood
in its second episode, "The One With the Sonogram at the End," in
which Ross Geller learns that his ex-wife Carol is pregnant with his
baby and plans to raise it with her lesbian partner Susan. It is sur
prising that the show's creators, Marta Kauffman and David Crane,
jumped into such a potent issue when the series was vulnerable to be
ing cancelled if its politics were too controversial. Yet it is appropriate
for Carol and Susan to pave the way for the other women's nontradi


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Eleanor Hersey Nickel

tional reproductive choices, given the prominence of lesbian women

in debates about motherhood at the time. Maureen Sullivan's inter
views with lesbian mothers in 1994, the year that Carol announced her
pregnancy on Friends, suggest that these families represent a radical
undoing of traditional gender roles. She claims that "the deliberate
ness and consciousness with which lesbian-coparent families come
into being have promising implications for the normalizing and trans
formative role these families play as they alter cultural understandings
of kinship" (229). Sullivan demonstrates that motherhood is a cher
ished goal for many lesbians, who often engage in a daily balancing
act between resistance to patriarchal expectations and accommodation
to conventions of family life.
The Friends writers support the right of lesbians to be moth
ers, immediately casting Ross as a patriarchal Neanderthal if he tries
to oppose his ex-wife's decision. The episode begins with Ross ar
ranging figures of cave men at the Museum of Prehistoric History.
When Carol comes to announce that she is pregnant, Ross involun
tarily poses in the same stunned manner as the cave man behind him,
inviting viewers to laugh at his "prehistoric" response to this current
issue. Yet we sympathize with him, since he has been emasculated by
his lack of power or authority in his relationships with these wom
en. The writers also comically juxtapose the lesbian couple's blissful
sexual fulfillment with Ross's sexual frustration. When Ross gets a
beeper so that Carol can contact him when she goes into labor, he con
tinually gets calls from men seeking a homosexual prostitute because
his number is too close to 55-JUMBO. As a heterosexual man, he can
get no satisfaction from these offers. When Carol finally calls, she in
terrupts Ross in the middle of a romantic scene with Rachel that could
have led to the sexual encounter that he has desired for years. His re
sponse, "Great, now I'm having a baby," both mocks his Neanderthal
selfishness and strengthens his role as the endearing comic figure who
never catches a break ("The One With the Ick Factor"). In this way,
the writers make a progressive claim that lesbian motherhood should
be socially acceptable while acknowledging that men often feel threat
ened by a family model that does not include them.
"The One With the Birth" makes fun of other male characters
for ignoring Carol's childbearing needs but continues to portray Ross
sympathetically due to his strong desire to be a good father. The male
obstetrician flirts with Rachel and responds to Carol's cries of pain by
pushing her back onto the bed and saying, "There you go," obviously
privileging his own sexual pleasure over his responsibility to his pa

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Motherhood in Friends

tient. When Joey Tribbiani claims that he plans to be "in the waiting
room, handing out cigars" while his future wife is in labor, Chandler
Bing jokes that "Joey's made arrangements to have his baby in a mov
ie from the fifties," indicating that such behavior is inappropriate for
fathers of the 1990s. Meanwhile, Susan and Ross fight over who has
a greater connection to the baby, ironically while they are locked in a
closet with Phoebe. Ross complains that he does not get to live with
the baby, but Susan counters that his role has more social approval:
"There's Father's Day, there's Mother's Day, there's no Lesbian Lover
Day!" Phoebe convinces them to stop fighting and cooperate in the
baby's care. In typical sitcom fashion, the episode ends with reconcili
ation as the three parents cuddle the baby, deciding to name him Ben
after the name on the uniform that Phoebe wore to escape from the
closet. This closet symbolism points to the importance of openness
and equality for lesbian parents, with unconventional Phoebe as the
voice of the new morality.
Since Carol and Susan are secondary characters, we learn
relatively little about their daily lives as the series continues. How is
Ben's surname decided? Who takes care of the baby while they are
both working? Kelly Kessler points out that the lesbians on Friends
do not challenge the values of the mainstream viewer since they "ex
ist in a relatively problem-free world. They embody the ideal hetero
normative relationship: bliss, monogamy, and a shared home" (135).
Not only are Carol and Susan the most mature and financially stable
characters, but "[t]he lesbians are the natural mothers, highlighting the
main character's foibles, immaturity, and shortcomings" (137). The
focus shifts to Ross's hard work as a father, whether he is modeling
traditional masculine behavior by giving Ben a Gl Joe action figure or
emphasizing Ben's paternal Jewish heritage through an explanation of
Hanukkah. By representing the father's importance to this parenting
team, the writers allow their defense of lesbian motherhood to appeal
to a mainstream audience.

"The Hardest Thing I'd Ever Have To Do": The Surrogate Mother
While the mothers of Carol and Susan are absent from
Friends, perhaps symbolizing the lesbian couple's break from tradi
tion, the other main female characters' mothers are all too present as
examples of bad parenting. There are probably multiple reasons for
this. Supportive Baby Boomer moms could too easily become senti
mental and would obviate the Generation X characters' need to figure
things out on their own. Generational conflict is always a great source


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Eleanor Hersey Nickel

of comedy. Since these older mothers were not liberated and appear
to have suffered from a lack of purpose and identity, the writers may
also be acknowledging the struggles that the second-wave feminists
sought to redress and implying that new forms of motherhood are nec
essary if women are to have more balanced and healthy lives. Phoebe,
Rachel, and Monica may not be feminists themselves, but they are
different from their mothers in part because they have benefited from
the achievements of the second wave.
Phoebe's mother seems to be a casualty of an era when un
wed motherhood was stigmatized and covered up. In season one, we
learn that Phoebe's father, Frank, had abandoned the family and that
her mother, Lily, killed herself when Phoebe was a teenager. Yet the
plot thickens in season three, when Phoebe meets an old friend of her
parents, Phoebe Abbott, who turns out to be her biological mother.
Apparently Frank, Lily, and Phoebe were a high school threesome,
and when Phoebe got pregnant, she gave the baby to Lily to raise.
We never learn whether Lily's suicide was influenced by the burden
of raising two children alone or the need to keep a secret about their
birth. The tragicomic excesses of this plot point to the social upheav
als of the 1960s, which left many mothers of the next generation con
fused about which models to follow. Since neither Phoebe's father, nor
her birth mother, nor her adoptive mother succeeded in raising her to
adulthood, she has to look beyond her own family to discover how to
be a successful mother in the 1990s.

Despite this chaotic family situation, Phoebe decides to be

come a surrogate mother for her half-brother Frank Jr. and sister-in-law
Alice, who have been unable to conceive. This is another bold move
for a sitcom, given the ongoing public debates about the exploitation
of birth mothers, the selling of babies, and the psychological dam
age to both mother and infant that have taken place since the ground
breaking legal custody battles over Baby Cotton in England in 1985
and Baby M in the United States in 1987. Bioethicist Ruth Macklin
argues that both Roman Catholics and radical feminists find surrogacy
to be morally repugnant, a new form of prostitution (58-60). Princeton
University political scientist Melissa Lane adds that Right and Left
"agree that surrogacy commercializes and degrades what should be
sacrosanct, the Right stressing the way that it violates the sanctity of
the marriage bond while the Left stresses the additional exploitation of
women which surrogacy constitutes in a regime of patriarchy" (129).
The state of New York, where Friends takes place, has outlawed com
mercial surrogacy and refused to enforce non-commercial contracts

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Motherhood in Friends

(Rao 24, 27). While the Friends writers chose the least controversial
arrangement—altruistic, gestational surrogacy—Phoebe's pregnancy
and childbirth raise many ethical questions about this new form of
motherhood that can be explored with relative safety through comedy.
"The One With Phoebe's Uterus" emphasizes the altruistic na
ture of Phoebe's surrogacy, since the subject comes up when she asks
Frank Jr. and Alice what they want for a wedding gift. When they ask
her to carry their child, she responds: "I was thinking of like a gravy
boat." Although surrogacy is presented as a gift, the comparison to a
gravy boat introduces the question of its value in relation to a product
that Phoebe could buy for them. When Phoebe tells her friends, "I'm
going to be giving someone the greatest gift you can possibly give,"
Chandler jokes, "You're going to carry their child and get them a Sony
PlayStation?" Phoebe's altruistic language cannot cover up the cost of
her potential sacrifice. Many theorists have questioned the ethics of
"gift" surrogacy, arguing that "exploitation of one person by another
can exist in noncommercial forms" (Macklin 207) and that "family
pressure can be as or more exigent and extortionate as market pres
sure" (Lane 133). Phoebe's friends quickly point out the emotional
consequences of this decision, thus inviting the show's vast interna
tional audience to consider this issue from the surrogate's point of
view. We are drawn to sympathize with Phoebe when her biological
mother tries to discourage her from giving up a baby by showing her
how hard it is to give away an adorable puppy. Yet Phoebe's surro
gacy will not simply repeat a family pattern: she will become pregnant
deliberately rather than by accident and give the baby to a married
couple who long for a child.
In "The One With the Embryos," the scene at the in vitro fer
tilization clinic reminds us that this will be a fully gestational sur
rogacy, or as Phoebe describes it: "I'm just the oven. It's totally their
bun." In reality, most surrogate mothers have been inseminated with
the intended father's sperm, making them the babies' genetic as well
as gestational mothers (Macklin 23). By restricting Phoebe to the
"oven," the writers can more easily privilege genetic ties, implying
that Frank Jr. and Alice are the true parents because they are the bio
logical parents. The episode emphasizes the costs of in vitro fertiliza
tion to engage our sympathy for Frank Jr. and Alice, who can afford
only one $ 16,000 procedure to implant five fertilized embryos, with
only 25% chance of pregnancy. The comedy then focuses on Phoebe's
crazy attempts to ensure conception, as she lies upside down and urges
the embryos to "really grab on." The episode ends with the joyful


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Eleanor Hersey Nickel

news that Phoebe has become pregnant, encouraging the viewer to

accept or at least become open to surrogacy as an ethical action.
Although this plot has the potential to subvert many viewers'
preconceptions about surrogacy, it receives little attention in season
four, serving primarily as an explanation for actress Lisa Kudrow's
pregnant belly. Like Carol's pregnancy, Phoebe's pregnancy unfolds
in subplots of episodes about other characters' sexual exploits. The
baby kicking for the first time is significant because it interrupts Ra
chel's kiss with a prospective boyfriend during a game of Spin the
Bottle. Many episode titles suggest that the writers and producers fo
cused on male pleasures, or thought that those were more appealing to
the audience. Phoebe discovers that she is having triplets in "The One
With the Free Porn" (which focuses on Joey and Chandler indulging
in excessive pornography) and attends her baby shower in "The One
With the Worst Best Man Ever" (in which Joey sleeps with the stripper
at a bachelor party).
The landmark episode "The One Hundredth" is dedicated to
Phoebe's delivery of the triplets, yet this episode reintroduces the ten
sion between motherhood and patriarchal sexual pleasures. Phoebe's
female obstetrician is injured and has to be replaced by a male doctor
who is obsessed with Fonzie, a cultural icon of the ladies' man. The
triplets are born to the Happy Days theme song and tied to the realities
of patriarchy when the doctor inappropriately points out that "Fonzie
dated triplets." Just as the writers mocked Carol's obstetrician for ig
noring her labor pains back in the first season, they attack a chauvinist
attitude in which newborn girls are viewed as future sexual conquests.
In contrast to the doctor's blatant insensitivity, the writers emphasize
how painful it is for Phoebe to give up her babies. Speaking to the trip
lets, she says, "Everyone said labor was the hardest thing I'd ever have
to do, but they were wrong. This is." However, this moment passes
quickly. Rather than the radical feminist argument that surrogacy ex
ploits women, Friends makes the liberal argument that Phoebe made a
choice that was right for her and that surrogacy can be worthwhile as
one of many reproductive options.
The triplets appear in only two more episodes, reinforcing
the idea that Phoebe's renunciation was final and uncomplicated. In
season six, Phoebe proves her incompetence as a mother when she
babysits the triplets for the first time and trashes the entire apartment
in her efforts to get them to sleep. In season ten's "The One Where
Ross Is Fine," an exhausted Frank Jr. tries to give Phoebe one of the
triplets, but when they begin to discuss which child she would take, he

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Motherhood in Friends

realizes that he can't give them up. Phoebe offers to help out more, but
there is no real threat to the idea that Frank Jr. and Alice are the true
parents. This episode portrays Frank Jr. as a true father not through his
biological relation to the children but because he is raising them and
appreciates their unique talents, like the ability to burp the alphabet.
It is significant that this focus on child-raising happens in season ten,
when the writers retract the importance of genetic ties to allow Monica
and Chandler to adopt the children of a single birth mother who, like
Phoebe, is not quite middle class. What remains consistent is that birth
mothers give their babies to wealthier married couples, the forms of
surrogacy and adoption that seem likely to gain the largest mainstream
In contrast to the irresponsible 1960s threesome of Frank Sr.,
Lily, and Phoebe Abbott, we have some confidence in the abilities of
Frank Jr., Alice, and Phoebe Buffay to be responsible parents to Frank
Jr. Jr., Leslie, and Chandler. The multiple groups of three may be seen
as symbolizing the number of ways that parenting can take place in
feminism's third wave. As Lane argues, "Were we to transform our
social imaginary to accept the fact that surrogacy makes families pos
sible, but does so by creating other relationships which should be val
ued and acknowledged, surrogacy could be accepted as one way of
forming families rather than as the embodiment of their dissolution"
(137). Just as the writers support lesbian motherhood but then back
away from the issue, they staunchly defend a woman's right to choose
surrogacy but largely ignore the potential for exploitation and ongoing
psychological pain. In the end, Phoebe's sentimentalized surrogacy
experience proves to be totally compatible with the formation of a
traditional family, as the series ends with Phoebe and her husband
planning to have their own children.

"You Can't Possibly Do This Alone": The Single Mother

Rachel's mother, Sandra Green, is a superficial society wife
who had hired a full-time, Spanish-speaking nanny to care for her
children and later divorced her husband because she felt unfulfilled.
Rachel's complete lack of experience with children often makes her
the butt of jokes, such as her attempt to babysit Ben in which she of
fers him a virgin margarita and teaches him to say "damn" and "crap"
("The One With the Truth About London"). Thus Rachel is terrified
when she finds herself pregnant from an impulsive fling with Ross.
Although one third of children in the United States are now born to
unmarried mothers, many of them over the age of thirty, debates still


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Eleanor Hersey Nickel

rage about the consequences of this enormous cultural shift. Journalist

Melissa Ludtke describes her interviews with older unmarried moth

ers in the 1990s: "Many told of how emotional support was often hard
to find and of how judgments others made about them from afar could
hurt so much. They also told me how motherhood, complicated, ex
hausting, and demanding as it was, gave their lives a sense of purpose
and meaning they'd never found in anything else" (xi). In more recent
interviews, Wellesley College sociologist Rosanna Hertz learned that
single mothers have enjoyed the benefits of feminism without neces
sarily becoming outspoken feminists: "They aspired to acceptance in
a middle-class milieu and alignment with conventional definitions of
mother, child, and family" (xvii). Since stigmas against "unwed moth
ers" are still powerful, women who choose single motherhood often
try to fit in, making the popular Rachel an ideal candidate to take on
this identity on Friends.
The season seven finale, "The One With Monica and Chan
dler's Wedding," contains two registers of meaning: comedy for the
first-time viewer and dramatic irony for the viewer who knows that
Rachel is pregnant. This double vision allows Kauffman and Crane to
focus on Monica's wedding while preparing for the serious issue of
Rachel's pregnancy. When Phoebe finds a positive pregnancy test in
Monica's bathroom on the morning of the wedding, she assumes that
Monica is pregnant. Rachel cries, ostensibly because she is worried
that Monica will be left at the altar: "People will be whispering 'Oh,
that poor girl!' You know, and then she'll have to come back here and
live all alone." Yet on a second viewing, we know that the pregnancy
test belongs to Rachel and that this imaginary scenario of living "all
alone" expresses her fears for herself. In the last seconds of the epi
sode, the revelation that Rachel is pregnant takes place without words.
When Monica privately tells Chandler that she's not pregnant, the
camera cuts to Phoebe looking at the newlyweds and joyfully saying:
"And they're going to have a baby!" We discover that Rachel is the
pregnant one based only on her anxious facial expression; the primary
signifier of single motherhood is fear.
At the beginning of the following season, the writers calm
these fears by supporting Rachel's decision to raise a child on her
own, while gently mocking those like Ross, Dr. Green, Joey, and Jack
Geller, who think that a pregnant woman should immediately marry.
Rachel's mature acceptance of the pregnancy and ability to make ra
tional plans exemplify what feminist philosopher Sara Ruddick calls
"maternal thinking," in which "the decision to initiate or to continue

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a pregnancy, however complex and ambivalent, becomes reflective

of and preeminent among the choices that structure a person's life"
(39). This contrasts Ross's laughably immature response of scream
ing over the phone at the condom company and his assumption that
they will be getting married, since "You can't possibly do this alone"
("The One Where Rachel Tells Ross"). In a repeat of the first season
when Carol informed Ross that she was having a baby and planned to
raise it with Susan, Rachel informs Ross that she is having a baby and
plans to raise it alone. Ross still lacks power, and although we suspect
that he and Rachel will ultimately end up married, the writers in effect
insist that this is not morally necessary at this time. Everyone who
thinks otherwise looks ridiculous: the tyrannical Dr. Green ranting and
raving, Joey trying to perform a shotgun wedding for his pregnant sis
ter who comes to Rachel for support, and Jack Geller trying to avoid
scandal by telling everyone at his anniversary party that Ross and Ra
chel are already married.
"The One Where Rachel Has a Baby" derives comedy from
its lack of sentimentality as it follows Rachel through the tedium of
a long labor. Stuck in a semi-private room where she can hear an
other couple calling each other "evil bitch" and "sick bastard," Rachel
spends hours in labor without progressing. As Phoebe comments, "the
miracle of birth sure is a snooze fest." Yet the marriage issue returns
in a more serious way when Ross's mother gives him an engagement
ring and encourages him to propose. The climax of the season is not
Emma's birth, but Rachel saying yes to Joey when she sees him hold
ing the engagement ring, convinced that she needs to marry some
one so that she won't have to raise Emma alone. Just as season seven
ended with Rachel's terrified expression and our first hint that she was
pregnant, season eight ends with Rachel accepting Joey's proposal out
of fear. These cliffhangers heighten tension and excitement for view
ers without casting serious doubt on Rachel's ability to raise Emma.
In the beginning of season nine, we learn that she will stay single, al
though her decision to name the baby Emma Geller Green strengthens
Ross's tie to the child.
Rachel's parenting of Emma demonstrates her desire to fulfill
contemporary ideals about child-rearing despite her decision to con
tinue working. There is never a question of giving up her career as a
fashion executive, although she could have done so had she married
Ross or allowed him to support her financially. Yet Rachel succumbs
to the harmful ideology of "intensive mothering," which sociolo
gist Sharon Hays defines as an attempt to compensate for the guilt of


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Eleanor Hersey Nickel

working full-time. Rather than allowing women freedom and flexibil

ity, intensive mothering is "child-centered\ expert-guided, emotionally
absorbing, labor-intensive, and financially expensive''' (8). Ross and
Rachel hire two white, middle-class nannies, the male Sandy and the
lesbian Molly, whose claims to "minority" status provide humor but
sidestep controversies about the exploitation of women of color in the
childcare industry. Rachel calls her pediatrician in the middle of the
night because Emma has the hiccups, worries that one cup of coffee
will affect her breast milk, and panics when she has to leave Emma
with a sitter. Since Rachel is clearly hyper-anxious, the writers poke
fun at the intensive mothering model that makes women feel perpetu
ally guilty.
Yet in the last episodes of the series, the writers create a crisis
that forces Rachel to choose between Ross and career advancement,
calling the question of which is ultimately more important. She is of
fered her dream job in Paris, but after changing her mind many times,
she finally turns it down to keep the family together, and "The Last
One" suggests that Ross and Rachel will finally marry. This seems in
evitable given that the viewers' support for this couple was established
ten years earlier in the pilot and that the entire series has gestured
toward their final reconciliation. Yet it also supports a more traditional
view of the family, suggesting that Ross and Rachel's mode of living
together, unmarried, with their child was either undesirable or unten
able. While the writers poked fun at conservatives like Dr. Green who
insisted that the couple marry when they first got pregnant, they en
dorse this as the ultimate happy ending. The traditional family is not
the only viable or healthy model for the Friends characters to choose
from, but in the end, it remains the ideal.

"A Mother Without a Baby": The Adoptive Mother

In the second episode of Friends, "The One With the So
nogram at the End," Monica's parents visit her apartment and subtly
criticize her for being unmarried and childless in her mid-twenties.
Disguising his disappointment as pride, Jack Geller says: "I read about
these women trying to have it all, and I thank God our little Harmonica
doesn't seem to have that problem." Watching Monica squirm, view
ers are invited to laugh with recognition at this parental heckling, an
example of the generation gap humor that has prevailed in sitcoms
since the 1950s. Jack and Judy obviously do think that Monica should
be "trying to have it all," which they prove throughout the series in
their pressure for her to find a man. Monica also strongly desires to

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Motherhood in Friends

have a child, which drives her future choices as she breaks up with
Richard Burke because he does not want to have children, considers
visiting a sperm bank, marries Chandler, discovers that she cannot
conceive, and adopts twins. Played out over ten years, Monica's strug
gle to become a mother resonates with Generation X viewers who
have delayed marriage and childbearing, whether due to ambivalence
about marriage, the decision to focus on a career, or the sheer bad luck
that plagues Monica.
Monica and Chandler begin trying to conceive in season nine,
with plenty of humor about the logistics of having sex while she is
ovulating, such as when Jack Geller walks in on their lovemaking and
tries to encourage them: "You gotta get at it, Princess. When your
mother and I were trying to conceive you, whenever she was ovulat
ing, bam! We did it. That's how I got my bad hip" ("The One Where
No One Proposes"). The tone changes in "The One With the Fertil
ity Test." Chandler is alone in the apartment when the doctor calls
with the results. We do not hear the doctor's words, but the silence as
Chandler listens to him signifies the couple's lack of fertility and loss
of hope. When Monica enters, the humor stems from the incongruity
between clinical and colloquial language, as Chandler translates "my
sperm have low motility and you have an inhospitable environment"
to "my guys won't get off their Barcaloungers and you have a uterus
that is prepared to kill the ones that do." But there is no happy end
ing, belying the cliché that sitcoms always resolve problems in half
an hour. Monica and Chandler will spend the rest of the series dealing
with infertility, in contrast to an episode of Frasier that aired a few
months later in September 2003. Niles and Daphne Crane briefly think
that they will not be able to conceive due to his low motility, but she is
pregnant by the end of the episode ("No Sex, Please, We're Skittish").
While the male-oriented Frasier was often considered more serious or
significant than Friends, its marginal plots about single motherhood
and infertility highlight the extent to which Friends explored women's
issues in depth.
From this point forward, multiple episodes reinforce the theme
that nothing about motherhood comes naturally. In a sense, Monica's
strong desire to have children exemplifies Dow's argument about the
central role of motherhood in series as diverse as Murphy Brown and
Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman (1993-98). While Dow expresses frus
tration that "postfeminist discourse presents that role as the 'natural'
choice" (195), Monica's inability to conceive complicates this gener
alization. While the goal of having a child is never questioned, con


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Eleanor Hersey Nickel

ception cannot be achieved through any amount of work or virtue.

As Monica jokes, "My uterus is an inhospitable environment? I've
always tried so hard to be a good hostess" ("The One With the Do
nor"). When Chandler invites his "spermtastic" colleague to dinner
in a hilarious attempt to evaluate his suitability to father their child,
we are reminded that nothing about this situation is normal or natural.
Eventually, Monica and Chandler will decide to adopt the children of
an unwed teen mother, bringing serious economic and class issues into
the realm of comedy.
Friends had already addressed many of the controversies sur
rounding reproductive politics of the 1990s, and Monica's adoption
compelled the writers to choose between options that had become very
politicized in the wake of the Adoption Rights Movement. In Family
Matters: Secrecy and Disclosure in the History of Adoption, E. Wayne
Carp argues that the 1950s "age of secrecy," in which single mothers
were pressured to give up their babies and never saw them again, led
to militant and divisive protests by birth mothers and adopted children
in the 1960s and 1970s (102-37). Many questions have been raised
about the ethics of adoption, in which middle-class women often re
ceive babies from poorer birth mothers in transactions costing tens of
thousands of dollars. Are birth mothers being manipulated or coerced
to treat their children as commodities? Do birth mothers and children
have the right to know each other? Should adoption be a secret? Sally
Haslanger and Charlotte Witt claim that most feminist scholars have
been "tacitly or overtly critical of adoption" (10) and Drucilla Cornell
speculates about why this might be: "Today, the law in most states
pits the two mothers against each other while the media dramatizes
the purportedly hostile relationship between the two" (19). Although
Monica and Chandler choose open adoption, which gained favor in
the 1980s as a more egalitarian process, the writers wrestle with the
problem of giving equal sympathy to Monica and the birth mother of
her twins.

The painful subject of infertility and the viewers' emotional

identification with Monica made it difficult for the writers to keep the
tone light. In a cruel coincidence, the plot paralleled the real life of ac
tress Courteney Cox Arquette, who was having multiple miscarriages.
Since her struggles were widely publicized, many viewers would have
recognized a melancholy undercurrent to the already muted comedy
of the final season. Karen Schneider's People cover story in October
2003 begins with an optimistic quote from Arquette: "I don't say it's
a walk in the park. But what are you going to do? We just try again."

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Motherhood in Friends

Yet the end of the article becomes increasingly serious, describing the
couple's "frustration and tears." In an article by Matt Lauer on the
Dateline NBC website in May 2004, Arquette describes undergoing in
vitro fertilization and taking shots of heparin every day while playing
a comic character: "I remember one time I just had a miscarriage and
Rachel was giving birth. It was like that same time. Oh my God, it was
terrible having to be funny"
Monica and Chandler are relentlessly and comically honest
throughout the adoption process, laying to rest the stigma that adop
tive parents selfishly keep secrets from birth mothers and children.
Chandler inadvertently tells a friend's eight-year-old son that he is
adopted and then asks Phoebe, "How would you like it if someone
told the triplets that you gave birth to them?" When he realizes that
all three children are in the room, he declares: "I'm going to go tell
Emma she was an accident" ("The One Where Ross Is Fine"). When
Monica and Chandler meet Erica at the adoption agency and discover
that she thinks they are another couple, Monica advocates playing
along. Chandler continues his role as truth-teller, convincing Erica to
choose them because Monica is "a mother without a baby" ("The One
With the Birth Mother"). As the series nears its end, this sentimental
phrase makes the idea of the "natural" mother more tenable and calls
attention to Monica's sense of incompleteness without children.
Since actress Anna Faris was twenty-seven, Erica comes
across in "The One With the Birth Mother" as a thoughtful woman
in her twenties; she carefully chooses a doctor and a minister to adopt
her child and then her compassion for the Bings moves her to change
her mind. Yet her age, maturity, and class status have been lowered
when she visits New York in "The One Where Joey Speaks French."
When Monica and Chandler ask about the baby's father, we learn that
Erica has slept with two men, her high school boyfriend and a man
who is in prison for killing his father with a shovel. This ambiguity is
resolved when Monica learns that "Erica didn't pay much attention in
Sex Ed class, because the thing she did with that prison guy—it would
be pretty hard to make a baby that way." The biological father remains
nameless and non-threatening, while the incident emphasizes Erica's
simple-mindedness and sexual irresponsibility. Like Phoebe during
her surrogacy, Erica turns out to be a "dumb blond" who will not draw
attention to her rights as a birth mother. Despite their overall attempts
to be progressive, the writers fall back on disturbing class-based ste
reotypes about pregnant teens in order to maintain full sympathy for
middle-class Monica and preserve her happy ending.


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Eleanor Hersey Nickel

In "The Last One," Kauffman and Crane celebrate Monica's

long-awaited achievement of motherhood while continuing to joke
about Erica's youth and immaturity, as she tells Chandler that she
plans to spend the summer at church camp and she is surprised to learn
that she is carrying twins. While Phoebe's surrogacy plot included a
heartfelt, dramatic scene in which she struggled to relinquish the trip
lets, Erica seems to have little problem giving up her babies. Because
this is the last episode, the writers also avoid having to deal with the
difficulties of real-life open adoptions. The series ends with the friends
heading to the coffee shop: Phoebe planning to have children with her
husband, Rachel and Ross back together to raise Emma, and Monica
and Chandler pushing the double stroller. Only Joey will be left alone
with the baby chick and duck, ironically calling out "Don't hide from
momma!" when he loses them in the apartment. Arquette is also vis
ibly pregnant under her loose-fitting tops in this episode, a real-life
happy ending with the potential to suggest that Monica is a "natural"
mother after all, except that she can't tell the twins apart.
Since Monica and Chandler are moving to the suburbs,
Friends takes on the quality of an extended prequel to the classic fam
ily sitcoms of the 1950s, a connection that was reinforced when they
first told their friends about their decision to move in "The One Where
Chandler Gets Caught":
MONICA: We want a lawn and a swing set.
CHANDLER: And a street where our kids can ride their bikes, and
maybe an ice cream truck can go by.
ROSS: So you want to buy a house in the '50s.
This ending can be read as an effort to contain the series' innovative
qualities, folding it back into a tradition known for strict gender roles
and paternal authority. Yet we never see the Bings in the suburbs—the
show's extended life in syndication means that they remain forever in
the city, working out what it means to become parents in a time when
everything seems to be up for negotiation.
In the eight years since the Friends finale, scholars have con
tinued to analyze our changing ideas about motherhood. Historian
Rebecca Jo Plant's Mom looks at the decades before Friends, when
celebrations of Mother Love gave way to denunciations of momism
and fueled the confusion and self-doubt that still haunt women like
Rachel, "the worst mother ever." Andrea O'Reilly's The 21s' Century
Motherhood Movement looks at the years after Friends, when ma
ternal activists mobilized like never before to support mothers and
address the problems they face. Yet it is hard to think of a television

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Motherhood in Friends

series since Friends that uses humor so effectively to engage such

a wide range of motherhood issues. Situation comedy has ebbed in
popularity, although a few current series like How I Met Your Mother
(2005-present) continue to explore issues like the search for a partner
with whom to raise children, single motherhood, and gay parenting.
Motherhood has been portrayed in dramas and reality shows that tend
to have narrower scopes: single motherhood in Gilmore Girls (2000
07), the months surrounding childbirth in A Baby Story ( 1998-pres
ent), the challenge of disciplining children in Supernanny (2005-pres
ent), or the situation announced by the title of MTV's 16 and Pregnant
(2009-present). Therefore, Friends still has an important role to play
for a new generation of fans who avidly watch it on television, online,
or on DVD. The non-threatening, enjoyable antics of Phoebe, Monica,
and Rachel still help women to engage with dilemmas of motherhood
that are far from being resolved.
Eleanor Hersey Nickel
Fresno Pacific University


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Eleanor Hersey Nickel

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Eleanor Hersey Nickel is an Associate Professor of English at Fresno Pacific

University, where she chairs the English Department and Humanities Division.
She received her Ph.D. in English from the University of Iowa in 2001. Her
research focuses on popular television series such as The X-Files, Seinfeld,
American Idol, and Wishbone as well as television versions of novels like Edith
Wharton's The Buccaneers, L.M. Montgomery's Anne of Green Gables, and
Willa Cather's O Pioneers! and My Antonia. She has also explored popular
Hollywood film and bestselling novels including C.S. Lewis's Narnia Chroni
cles and Jan Karon's Mitford series.


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