Watching “Sex and the City” with my mom was our unexpected bonding ritual

Sex and the City premiered on HBO on June 6th, 1998.

Late Thursday nights looked like this: Mutual mother-teenager insomnia, both of us curled up in my mom’s bed, the flickering light of a small TV in her room. We made a point of it each week—an hour of Nip/Tuck, an hour of Sex and the City, and then two Golden Girls episodes, all back to back.

Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about these late night TV jags with my mom. I’ve realized that time impacted me much more than I thought. Hearing my mom’s comments about the series was one of the main ways she showed me how to be a woman. The mess and the beauty, the tough moments, the compassion towards friends.

My mom was not around a lot when I was a kid—she worked often and served on community boards—and she was not one to personally impart wisdom about womanhood. When I started puberty, my mom said, “You’re learning what you need in school, right? Oh, you’re not? Here’s a book,” and never uttered a word further. On boys, she told me, “Please do me a favor and stay a virgin until high school graduation; college is a great time for experimentation.”

And so on.

My mom owns a collection of jewelry and makeup entirely influenced by her time as a corporate director in the ’80s. Snazzy lapel brooches (now back in fashion, as my denim jacket attests), inoffensive pearls, and a selection of foundations that one requires a spackle knife to apply (slightly mismatched to our shared skin tone, of course). My mother didn’t have a lot of time or inclination towards feminine fripperies, so it was always a shock to see how differently the women on television lived.

Our Thursday nights with Sex and the City sat in the middle of what felt like a continuum of the cultural pressures on femininity. Nip/Tuck, which aired from 2003-2010, was a medical serial that focused on the lives of two surgeons and the patients who came through their plastic surgery practice. Everything from a hiker with facial scarring to an ongoing breast augmentation saga to drug lords attempting to take out implanted drugs in mules via plastic surgery. Next, Golden Girls is a beloved sitcom where four older women share a house and deal compassionately with social issues, often with a wholesome ending.

For me, Sex and the City’s use of sometimes ridiculous issues to propel the larger narrative—the importance of adult female friendship—falls somewhere in the middle of these two shows’ themes.

Carrie, Samantha, Miranda, and Charlotte’s antics were entertaining enough to keep a show going, but the lessons I learned during commercial break conversations with my mom taught me how to be an adult.

There are so many character arcs that my mom and I discussed. Miranda’s on-again-off-again relationship with Steve taught me not to sacrifice your career for some dude, but also not to sacrifice love because of what you think you should be doing instead. Samantha is probably the reason that many of us even knew what vibrators were; Carrie’s relationships gave me a starting point for language around my own eventual commitment issues.

And then there’s the Baryshnikov arc. By a quirk of timing and late-night schedules, I saw more of the last season of SATC than any other, and it has one heck of a storyline. Famed ballet dancer Mikhail Baryshnikov plays famed artist Aleksandr Petrovsky, who becomes Carrie’s older love interest and for whom she moves to Paris. As Carrie’s friends predicted, she’s unhappy and mostly alone in Paris as Aleks carries on his own career and neglects her to the point they break up. This arc had many potential lessons—have caution when moving countries for a guy, older men can be attractive—but it mostly taught me that relationships should be even. It demonstrated that even the most attractive of partners on paper can sometimes not work out in real life. (Also, in retrospect, this whole arc had a lot to say about The Artistic Genius Man in relationships, which is a lesson I missed then and later learned the hard way.)

My mom and I watched most of the Aleksandr Petrovksy arc together because my mother definitely still has a giant crush on Mikhail Baryshnikov, even to the point of hanging his American Library Association READ campaign poster in her library office as “inspiration for the importance of reading.” (Sure, mom.)

But what was unusual about this was that, until watching SATC with her, I had never realized my mother’s full identity; I’d never conceived of my mom as someone who could have crushes on people. Mothers are unfortunately often shunted into one paradigm, especially by their own children. It was hard for me to picture her as a girl with a crush like any other woman.

But through my careful, probing questions during commercial breaks, my understanding of my mother got even deeper than that.

During Samantha’s breast cancer diagnosis and fight against the disease, I could ask my mom, for the first time, about her own cancer battle when I was young. When Charlotte had trouble conceiving, my mom volunteered her own similar struggles to have me and my younger sibling. These were not the kind of subjects that one could just easily bring up over the dinner table, so I was—and still am—grateful that the show created space for us to have those important conversations.

Sex and the City taught me more about high heels than I will ever put to use. It also laid out the complexities of navigating careers, love lives, and friendships—a blueprint that I would later reference in my 20s when I myself moved to New York City to make a life. (I thought I’d use taxis a lot more than I did, though.) Above all, SATC was how I learned about my mother as a woman. Through the small, cumulative conversations we had every week to the flickering background of the TV, I understood her. And for that, this series will always have a place in my heart.

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