The doors have been flung wide open when it comes to the liberation of the modern day mother. Well, they are cracked considerably wider than they were thirty-five years ago at least. Gestating for ten years now, Sunshine, a film by Karen Skloss, eloquently portrays just how much our attitudes toward motherhood and family dynamics have changed over the past several decades.
Skloss’s film is deeply personal yet not so focused on navel gazing that the viewer can’t glean some social commentary from it. In the movie, she explores her past as someone who was given up for adoption in 1975 by an unwed, college-aged woman. Jump ahead slightly and Skloss becomes a single mother. In this day and age, her story is one that perhaps we don’t think twice about. Sure, most would readily admit that being a single mother is incredibly difficult, but it happens all the time, right? Fortunately, Sunshine shows us exactly in what ways the times have changed.
The story of Skloss’s life begins with her biological mother, Mary, who was from a fairly prominent Texas family. In 1975, Mary left home for college and became pregnant. When Skloss interviews Mary for this film, she confesses that the night she conceived Skloss is the same night she lost her virginity. Because the possibility of keeping a child would have been out of the question for her family, Mary had to check into a home for unwed mothers where she kept her pregnancy quiet, delivered the baby, gave her up for adoption, and then returned to a more acceptable path.
The film does not move in chronological order, and Skloss jostles the spotlight to her own experiences as a single mother. Gone are the days where it’s okay to refer to children as "bastards" if they don’t have married parents, but do we still judge moms who go it alone? Skloss herself admits that she looked down on single mothers before she became one. In writing this review, I almost stated that I felt being a single mother was acceptable yet unfortunate in today’s world, but Skloss' words made me pause to rethink that judgment.
When presented with Mary's father, a very conservative man with traditional values, Skloss tries to get him to open up about what happened with the adoption, but he becomes silent. Right or wrong, his values are in stark contrast to many of the young children interviewed for the film. Young girls and boys espouse their progressive views of marriage and the ability for women to make their own choices, whether it’s to have a family after getting married or to have a family without being married. With segments of Mary's father interspersed with clips of the children, it’s as if Skloss is saying that this is what was and this is what is to come. And by comparing her own experience with Mary's, Sunshine gives us both ends of the spectrum.
It’s difficult to see where these changing social attitudes are leading us. Children nowadays are learning that there are more options than the traditional family, and one can only hope those options move us toward a better place where we aren’t so confined, and where those who want children can focus on raising them in their own loving way.
Sunshine premieres tonight on PBS.