What Breaking Bad Teaches Us About Parenthood

Spoiler Alert: I’m not gonna talk about any details that will give away key plot points, but I will give you enough background so if you’ve never watched arguably the best television show in history, you’ll get my drift … and probably settle in for a binge right then and there.

Breaking Bad is a show — well, a magnum opus, actually — about the American Family. The basic premise is that Walter White, a milquetoast chemistry teacher when the series opens, finds out he has lung cancer. In his zeal to provide for his family and leave a legacy of more than just crippling medical bills, Walt begins “cooking” and selling methamphetamine.

The cancer comes and goes, but the meth? Whether crystal form or paper form (as in money), it becomes a constant as Walt morphs from Mr. Chips into Scarface.

Skyler White, Walt’s long-suffering wife, provides the “moral compass” to the show (well, until she doesn’t). What is most fascinating about Skyler is how much people hate her. You would imagine that the despicable crimes of a drug kingpin (Walt) would earn the ire of fans, but actually, everyone is cheering for Walt and praying that he dodges one more bullet and stays 20 steps ahead of “the bad guy” one more time.

Skyler? Not so much. As the actress Anna Gunn, who plays Skyler, wrote in a New York Times op ed piece, her character is reviled for being “a ball-and-chain, a drag, a shrew, an ‘annoying bitch wife.’”

I know what she’s talking about, because there have been many points along my parental path where I feel very strongly that I’m nothing but a nagging bitch. A buzz kill. A Debbie downer.

I wasn’t always like this — in my pre-breeding days, I had no designs on bursting the party bubble. I liked kids well enough, but as a babysitter and later, camp counselor, I didn’t exactly bust a gut to make sure everyone was in bed early, had enough sleep, ate right, or did all their homework. I cared, but not enough to not have a boyfriend swing by when I babysat, or stay in the cabin to keep tabs on the kiddies when all my friends were heading to town for a night out.

Childbirth changed all that. The chain reaction set in motion when I first saw that little double line on the pregnancy pee stick permanently altered my brain chemistry, leaving the gray matter set to eternal mama bear mode.

When the kids were small and nights out were an expensive proposition, a bunch of neighbors including my husband took to playing poker to the wee hours every weekend while the kids ran amok. I tried to go with the flow for a while, but it made me absolutely nuts. All of a sudden, hanging out, gambling, and partying, which had never bothered me before, gave me an ulcer. And in turn, I turned that ulcer into a giant wad of anger hurled at my hubby week after week, as I felt we were setting a bad example for our kids and worse, letting our desire to stay out late and have a little fun get in the way of what I felt was responsible parenting.

It was easily the worst phase of our marriage. I was that drag, that shrew, that annoying, bitch wife. Every time I opened my mouth I wanted to punch myself in it, and yet, I couldn’t stop. I just felt in my heart it just wasn’t right for my kids. And what wasn’t right for the kinder was definitely not right for me.

The problem was not only did my husband enjoy playing, but he was pretty good, too. Eventually he took the show on the road to Vegas, and won a big Texas Hold’em tourney. The expensive watch he brought home to me is still my favorite piece of jewelry, and for a minute, I could understand the allure of getting rich quick. Being able to afford to send my kids to private school, never worry about braces, college, and weddings, not to mention being able to travel the world or own a beach house, definitely crossed my mind.

For a time I figured it would be fine to let him do his thing, and I’d do mine, but that’s not the secret ingredient to a happy marriage. When Breaking Bad opened, we could see the toll separate lives had taken on the Whites. I am lucky that the poker phase never came to that; the neighborhood gatherings dissipated over time, and as the kids got older and we finally grew up ourselves, we realized that it wasn’t about not affording a regular sitter — we couldn’t afford not to get one, and so, we finally did.

In the end, life is a series of choices, and when you are a parent, the moves you make take on deeper meaning. Way back in Season One, Walt and Sklyer had this exchange that was not just the heart of Breaking Bad, but hits right at the core of us all:

Walter: Alright, I’ve got the Talking Pillow now. Okay? We all, in this room, love each other. We want what’s best for each other and I know that. I am very thankful for that. But…what I want…what I want, what I need, is a choice.

Skyler: What does that…mean?

Walter: Sometimes I feel like I never actually make any of my own. Choices, I mean. My entire life it just seems I never…you know, had a real say about any of it. Now this last one, cancer…all I have left is how I choose to approach this.

Skyler: Then make the right choice, Walt. You’re not the only one it affects. What about your son? Don’t you wanna see your daughter grow up? I just…

Walter: Of course I do. Skyler, you’ve read the statistics. These doctors…talking about surviving. One year, two years, like it’s the only thing that matters. But what good is it, to just survive if I am too sick to work, to enjoy a meal, to make love? For what time I have left, I want to live in my own house. I want to sleep in my own bed. I don’t wanna choke down 30 or 40 pills every single day, lose my hair, and lie around too tired to get up…and so nauseated that I can’t even move my head. And you cleaning up after me? Me, with…some dead man, some artificially alive…just marking time? No. No. And that’s how you would remember me. That’s the worst part. So…that is my thought process, Skyler. I’m sorry. I just…I choose not to do it.

So if you hear me knocking, just know that it’s just your Bitch’in shrew here to remind you that while Breaking Bad seems like a show about cooking meth, it’s actually one of the most eloquent musings on the American Family we have. And now, five years later, the fictional account of making choices in spite of parenting and not because of it — despite the fact that the character who’s made this choice sees it the other way around, even to the bitter end imagining that his family can “start fresh” — shows how devastating the true consequences can be.

(*Thanks to Kirk Demarais for letting me use his most excellent, “The Whites” family portrait to accompany this post. You can buy a print on Gallery 1988’s website.)

Now, if you’ve never seen Breaking Bad, and take a gander at this — just know that there’s 6 episodes you’ve missed in the second half of the final season (5) and we’re counting down to the final two episodes: