Mad Men Week: Mad Motherhood

I used to think that I would be the type of mother like Claire Huxtable from The Cosby Show. Calm and together. Beautiful and smart. Making time for a fulfilling career and still having an impromptu musical number complete with costumes in order to illustrate an important life lesson. If my life were a musical I would feel more like Miss Hannagan from Annie. Everything around me is little…

I would like to think that I will never be like Betty Draper from Mad Men. We look at her through our take on modern feminism and feel bad for her. Poor bored Betty. Thank God that we have all been liberated from only having such choices. Betty Draper going to therapy because she can’t talk to anyone about how trapped she feels. How alone. How bored and guilty she feels about the role she has no choice about in her own life. Everything from the way the birth is treated to daily choices within the home. The constant undercurrent is that of limited choices. This is not an antiquated idea. As a mother, I know how it feels some days to count the hours until bedtime. Or to not be able to wait until my husband takes two steps in the door before I am telling him about the terrors our offspring have been that day. Yes, like Betty Draper I relish having a glass of red wine at the end of the day and talking to my friends. Other mothers and caregivers in the trenches with me.

Is that why we feel bad for Betty Draper? Because we know someone like her? Our own mothers? A sister? A friend? Or does she hit a little too close to home for some of us? It is the judgment of her that I have to wrestle with. Poor Pampered Betty Draper. A housewife with a maid and nothing to fill her days but shopping. High class problems indeed. Instead of dumping our kids in front of the black and white TV with three channels, we now have the Wii in monster 65-inch color, surround-sound, high definition. Is spending hours on Etsy so much different than at the department store? Hiding from our children. Hiding from who we are. Betty being so afraid of her own sexuality that her daughter ends up in therapy for “playing with herself.” I am sure all of us have had to confront some issue with our children that we have never anticipated. “Did you really just wipe boogers on the wall?” “Is that a fish stick under your pillow?” “No, I don’t know why trees don’t talk back.”

Parts of my life are not that different from what I can imagine for a 1950s or 60s housewife. Yes I am from the Midwest. Yes I got married at 20. Yes I was pregnant at said event. I still do laundry almost every day. I still wash dishes. For the most part, I have stayed home with my children. But I like being with my kids. I like who they are. I enjoy just being with them and seeing them discover how to navigate this world. The difference now is that so does my husband. He makes more dinners than I do. It is the expectations that are different. Not the reality. I think he would fear for his life if he came home and demanded his dinner. Our house will NEVER be as clean as the Drapers’. We don’t have a maid. We can’t afford it. The choices we have made allow me to stay home. Would we be more financially secure if we had two incomes, of course. Are there mothers out there who do not have this option, absolutely. But more and more I realize that it is other women who are our greatest obstacles. No matter what a woman’s choice is, it should be supported as valid by other women. Too frequently it is not. Working mothers think that stay-at-home-mothers are lazy or spoiled, and stay-at-home-mothers think that working moms are selfish or should be riddled with guilt.

Women are our own worst enemies. Inside our own heads and out. We hear our mothers, our friends. We feel judged as mothers from the time we discover we are pregnant. Keep the baby, or not? Home birth? Water birth? C-section? You will be judged. Breastfeed? Co-sleep? Crib? You will be judged. Vaccinate? Circumcise? You will be judged. Cloth diapers or disposable, home school, or public. You will be judged. Having these choices to begin with is what we should be thankful for. I get it. But that is only half of the equation. Having choices has to be balanced with having the freedom to get to be happy with the consequences of that choice. As Don Draper put it, “If you don’t like what is being said, then change the conversation.”

Look at Peggy. Was it her choice to have a baby? Was it her choice to give it up? Was she allowed to be, if not happy, at least at peace with her decision? She was pushing so hard against the idea of being a woman that she ignored the ultimate difference between men and women: our ability to give birth. Her birth experience was glossed over and not unlike Betty’s out-of-consciousness birth, we are left amazed. We have all known someone whose birth did not go as planned. A home birth that was transferred, or a vaginal birth that had to be a c-section. Women carry around those scars, physical and emotional, for the rest of their lives.

Then Joan. We all want to be more like Joan. She is much easier to take. More modern. Career woman. Waiting until her 30s to get married. Even her physical appearance is more realistic than teeny Betty Draper. But even with all of those curves, she has chosen to be childless. With all of that sex, and two “procedures,” she is still living on her own terms. Fertile. Ready for anything. Her femininity a blatant contrast to all of the men around her.

The female characters of Mad Men bring up feelings for everyone who sees them … either we envy or pity them. Or both. But until we realize that either emotion has validity and is mirroring something about our own mothering, history is bound to repeat itself. Women need to strive to respect one another and support one another. Only then can we feel less isolated like all of the women in the show. Then we can show our children that we are the mothers they want us to be.

Olivia London-Webb
writes for herself as therapy. When not writing she likes to cook, drink, stare at art, and chase her children.

One Comment

  • Posted August 31, 2011 at 2:24 pm | Permalink

    Great thoughts! I haven’t watched all the seasons, but I like how Betty does do some breaking out of her own despite her lack of conviction about it.

    When I get stuck in the judgment cycle of parenthood (or become obsessed with fixing everything my parents did wrong), I remember my very wise grandmother would often share this quote from her own mother: “Just do a little bit better than I did. That’s all.”