Monday, May 2, 2011

Mad Men Mondays: In Praise of Motherhood

She is a giver of life; teacher; healer; protector. She has the immense power to influence what course your life will take. Do you love history? Are you interested in science? Can you play an instrument? Are you sowing seeds this spring - all because of her? She is one of the most undervalued of all of life's professions.

She is a mother. She has to mother her own children, and often in life's confusing role reversals, has to act as a mother to her own parents in their later stage in life.

Mad Men like many popular works in the past few years takes often at the cynical look at the 1950s and 1960s (i.e., A Single Man, Revolutionary Road, Far From Heaven, and The Hours come to mind), including to me, its portrayal of motherhood. Betty complains about being at home with the children all day. When Don arrives and she's eating a meatloaf or casserole, red wine in hand, with the two children, she's numb to the world around her. She remains passive about her situation. Look at the fun Joan and Peggy are having out in that working world!

Consider how much Joan and Peggy are defined by their jobs at Sterling Cooper. In our age of layoffs or fears of them, I don't know if we are as defined by our professions, or shouldn't be. Our families aren't going to lay us off if we aren't pulling our weight during a quarter or we're costing them too much money. No secretly wondering who they value more: us or the shareholders?

While maybe Mad Men is saying many women didn't have the choice to go to work and had to fight when they wanted to get ahead, how many women I know in 2011 want to stay at home with their children but are unable too because they need the health insurance or salary, or have to pay exorbitant taxes. After just six weeks off with a newborn, it's back to work for many. If Don wasn't the philandering, controlling husband we know he is, Betty Draper's life wouldn't look so depressing on the outside looking in.

My favorite television mother: Carolyn Ingalls from Little House on the Prairie, a cherished childhood show which also invokes nostalgia, as my sister and I watched every episode after school. No chugging hard cider from the barrel when Charles came in from the fields for her. Life was a lot harder on the prairie than it was for the housewife who can shop at the store and not have to worry about a hail storm ruining their crops. Remember when Carolyn gave up a sky blue polka dotted cloth to make Laura and Mary new dresses instead of having a new one herself? Think of all the things our mothers gave up so we could have a better life - most sacrifices we'll never really know.

My mom stayed home with me and my older sister. We had the American dream as Pete Campbell defined it: a house, a car and a color television. We took summer vacations to visit family in Switzerland, or to go to Florida, California and even Hawaii. But I can't imagine that life would have been possible if they lived the way so many do as the "American dream" has exploded into now: with two pricey gas guzzling cars, upgrading gizmos, constant home improvements, designer clothes, and more, all on credit. I wouldn't have wanted that any way. I can't help think of how the Mad Men of today have sold families on lifestyles beyond their means, robbing them of their choices (like a mother staying home if she wants to). Too many mothers I know are paying off debt.

As we are about to celebrate Mother's Day, reflect on what you love that was the gift of your mother. Howard Pyle, the American author of The Merry Adventures of Robin Hood who was born in Wilmington, Delaware in 1853, loved pictures in storybooks as a young boy, including Grimm's German Fairy Tales and Arabian Nights. He said, "My mother taught me to like books and pictures, and I cannot remember the time when I did not like them; so that...was the beginning of the taste that led me to do the work I am doing now." Imagine if she hasn't planted the seed, we may have never had this storyteller.

Imagine how different your life would have been, without its shaping by your mother. I hope you had a positive experience, and know in reality many children don't, and have the courage to plant better seeds with the next generation.


  1. I think the whole issue comes down to choice. Betty is so thrilled when she's briefly able to go back to modeling, and disappointed when the job ends and she finds herself back at home all day. She doesn't enjoy motherhood or housekeeping; she's bored. Which, I will note, is probably because she had literally nothing to do. The Drapers had a housekeeper, and homemaking during that time period was characterized mostly by buying. Radical Homemakers by Shannon Hayes is a great look at the homemaking = consumerism thing.

    My mom truly relished mothering and homemaking, but never discouraged me from pursuing a career outside the home. She valued education as well as domestic pursuits; she was always reading and baking. Whether I decided to stay at home or go into the workforce, I never felt like my mom would judge me for that decision, and would support me either way. That freedom is wonderful, even though she has no real control over my decisions. Everybody wants to feel like they have a choice and are supported in that choice.

  2. Hi Cate. You're so right about Betty, she just has no sense of purpose, and thank you for sharing that resource. Home economics? Whatever happened to that concept. We've become a society dependent on others for everything - from baking our bread to sewing a hem.

    What just strikes me today is we are in the opposite situation. Our choice is gone. Many women I know want to stay at home, and cannot, but some of them feed into the constant home upgrading, expensive cars, etc.: the new American Dream which involves living way beyond our means constantly marketed to us. I'm for empowering women (and men) financially early on and saving so they can make choices for themselves.

    I don't have any children yet but would like to, and the thought of putting them in a daycare after six weeks while I'm in a cubicle seems depressing.