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An Ode to 'Mad Men's' Maddest Mother

5 years ago
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Lizzie, I loved the story of your bad mother-daughter moment over Barbie and how you both talked about it later. Your story and The Atlantic's criticism of "Mad Men" in this month's issue reminded me that I haven't yet written an ode to the show's most emblematic mother, Betty Draper. She is the best characterization I've ever seen of the '50s and '60s mothers I knew. In those days before the words "child-centered household" had ever been heard, the idea that a child might be spoiled was considered a much greater danger than that a child might not be fully expressing his or her feelings.

Atlantic critic Benjamin Schwarz writes that the Northeast's professional class had completely adopted Dr. Spock's permissive parenting ideas by the 1960s and would have never behaved as parents do in "Mad Men." Schwarz maintains that getting the details right is essential in such a drama. But I'd defend "Man Men" in this case. It is fiction.

An important theme of the series is to show how we've changed. Schwarz might be right in writing that the nice people of the Northeast, meaning those who were educated and affluent, might not have behaved as callously toward their children as Betty Draper and others do, but most of America did behave that way. And it doesn't anymore. The series is talking to most of America. The change in how children are treated is one of the most astonishing transformations that's taken place between then and now simply because it is so pervasive.

Betty (played by January Jones) is also fascinating because she's one of the few unpleasant mothers in fiction who is committing her mistakes as we watch. She isn't a monster mother who is being remembered as her child careens toward some horrible deed. She's like many of the mothers I remember from my childhood: better than some, worse than others. Resentful. Starved for affection and unable to give it. She's got nobody to take her rage out on but the children. As for mother guilt, don't be absurd. She didn't strangle those brats at birth, which was a favor they'll never be able to pay her back for. Betty is not a cuddly woman. One of my favorite moments was a recent episode when she waved her family attorney toward an open door, meaning that he, not she, should be the one to get up and shut it.

She feels entitled to a perfect life, and she is not getting one.

Her husband is cold and often absent. Her children have problems. She loves those kids. Of course she does. And occasionally, she shows some tenderness. But she does not worry that her parenting skills might be lacking. She doesn't know parenting requires skill.

Remember when she locked Sally in the closet? I was delighted and horrified. I didn't actually know mothers who locked their children in the closet. But it wouldn't have been reported to child welfare if they did. I knew mothers who locked their children out of the house all day. In the middle of an Oklahoma summer when temperatures were over100 degrees, we'd cluster around a spindly mimosa that was the only shade for miles and plot ways that we might gain admittance to somebody's, anybody's house. We'd boost each other up to windows presenting woe-filled faces to the mothers who sat smoking and drinking coffee in kitchens. The mothers were rarely moved.

Remember the episode when Betty kept calling her little boy a liar? She was like a child herself tattling to Don, insisting that he beat the child.

All that's lacking is the switch. It wasn't uncommon in those days to see mothers running down the street in a crouch behind their children as they slashed at the kids' legs with a limber stick, belt or flyswatter. Adults who watched weren't upset. They were approving.

Once they reached home, the moms might rename the switch "a little reminder" as they displayed it in a prominent corner of the house. Parents would say with pride, "All I have to do is look at that switch and those kids straighten right up." Other adults would laugh, relieved and happy to know that the children weren't in danger of becoming sociopaths.

Okay. Maybe that only happened in the fly-over zone, one of the terms not yet coined during the "Mad Men" era. But the fly-over zone is most of America.

Betty is not the most exciting or even the most fully revealed of the drama's characters, but she brings back a type of mother who has completely disappeared from public view. Much as the character delights me, I hope such mothers have disappeared not only from public but entirely -- and that they never come back.

Filed Under: Woman Up

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