Im not one to place too much stock in the cultural significance of popular television shows, but its been a year since AMCs popular "Mad Men" series ended, and Im still thinking about poor Betty Draper the ultimate cautionary tale for stay-at-home moms.
If you never watched "Mad Men," heres a quick debrief: Betty Draper is the archetypal 1950s and '60s housewife. She gives up her modeling career to stay at home, aimlessly cares for her children, and lives a soulless existence in the suburbs.
Then, in the penultimate episode, she is diagnosed with a terminal disease. Its cancer, of course: a cancer which she learns has already begun to attack her body and will continue to wither her away. Until she dies.
In a show about advertising, its hard to dismiss the subliminal message in Bettys demise. And, in case you missed it, the episode where Betty learns of her diagnosis aired on Mother's Day.
While other characters lie, cheat, abandon their children, and engage in other morally and legally inappropriate behavior, their story lines get tied up, allowing them to live happily ever after. Even Don Draper philanderer, liar, identity thief finds redemption on a seaside retreat in sunny California. Betty, meanwhile, finds herself on the quick ride to death. All of which proves there is no crime worse than being a bad stay-at-home mom.
You might argue Betty was a symbol for another era. But todays stay-at-home mom is under the same type of scrutiny. If you're too involved, you are a helicopter parent and over-indulgent. If you let your children run free, you're deemed negligent, or possibly arrested. Sometimes its tough to know which way to go. I often vacillate between not letting my children walk down the street without a security detail and shooing them away so I can sit and have my coffee in peace.
Even my own mother (the ultimate arbiter of how bad a mom I am) criticizes me on both counts. The other day she found me helping my son with his school project.
Why are you doing that for him? she asked.
Im not doing it for him. Im just helping.
Hes old enough. He can do it himself, she said.
Hes having a hard time, I said."You're babying him. You dont need to do everything for him. The next day she came over to find the kids playing outside in the yard. She walked inside the house and saw me typing at my computer. Okay fine, I was playing "Candy Crush." But she didnt know that, so her response seemed a bit harsh.
You ignore your kids all the time, she said.
My mother was a stay-at-home mom for a time, before returning to work when we were older. She played both roles. Yet, her criticism of my parenting style magnified a few years ago after I quit my real job to become the primary caregiver. Sometimes Im not sure if theres a subliminal message in her disapproval.
I'm at the stage where stay-at-home mom does not feel like an apt descriptor anymore. (To be honest, it never did. I mean, rarely am I home. As the old joke goes, if I'm a stay-at-home mom, why am I in the car so much?) The fact is, few of us will be stay-at-home moms forever. Our children grow. Many of us will find our way back to gainful employment. If we're lucky it might even be meaningful.
When that time comes, how will we view those who stay home with children for a period of time? Will we be more accepting, or will the disdain for the 50s style housewife still linger? And years from now, how will we react as our sons and daughters raise their kids, and make the hard choices regarding whether both parents work or one stays at home?
Of course Ill be passive-aggressively judging my future daughter-in-law that goes without saying. But will I accept that everyone else is doing the best they can, no matter which choices they make?
By the end of "Mad Men," even Betty Draper began to transition from her stay-at-home mom status to go back to college. But re-entry into gainful employment wont be her epithet. It's 1970, and the treatment for her lung cancer wont come in time for her to earn her degree. Her fate is sealed.
And ours? Is death, metaphoric or real, still an acceptable narrative arc for someone who stays at home? "Mad Men," the series, is over. We can only hope that the end is in sight for our ailing view of the stay-at-home mom.