Natalia Naman Temesgen: The changing demands on mothers

May 10, 2014 

I watch AMC's one-hour TV drama "Mad Men." Now in its final season, the show explores cultural themes from the '50s to the '60s in corporate New York and Los Angeles. Hippies are rampant. Black women are Manhattan secretaries. Last episode, a computer arrived at the advertising agency. It was the size of a small tractor.

I am struck by another theme explored on "Mad Men": the identity of the middle-class American mother. A recent episode entitled "Field Trip" follows our protagonist's ex-wife, Betty, on a school trip to the farm with their son. Earlier in the episode, her fellow mom friend brags that she's working part-time now, because she "needed a reward." Betty, referring to the children, responds, "I thought they were the reward."

So after a rewarding morning at the farm, it's time for lunch. Betty discovers that her son has traded her sandwich for another child's candy. She gives him a cold look, berates him in a hushed tone, puts her shades on and smokes a cigarette, ignoring him. Later that night, she asks her husband, "Am I a bad mother?"

Plenty of Mad Men viewers answer, "Yes!" She has her flaws. But I find her character richly com

plex. She is a woman of her era. The term "housewife" was used with pride as she grew up but began to be replaced by "homemaker" in the '50s. Both terms emphasize a woman's place in the home and role as spouse.

Many '50s-set episodes feature Betty greeting her husband with a cocktail as he comes in from work, then placing a home-cooked meal on the table. Meanwhile, the kids sit in front of the TV or run around the house as their nanny supervises. Her sense of motherhood may seem "bad" to us from our 21st century lens, but that's because societal preferences have changed.

Today the popular term stay-at-home-mom (SAHM, for short) connotes a clear emphasis on child-rearing. The term bears no nominal reference to her presumed spouse, though SAHMs often have a working partner or work themselves. And "homemaker" feels as stale on the tongue as old toast.

But I would argue that today's ultra-involved "helicopter mom" is more a product of cultural shifts than maternal instinct.

My father grew up in the '60s in Queens, N.Y. He recalls playing outside until the streetlights came on. His extra curricular activities were spontaneous. Being bullied was a rite of passage. I, however, was enrolled in gymnastics, tennis, ballet and piano lessons before I was 10. And my being bullied resulted in a phone call to the perp's parents. Big differences, but we both seem to be well-adjusted adults who love our mothers.

With all the iterations of ideal motherhood over the last 50 years, you would think we've got it right now. The fact is, there is no perfect or ideal mother, just as there is no perfect or ideal person. Preferences change with the cultural tide. But a mother's love, however it manifests, will come to rest with her children.

-- Natalia Naman Temesgen is an independent correspondent. Contact her at or on Twitter @cafeaulazy.

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