From Donna Reed To Midge Maisel: Television’s Complicated Relationship With The Perfect Mother

Growing up, I watched a lot of TV. Like, a lot. My mother and I were never very close, and while she didn’t work, she wasn’t exactly in love with being a full-time mother, either. I didn’t have any siblings; there weren’t a lot of kids in my neighbourhood; and you can only hit a tennis ball against your garage door so many times. So: TV.
On TV, there were mothers galore. If you’d asked me then which TV mother I would have wanted for myself, I would have told you Elyse Keaton (Meredith Baxter) from Family Ties, no question. She was my ’80s version of Donna Reed in The Donna Reed Show, the blonde-haired-blue-eyed ideal to this dark-haired, brown-eyed Jewish girl who longed to look like the American norm. Elyse was pretty, she was nice, and most of all, she seemed to love her kids — even if they weren’t the type of people she would have envisioned raising (cough, Alex P. Keaton, cough). I have an image of her in my head, sitting on their living room sofa set, with her arm around one of the Keaton teens, listening to them, making them feel heard and loved and helping them figure out a way for things to be okay. To me, that was a dream. 
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Sure, there were others. Clair Huxtable (Phylicia Rashad) from (gulp) The Cosby Show would have done nicely, too. She was so polished, a real “career woman” — as we said then. She could do no wrong. Roseanne Conner (Roseanne Barr) on Roseanne was probably a little more hard-shell-on-the-outside than I would have liked, not to mention the money troubles, but she did have that smirk that would tell you it was all going to be okay. 
As an adult, it was not a given that I would have kids. In fact, a friend once aptly joked, “We knew your husband would have kids, we just didn’t know if he’d wind up having them with you.” Eventually, however, I took the leap. I have a 6-year-old and a 3-year-old, and I’m proud to report I did not become like the mum from Wings who abandoned Tim Daly and Stephen Weber’s characters as children. That was a legitimate fear of mine for years.
Big Little Lies would posit that these days, there’s a contentious divide between mums who work and mums who stay at home, everyone judging everyone else for not making their same decision, but I find that the working mums feel guilty for not being home, and the stay-at-home mums feel guilty for not working. I’m always feeling bad I didn’t craft a perfect bento-box lunch for my daughter when I’m busy punching up a script, and feeling guilty I’m not working on a story outline while I’m watching my son’s Halloween parade. (Although in my defense, that thing goes on for like two hours.)
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Growing up, the impression TV gave me of new motherhood was of the typical beleaguered, barf-covered zombie women holding screaming infants and wishing they could go back in time nine months and put the condom on. As Tim Gunn might say on one of his spicier days, heaven for-fucking-fend. It looked miserable.
To combat my fears, I basically went back to work before my babies’ umbilical cords fell off. Honestly, it was great. As a comedy writer, I was terrified having kids would tank my career, but as is predictable, instead I found a whole new and rich host of material in my life as a new parent. 
My mum-of-baby years most closely resembled Catherine Reitman’s Workin’ Moms on Netflix, about new mums who are all grappling with that work-family balance. The mummy group that opens every episode is deeply familiar to me, down to the annoying uber-perfect mum you want to punch right in the wooden teether. In particular, I remember a smug anti-vaxxer mum in one Mummy And Me class who claimed she had an orgasmic birth. Reader: I did not kill her, but I did a little bit with my mind.
These days, I often find myself running around like Andrea Savage in I’m Sorry, eating breakfast in the car (I do yogurt, not cereal) and trading inappropriate stories with my parent friends before having to explain something embarrassing to my kids. Said kids haven’t loudly announced that I have a huge vagina in a restaurant like in the I’m Sorry pilot, but I can only assume it’s coming. Not because my vagina is huge. It is a normal size. I swear. What were we talking about?
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Like Midge (Rachel Brosnahan) from Amy Sherman-Palladino’s The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, I know all about being a funny East Coast Jewish lady from a nice but quirky and enmeshed family (I’m looking at you, relatives who used my grad-school graduation drinks to weigh in on when/how they wanted me to break up with my boyfriend at the time), and about family being less than thrilled at the choice to struggle in the male world of comedy while trying to raise two little kids. 
Midge and I aren’t identical, though. I’m not here to argue her fitness as a mother; for all we know, Midge could be June Cleavering it up every second of her life that doesn’t pertain to her career. But the fact is that most of the scenes we do see with the kids are played for quick laughs about how basically no one is minding them. In my house, that would never fly, because my kids want my attention at all times. When left to their own devices, they think they’re doing life wrong if there isn’t spaghetti on the ceiling at any given moment. The last time I took my eyes off them for a minute, the older one decided to test how far he could run without dropping the cat (answer: farther than you would think), and the younger one was aggressively mooning strangers. To be fair: It was funny, so I let her keep doing it.
So I eat leftover crackers from reusable Pokemon snack bags for lunch and jot down punchlines during my son’s Halloween parade (seriously, it was so long). I work, and I love it. Then every night when I come home for dinner and bedtime, I make my kids practice writing and play a rousing game of “Rapunzel Standing Alone In Her Tower” with Barbie dolls in the bath, trying to be the best damn Elyse Keaton I can be.
At least for now. When they’re grown, I’m hoping to transition into Moira Rose from Schitt’s Creek; although in fairness that’s more about the sleep vests, wigs, and getting a good deal on fruit wine.
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