Mad men

Happy Effin’ Mother’s Day, Betty Draper!

The Hallmark holiday, on which the latest episode of "Mad Men" aired, is far from perfect. But, then again, so are we.

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Gather any group of mothers together and ask them how their Mother’s Day went. Go ahead. I’ll bet you any amount of money you’ll hear more rants than raves. That’s because Mother’s Day—a holiday born in revolution, deformed by the greeting card industry, and burnished by television ads for everything from jewelry stores to household appliances—is essentially a one-day representation of everything that is awful about modern motherhood.

How was yours? You say you wanted to be taken out for a lovely meal, but instead you got pizza delivered to your messy house? You were hoping for a special piece of jewelry and all you got was a crockpot? I’d respond that your problem isn’t limited to what happens one Sunday in May. You’re looking at a microcosm of the gap between what you deserve and what you receive. The problem isn’t with the holiday itself; it’s a structural problem of motherhood. There’s no way to adequately compensate mothers for the role we play in our families and society, and despite that—or maybe because of it—maternity is a status we merely pretend to revere, something we romanticize because it would be too intense (and sometimes expensive: Hello, maternity leave!) to get real about it. As for rewarding it? Pfff. In our dreams.

My Mother’s Day was fine: coffee and a doughnut in bed, husband did the dishes, and later a nice dinner out at a family-friendly restaurant that also serves adult milk shakes (mine was banana with rum in it). Later that night, after the kid was in bed, we settled in to watch Mad Men. Even though the episode didn’t refer to Mother’s Day, it was impossible to watch without thinking of mothers and daughters.

(If you’d prefer not to know what happened on last Sunday’s episode, the penultimate installment of the entire series, stop reading now.)

As usual, the show followed several storylines throughout the episode, but one I hadn’t expected involved Betty: Like a lot of Mad Men fans, I believed her storyline might have already been wrapped up. When we had seen her last, she was studying at the kitchen table, reveling—as much as an emotionally repressed WASP can revel—in her newly reclaimed status as a student (Betty going back to school to get a masters in psychology seemed like an almost cruel joke on the part of show creator Matthew Weiner, because who on Earth is less psychologically aware than Betty?). At any rate, I had been prepared to see the last of the show’s only major character whose identity was primarily defined by motherhood. Betty was portrayed as a flawed mother—at times, even, borderline abusive—but she had stood the course, reached a tentative mutual respect with daughter Sally, and seemed to be moving forward into a newer, more expansive life.

Then she collapsed while rushing to class. An X-ray taken for a broken rib led to a terminal cancer diagnosis, and the Betty narrative turned toward impending loss. Husband Henry is angry that she refuses treatment that could extend her life, but his anger only imperfectly conceals his sense of anguished confusion. “What the hell am I gonna do now?” he cries in Sally’s room at boarding school, after defying Betty’s request that she be the one to tell the children. (Mad Men devotees will hardly be surprised by the absence of a scene of Bobby and little Gene being informed about their mom’s terminal illness—their presence on the show carries less resonance than the tiniest details of Bert Cooper’s erotic octopus painting.)

Oh, but Sally. It’s her reaction I wanted to see, her pain I felt almost as if it were my own. Because Mother’s Day, for those of us who are both mothers and daughters, can get you coming and going. I’m sure there are some women out there who feel at peace with their mothers and confident about their own mothering. I am in awe of those people, but I don’t know if I really know any. For the rest of us, Mother’s Day can dredge up a whole lot of guilt and regret, anger and shame.

My own mother shared more than a few things with Betty Draper, from the three kids to the painful divorce to a certain difficulty getting along with her only daughter. She died less than a year ago—this is my first Mother’s Day without her—and watching Sally, I realized (not for the first time) how much you can miss even the most wildly imperfect mother. The connection between Betty and Sally, always fraught and often hateful, here felt almost unbearably strong; when Henry brought Sally home from school and she and Betty locked eyes in the kitchen, you could read their unspoken dialogue: Did he tell you? Yes, I know your secret.

In the end, Betty’s letter to Sally, meant to be opened after her death, revealed all the deep dissatisfaction and unfulfilled promise of their relationship. It begins as we have always known Betty, vain and preoccupied with the superficial, instructing Sally about her preferred wardrobe and hairstyle for the funeral. Yet at the end, she finally—at long last—seemed to signal that she truly recognized and understood her daughter. “I always worried about you because you marched to the beat of your own drum, but now I know that’s good,” Betty’s letter ended. “I know your life will be an adventure.”

For Betty and Sally Draper, motherhood and daughterhood is a tangle of near-misses and unfulfilled expectations. And I suspect it’s like that for a lot of us, whether as daughters or as mothers. For those of us whose parents and children are both very much in our lives, we can feel doubly misunderstood, needed by everyone, unable to fully satisfy both sides.

I’ve come to feel that motherhood is like calculus: No matter how closely we approach perfection, we will never reach it. And it also contains a paradox: Even when we mothers veer as far as possible from perfection, we are somehow also, imperceptibly, irreplaceable.

The psychologist D. W. Winnicott famously said, “There is no such thing as a baby, there is a baby and someone.” That someone, nearly all the time, is a mother. What he meant was that human development always begins in relationships—the baby cannot grow up without her caretaker, in the beginning, in fact, she cannot exist without her caretaker. It’s impossible to conceive of a more important responsibility. I think this is why so many of us, when first sent home with our first children, look around to see if we’re really being allowed to do this: How can anyone believe that I will know how to raise a child? Am I up for this job?

Winnicott is also famous for another phrase: the “good-enough mother,” by which he meant that mothers don’t have to be especially sophisticated, well-educated, or skillful to help their children grow and mature. They mostly have to be present, to pay attention, and to care.

Like Betty Draper, my own mother was ragingly imperfect (so, I imagine, am I). Like Sally, I probably started to appreciate her too late. For all of us daughters and mothers, I hope that we can accept our own imperfections and come to see ourselves as good enough. Let’s keep voting and agitating for a Mother’s Day that will actually value us—whether that means world peace or maternity leave—but in the meantime, let’s celebrate by giving ourselves a break. We are good enough.


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