I start writing about Betty Draper and end up fantasising about a long bath

I am waiting for the final episodes of “Mad Men” to come onto Netflix, and meanwhile I went back and watched some of season one.

One of the themes of “Mad Men” generally is the allure and horror of being alienated from oneself. There is a fine line between the detachment that enables you to perform as the person you want to be, and the disconnect that leaves you unsure who you are. The show plays with this in many ways. One is Betty’s alienation from the mothering role. When Betty asks Henry in season six “why don’t they love me?”, she is really asking “why don’t I love them more?”. What hurts her is not the way the children behave, but her own less than loving response. Unable to acknowledge to herself that it’s her response at fault, she blames the children, and thus justifies her behaviour towards them. Yet she wantsto be a good mother, and more than this, she wants to find fulfilment in motherhood – though for the viewers it is obvious from the second episode that she’s deeply unhappy.

As a character, Betty is a more radical creation by far than Joan or Peggy. Motherhood as a potentially alienating performance is not something we see or speak of often. We don’t often see on tv mothers who do shitty things to their kids.  

Advertising has an obvious fascination with the contrast between authenticity and performance. The sweet spot is to authentically be your ideal self – but we see in Don how unobtainable that is. The idealised version is (by definition) not the authentic version. What shocks us about Betty is that her mothering often involves a negative knee-jerk response to a situation. In a world where mother “instincts” are rarefied, depicting the possibility that a mother’s instinct might be selfish or petty is radical. I love that the show goes there, because the reality is that mothers sometimes have to consciously behave well in their mother role, despite impulses to the contrary (just like office workers). 

One of the cool things about a TV show like “Mad Men” is that it shows people behaving so badly they almost cross the line into irredeemable awfulness, meaning the audience gets the vicarious chills and thrills of seeing that shadow self who you know is there, but you don’t want to let out. Even Peggy, heroine Peggy, behaves appallingly sometimes – like that thing with the flowers and the secretary. But the critics reserve a particular condemnation for Betty. It seems that being a bad mother is the worst thing anyone can be.

Remember the Veruca Salt “I want it now” scene in the old Gene Wilder version of Willy Wonker and the Chocolate Factory? Whenever my brother and I were being little spoiled shits, my dad would say “stop it, you’re behaving like Veruca Salt”. We would stop straight away, we didn’t want to be Verucas, dear no – but we loved that scene. There is a catharsis in watching awful behaviour and the comeuppance. Also, seeing characters on screen do the things you don’t do but sometimes have an unbidden thought of doing can provide a moral anchor. Bad examples serve a purpose. It’s hard to always live up to the best example, so sometimes you need to lower the bar and just make sure you don’t do the worst stuff. Which is why, in a tv landscape very very full of flawed characters who do bad things (I can’t even watch “House of Cards”, it is too cynical and makes me too despondent), we need some mothers in the mix.

Yesterday the little dude threw food out of his high chair and then yanked my hair very hard as I bent to clean it up and then tipped his sippy cup down the back of my neck. I didn’t have the emotional reserves to be super patient mama. It had been a long day. I was tired. I wasn’t going to be able to do “carefully modulated stern voice.” You know what I wanted to do when I was crouched under the high chair mopping up food and he grabbed a handful of my hair and pulled with full force? I wanted to pull his hair. It hurt! Now, pulling your 15 month old baby’s hair is clearly in the “unacceptable” basket (it’s the sort of thing Betty Draper might do!). But in that moment, I had this image of just yanking his beautiful soft golden curly hair. The perfect mother woudn’t even have that thought. The perfect mother wouldn’t feel pain inflicted by chubby hands, the perfect mother would see only the reality that he is still learning boundaries. The perfect mother would gently un-curl the little fist, and her hair would fall exactly back into place, and she would calmly explain that pulling hair is not nice, and the child would understand exactly what she meant and would never do it again, and as a bonus he would finish his dinner with no more catapulting of food. I was a ratty, end of tether mother yesterday. I walked away and got myself a drink of water and some crackers while he yelled and banged the sippy cup on the table top. Then I took a deep breath. By allowing ourselves to step back from “be the best mother you can be” sometimes, and just focus on “don’t be an arsehole”, it becomes easier to maintain a calm equilibrium.

What I like about seeing bad behaviour on tv is that it reminds me of the difference between thoughts and actions. To exist on tv, someone else must have thought of doing the thing. But they didn’t. They made a tv show about it instead. Proof of the fact that the momentary thought of doing something you would instantly regret is different to actually doing it.

(If I ever make a tv show, I will write a scene where a mother pulls her toddler’s hair, feels terrible, lets him throw everything on the floor to make it up to him, and then runs a big deep bath and gets in it with the toddler, and just stays there adding more hot water for like an hour or more so that when her husband gets home, he is greeted with food everywhere and a prune of a toddler and he has no choice but to take the toddler from the bath, at which point the mother stealthily gets out and locks the bathroom door behind him, emerging in a bathrobe only once the toddler is in bed and the food is cleared up).

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