I love Mad Men. The writing, the aesthetic, everything. It’s a brilliant show and it gave me a sense of what it must have been like to live in that era.
One of the fascinating themes of the show is the rise of the women in the workplace. Whether it’s the working mom like Joan Harris or the ambitious career woman, Peggy Olson, we see the struggles and challenges of balancing family, work, and relationships.
On the other end of the spectrum is Betty Draper Francis, the stereotypical 50s housewife. Unsatisfied, depressed, and insecure, Betty stays home while Don works late or doesn’t come home at all. The kids go to school and are cared for by the nanny who also does most of the housework while Betty looks pretty and is in charge of purchasing the family’s stuff. She is the head of Draper consumption.
But women in Betty’s great-grandmother’s day wouldn’t have been chiefly consumers. In addition to the role of mother, Betty’s great-grandmother would have been a creator. Between growing food, preserving food, cooking food and tending artisan crafts in the home she would have known that her contribution to the household was essential to the family’s welfare. Betty on the other hand is dissatisfied and finds herself questioning her value.
No wonder women like Joan and Peggy want to follow the men into the office! In addition to financial independence, Joan and Peggy want to be more than a consumer. They want to create something of value. And Megan Draper, Don’s second wife, also rejects the housewife model and pursues a career (even though after her marriage to Don she has no financial need to bring in an income). These women work because they like the challenge and creativity of it.
And yet, the life they choose doesn’t end up being paradise. While their struggles are certainly not 100% related to their lifestyle as working women, Joan, Peggy, and Megan’s relationships fail. Joan struggles with balancing her role as a mother with her career and gets precious little time with her son (until she begins working from home in the final episode). Peggy is devastated by the fact that she may never have a family. Betty’s lifestyle certainly was failing her (and also ended in divorce), but for Joan, Peggy, and Megan, the brave new world of women in the workplace isn’t delivering everything they dreamed of.
I think it makes perfect sense that a lot of women rejected the sort of life Betty Draper led (and even Betty decides to go back to school for a psychology degree in the final season). And I don’t think that women seeking to thrive creatively is problematic. The problem is that Joan and Peggy build their lives after an already failing model.
Peggy, for instance, is modeling her life after Don Draper’s. And that’s the life that’s broken. They are struggling, not because they have careers but because they follow in the footsteps of Don Draper and those like him who have lost the sense of the home as the center of life.
Don Draper is isolated from his family. His work has nothing to do with their home except for providing the money to purchase things for it. He has no common pursuits with his wife. He lives at his office, his family lives at their house.
But that’s not how things have always been. Just think of the word “husband.” Husbandry is the care and cultivation of crops and animals. Husband comes from words meaning “man who cares for his house.” The home was the center of not just his family’s life, but his life and work. So the separation of a father from a household to work first in the factories and now in the offices hasn’t been around forever. If you think of “the olden days” like Laura Ingalls Wilder’s experience, her father’s work was providing for their home. And that entailed working on his own land and being near his family.
We can’t all be Pa Ingalls, of course. And working from home isn’t the right situation for everyone, either. Some moms and dads have jobs outside the home that they love and make them thrive. And I don’t think that’s a bad thing at all.
But I think we can all restore the home as the center of life. We can simply be around more, spend time as a family, cook and eat together around the dining room table. If home life is meant to be a school of love, then….we have to attend class sometimes, right?
In one of my favorite essays, “Feminism, the Body, and the Machine,” Wendell Berry says:
“The modern household is the place where the consumptive couple do their consuming. Nothing productive is done there. Such work as is done there is done at the expense of the resident couple or family, and to the profit of suppliers of energy and household technology. For entertainment, the inmates consume television or purchase other consumable diversion elsewhere.
There are, however, still some married couples who understand themselves as belonging to their marriage, to each other, and to their children. What they have they have in common, and so, to them, helping each other does not seem merely to damage their ability to compete against each other. To them, ‘mine’ is not so powerful or necessary a pronoun as ‘ours.’
This sort of marriage usually has at its heart a household that is to some extent productive. The couple, that is, makes around itself a household economy that involves the work of both wife and husband, that gives them a measure of economic independence and self-employment, a measure of freedom, as well as a common ground and a common satisfaction. “
What if the Drapers built their lives around that model? What if Don Draper hadn’t isolated himself from his home and his family? What if Betty hadn’t spent years as merely the purchaser of household goods and actually connected with her home and her children instead of outsourcing her mothering to the TV and the nanny? What if the Drapers had common creative pursuits that benefited their family and centered them in their home? What if they’d even just turned off the TV and sat down to dinner together every single night?
I can’t help but think that things would have turned out differently. What do you think?
If you’re hungry for more Mad Men musings, check out this one from a couple of weeks ago about Don Draper’s First Confession.