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Literary Paper



1950s American Mothers- The Motherhood Image as Portrayed on Television and in Literature


Mothers are invaluable members of the household structure and families. American mothers in 1950s television and literature are portrayed as pillars of the family unit and the home, as they essentially controlled the household and exerted much influence on decisions made about the home and children. Job opportunities were limited to women of the 1950s and many were housewives. There was an ideal of what the perfect mother should be, as displayed in such television sitcoms as Leave It To Beaver. The mother was a perfect figure who stayed home and took care of the house while the husband went to work. She helped the children, assisted with conflicts, and dutifully performed household tasks, while always looking her best.

Despite the ideal displayed on television, the actual experiences and lifestyles of mothers were quite different. Literature provides a more critical view of mothers’ lives. The role of the 1950s mother is portrayed critically in the novels Diary of a Mad Housewife by Sue Kaufman and Raising Demons by Shirley Jackson. Though these narratives are both told from the viewpoint of a housewife and mother, the experiences and feelings of these mothers are rather different. The narrator of Diary of A Mad Housewife struggles with her role as mother and suffers depression, while the narrator of Raising Demons is happy and fulfilled. She has a much more contented view of her husband, her children, and her past.

Leave It To Beaver embodies the “perfect mother” and “perfect family” of the 1950s. The sitcom aired from 1957 to 1963. The mother of the series, June Cleaver, played by Barbara Billingsley, always looks beautiful. Her hair is always perfectly done; she wears pretty jewelry; and her clothes are clean and pressed. She is graceful and is shown performing the chores of wife and mother. She takes care of the children and the house and cooks for the family. Most of her time is spent in the kitchen. Nothing is out of place. The house is neat and orderly: “Beaver was squeaky clean because we knew June was there to make him and Wally take their baths every night…” 1 She is patient but reprimands the children when they do what they are not supposed to do. She is understanding, loving, and level-headed. There are no real problems in the episodes, just simple discussions or issues between children or between children and parents.

It is quite unlikely that June could look so perfect no matter what chore she was doing. She looked like she was dressed up to go out rather than to stay home and clean. June and her family looked perfect, but it was not the reality of life. It was the reality that many mothers aspired to. In an interesting dialogue, June’s greatness, including her knowledge of her duties, is alluded to:
“Ward: What type of girl would you have Wally marry? June: Oh, some very sensible girl from a nice family…one with both feet on the ground, who’s a good cook and can keep a nice house and see that he’s happy. Ward: Dear, I got the last one of those.”2
The episodes display June as a happy, fulfilled woman, who enjoys staying home unless she needs to drive the children somewhere or go shopping. Her hobbies are home-oriented and include making curtains and crocheting.

In the episode entitled The Grass is Always Greener, Beaver becomes friends with the garbage man’s children. The mother is very worried about Beaver. She wants to make sure he isn’t getting hurt or getting dirty. She is very protective of her child and wouldn’t want him to do anything improper. June is worried when Beaver isn’t home yet and cleans him up. Like the perfect American mother, she makes sure her son Wally puts on a decent shirt for supper, which she of course prepares, and tells Beaver to put away his shoes. They listen to their mother. She prepares milk and cookies for the children when the garbage man’s children come to visit. She seems narrow minded because the garbage man’s children couldn’t possibly be a good influence on her children. They prove her wrong, however, by telling Beaver that his mother looks like a movie star and he, in turn, tells his mother.

In another episode, Beaver’s Sweater, the main issue is Beaver badly wanting a sweater, which he later buys, and discovers it is a girl’s sweater. June practically tells Beaver that he doesn’t need a new sweater but he insists. In a dining room scene with a perfectly set table and the entire family being very polite, Beaver tries to convince his parents to let him buy the sweater. June arranges the beautiful dining room table and the family sits around the table nicely to eat supper. After Beaver leaves the table, June convinces her husband to let Beaver buy the sweater because she remembers when she wanted an opal necklace when she was a child and wasn’t allowed to buy it. She is very happy for Beaver when he buys the sweater even though she realizes that it doesn’t look right. She is disappointed that Beaver stops wearing the sweater and wants to know why. Beaver tells her, and she understands. She explains to her husband that the reason Beaver has not told them he doesn’t like the sweater anymore is because he doesn’t have the maturity to admit he is wrong. She kindly says that she will give the sweater to a girl who can make use of it.

Through these two episodes, it is apparent that June is always ready to serve her husband and children. She happily prepares everything the family needs. She is very beautiful no matter what task she is performing. There is also a moral lesson to be learned from these episodes. In The Grass is Always Greener, June and her husband realize that they shouldn’t be judgmental of other people just because they are different from them. The garbage man’s children are actually very nice children whom Beaver and Wally enjoy spending time with. In Beaver’s Sweater, children learn not to be frivolous with their finances and parents follow June’s example of being understanding of their children, no matter how foolishly they act. Leave It To Beaver provides an example for 1950s mothers to be content with their position and the tasks they need to fulfill. It also shows that there is no reason to be unhappy as a housewife. The episodes idealize the motherhood role so much that it inspires women to want to raise a family and look like June Cleaver.

Bettina Munvies Balser is the central figure of Diary of a Mad Housewife. This story, presented as her journal, reveals all her thoughts, frustrations, fears, paranoia, inner conflicts, and accomplishments. She is the mother of two girls and wife to a very successful lawyer. She lives in New York City and is very wealthy. Materially, her family has everything they want or need. Her children go to a private school; she has a maid, and is able to hire workers to perform household chores such as cleaning the windows or doing the laundry. In addition to being wealthy and successful, her husband is also very much in the public eye and has an active social life, thus thrusting her into that social life as well. Bettina’s role as a mother, in addition to taking complete care of her children, also includes staying home, taking care of the housework, shopping for various needs, arranging appointments, attending parties with her husband, entertaining, and fulfilling her husband’s requests. This novel limits women’s roles to mother and housewife. The only jobs available to her outside of the home are saleswoman or secretary. Mainly, the woman takes care of the housework and makes decisions about the household. Bettina, commonly known as Tina, fits into this role but not happily.

Superficially, Tina’s life looks very fortunate. She has two lovely healthy children, a loving successful husband, a charming apartment in New York City, the ability to attend many social events and gatherings, and strong financial stability. Internally, Tina is screaming. Despite all she seems to have, she doesn’t feel understood or fulfilled by anyone or anything. For this reason, she chooses to write in a journal. Tina was very expressive and quite rebellious in her younger years, but she simply falls into the role of mother. Her desire to paint and be independent is so unacceptable to her parents and to prevailing social standards that she is sent to a psychiatrist. The shrink listens to her and explains that it is necessary for her to realize who she truly is. He shows her that who she really is, is who she should be as dictated by society’s standards for women. She is supposed to become a secretary to support herself, not an artist, and in time become a wife and mother. She then finds a husband. She has children, and he becomes rich. The world changes around her, and she gets caught up in it with no chances to really realize who she is or who she was becoming. She falls into the roles of the 'Passive Wife' and 'Perfect Female'.

The mother who addresses solely the issues of her children and home is not unimportant by any means. These mothers have vital roles, but Bettina’s fast-paced life and the fact that she has no one to relate to hurt her very much. Seeing herself in the mirror in jeans as she brings her daughter to the bus stop makes her happy because the image is not what she supposed to look like. She is depressed but can’t pinpoint exactly what is wrong. Running after the children, taking them shopping and to the hairdresser, and seeing that all their needs are met make her very stressed because she feels lonely and that no one really cares. She seems to resent her own children at some points, not because of anything they have done, but because of what they represent. They represent her responsibilities as a wife and mother. She resorts to pills, drinking, and an affair because she has no escape. She even recognizes that her overdoing of the feminine passive role makes her adulterous. She’s nervous and paranoid about almost everything and is perpetually unsure of herself and her actions.

It is quite evident that Tina’s sense of solitude and despair might not be so profound had it not been for her husband or the circumstances through which she found him. She marries him and falls in love with him because he is everything she is supposed to look for in a husband. As time goes on, his career advances and his social involvement increases. She fulfills his every request. She does everything he wants, cooks the way he wants, decorates the apartment the way he wants, buys the food he wants, and never receives the recognition she wants. She is taken for granted because he just can’t or won’t see that her life is much more stressful and conforming than he thinks. She does what she is supposed to do and there are no questions asked, byeither party. Her husband cares very much about what people think so she has to live up to the image he wants in her social life. She completely depends on her husband and the weekly allowance he gives her. Once she is married, her rebellious nature completely shuts down and her individual expression is cut dramatically. There were occasions in the novel when she expresses what she feels and it is contrary to what her husband thinks, but nothing changes for her and her husband does not value her opinion more. She doesn’t want her husband to hire a professional maid or make their current maid work more than she does because she respects her, and her husband just accuses Tina of having annoying liberal views.

Tina’s emotions and relationship with her husband affect her behavior with her children, but she is still a loving mother who does everything for her girls. Her husband, Jonathan, knows that the girls look to her for an example and she does set a loving one. He, however, doesn’t see it that way. He says:
‘…I mean that girls look to their mothers to teach them about being women, to set examples of femininity for them--and you sure set one helluva bad example.’…I was shaking with rage. ‘You shut up Jonathan Balser. You can take that kind of talk and shove it right up you ass. If there’s any rotten example being set for those girls, it’s not me. You say one more filthy word about it’s being me, and I will divorce you, so help me God’ 3
Bettina becomes very protective of herself and the girls especially when how she raises her children is attacked. Though her behavior seems submissive, she has strong views and when pushed to the limit is not afraid to state them. Jonathan’s statement is right in that Tina’s children look to her for example, but not in that she sets a bad one. Her compassion and concern for her daughters are particularly seen when they get sick. She cares for them, cleans up after them, demands a doctor when theirs isn’t available, and constantly checks on them. She also is very upset at Jonathan for not allowing the girls to come to the party they host at their apartment. She doesn’t want the girls to be considered a nuisance or as being in the way. She cares about them and doesn’t want her husband to view them as bothers. She has a wonderful time over the Christmas vacation from school spending time with her daughters. However, her worries include believing she could be pregnant with the child of the man with whom she is having the affair, and this affects her interaction with them. At a certain point in the novel when the older daughter answers her back, Bettina slaps her across the face and sends her to her room. She would not have responded in such a way to her children’s inappropriate behavior had it not been for her internal troubles. When she calms down she regrets her action and talks to her children. Bettina is a good mother who loves her children dearly but whose existence is unfortunately marred but situations other than those with her children.

Unlike Bettina Balser, the mother in Raising Demons isn’t struggling with the fast-paced life and living up to the perfect image. She is a housewife and her duties include taking care of the children and household and she doesn’t have a job, but she is much happier and more fulfilled than Tina. She lives in a small Vermont town. Her family is not rich but they have enough. She has two sons and two daughters. Her husband is a college professor.

The mother in Raising Demons is the manager of the house. She is a very strong character. She always has everything under control, and her husband seems dependent on her just as much as she is dependent on him. She needs to ask him for money because he is the spouse that works, but he seems lost in matters concerning the house or children. When the family cat gives birth in the house, the husband sends his daughter to find out what to do about it. The mother rushes to do everything that must be done. When her son brings home unexpected visitors, she manages to get everyone clean and ready quickly enough so that everyone is all set by the time they get there. The family is thrown out of whack when she doesn’t complete her usual responsibilities. When she oversleeps, the children don’t know what to do. They attempt to make breakfast themselves but are incapable and then leave the house in search of a mother of one of their friends who will provide them with breakfast and supervision. Their father gets upset at the mother when the children leave as if it were solely her responsibility. This may seem unfair because the husband won’t assume responsibility for the children but it is also a demonstration of how much the children and family unit as a whole depend on the mother.

The Raising Demons character, on the other hand, is a caring, loving mother whom the children rely on. She gives them each a birthday party in the new house even though it isn't fixed up, and she probably would have preferred not to. She knows where everything is in the house and is able to do many things at once. She is patient, yet stern. She is respected by her children and her husband. She relates well to and has a relationship with each of her children. She is protective of them when they go visit their very old great aunt because she recalls how she felt when she used to go to visit her as a child. She is their refuge and their guardian. A touching image of this mother as protector is evident when they go to visit old Aunt Gertrude:
‘…‘I’m scared,’ Jannie said; she came over and slipped her hand into mine. ‘Is Aunt Gertrude big?’ ‘No,’ I said. ‘Very small.’ ‘I’m scared,’ Jannie said simply.’4
She is also fascinated with her children. She is fascinated by their different habits and their becoming different people. She values each of them and admires their growth. She spends a great deal of time with her children and enjoys making clothespin dolls or going shopping with them. She supports what they do if it’s something that will help them or something that they are exited about, yet she is firm in not letting them do what they should not do. She cheers wildly for her oldest son during his baseball games, but makes sure that he won’t smoke when he decides he wants to make that his new hobby.

The mother is atill able to enjoy herself and have friends apart from her family so that she can relieve her stress and relax. She goes away for a weekend with some old friends and still makes sure everything is taken care of while she is away. She leaves a detailed list for her husband for everything that needs to be done and doesn’t leave out anything. She goes to her friend’s house one night and plays poker with some girlfriends. Her husband allows her to do what she wants and is not a hindrance to her personal growth. This demonstrates that it was possible to have a social life apart from the family. A woman was not necessarily confined to the home. The emotions of women were also influenced by what they did for themselves.

The mother has her limits, however. There are times when she wants to give up and doesn’t want to put up with anyone anymore. When she becomes sick, she feels resentful that her children still need her and doesn’t feel like doing her daily duties. She wishes she could just be taken to the hospital so that she can get a break from home. At another point in the novel, she is fed up with picking up after her children and their not listening to her when she repeatedly tells them to put things where they belonged. Therefore, she posts an ultimatum in the kitchen in which all their privileges are taken away or strictly limited. She is able to get what she wants. The children post a response in which they promise to help their mother and clean up after themselves.

The novel also gives a good impression of the narrator’s relationship with her own mother, which probably influences her relationship with her four children. Her mother was also very loving, unlike Bettina Balser’s mother, who was too busy playing bridge with her friends to worry about her daughter. The narrator’s mother from Raising Demons is always present during her childhood activities, such as making clothespin dolls. She gives her mother a clothespin doll and her mother puts it on her dresser. When the clothespin dolls are no longer a fascination and there are too many, her mother tells her to keep her favorite, and together they bring the rest to the hospital for other children. Both characters are caring people who have compassion for others. In the same way the narrator of the novel will influence her daughters’ relationship and behavior with their children. In the end of the novel, when the family is decorating for Christmas, they recall the Christmases that have passed, and the narrator’s daughter Jannie speaks about how her Christmases will be with her own daughter.

The only point in the story when the mother feels like she has fallen into astereotype is when she realizes that she is a faculty wife. She is like the wives of her husband’s coworkers, who wear black dresses, read good books, have interests at home, and have certain known pastimes. She has fallen into the role. One of her husband’s students asks her if she always knew she would become this and the student assumes that it is better than not getting married. Unlike Tina, however, this mother doesn’t resent this stereotype. She is happy to support her husband and has a very happy fulfilled life. The fact that she is a faculty wife doesn't mean she is only that.

It is evident that the motherly role was considered a very important one in 1950s America as demonstrated in literature and television. Although an image of the perfect mother was presented on TV, it was far from who the American woman really was. There was much more to the American wife and mother than what was portrayed in TV sitcoms. This real person is revealed through women’s novels that relate a mother’s emotions, conflicts, and actual circumstances. There were variations in the feelings of mothers toward their status, which were influenced by various factors.



1 Denis, Christopher. Favorite Families of TV. New York: Carol Publishing Group, 1992: pp. 57.

2 Applebaum, Irwyn. The World According to Beaver. New York: Bantam Books, 1984: pp. 39.

3 Kaufman, Sue. Diary of A Mad Housewife. New York: Random House, Inc., 1967: pp. 215.

4 Jackson, Shirley. Raising Demons. New York: Farrar, Straus and Cudahy, 1957: pp. 121.

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