With another season of Mad Men over, my wife and I are left with a big hole to fill in our entertainment schedule. This constitutes a real problem. We’re talking about Mad Men – not some cream-puff comedy easily replaced by a few rounds of Wii bowling. Night after night we have sat on the couch, she holding a tumbler of scotch, the day’s newspaper folded neatly in her lap, and me in my apron, swirling my third glass of merlot. If that sounded backward, then allow me to explain. While my wife brings home the organic, hormone-free turkey-bacon, I am a stay-at-home dad (or SAHD). Our dynamic is not atypical for today, but back when the word “stereotype” might be confused with a brand of Hi-Fi radio and helicopters were odd enough without associating them with a type of parenting, the concept of a father as the primary caregiver would have raised the suspicions of both men and women.
Watching episode after episode, my wife and I have laughed ourselves to tears imagining our lives played out as Don and Betty Draper, only in our version, the show would be called “SAHD Men” with me feeding the kids dinner every night and handing my wife a stiff drink as soon as she walks through the door after another hard day at the office. I suspect we’re not alone indulging in such fantasies, which, on a broader scale, is what I think fuels audiences’ fascination with the show. There’s a satisfying amusement that comes from comparing past societal and cultural nuances against those of the present. With the decidedly un-PC idiosyncrasies of the Eisenhower/Kennedy-era sexism portrayed in Mad Men, it’s impossible to restrain our imaginations from inserting ourselves somewhere within the drama and then dissecting those moments through the contexts of the current day.
For me, as a full-time parent to five children, there is a part of me that relates to Betty. I would love, for example, to conveniently dump off the kids on a nanny who, it seems, can be conjured out of thin air, and the isolation in being a househusband could drive me to take up chain-smoking as a hobby. (Although, due to anatomical differences, I avoid using the washing machine for, ahem . . . hard-core fans catch my drift.) However, despite my non-traditional domestic role, I am, after all, a man and a father, so Don still represents the character I identify the closest with, which also explans why I am the best-dressed, most unflappably cool parent at the bus stop.
As the show’s central figure, Don is probably the maddest of the mad men (and women), and his behavior can elicit loathing, sympathy, admiration and every combination thereof. But next to Betty, who locks children in closets, lets them use a Cellophane bag as an astronaut helmet and generally treats them as nitwits, Don wins “Parent of the Year” by default.
But for all of Mad Men‘s vaunted authenticity, critics point out the omission of Dr. Benjamin Spock’s permissive parenting philosophy which was widely prevalent among the upper-middle class during this period. This inconsistency may be due to creator Matthew Weiner’s original plan to show little of Don’s home life, or it might be because Betty and Don are just that selfish when it comes to meeting their children’s individual needs. Although, unlike Betty, Don’s problem isn’t that he doesn’t engage his children, it’s that he’s never home on a regular basis. Opinions vary on Don’s parenting, and indeed, the children’s reactions to the news of the divorce were telling: Bobby automatically assumes he’s the cause while Sally first blames Don for never keeping his promises and then accuses Betty of instigating the separation. Still, given his own upbringing, I contend that Don is a good father, or at least a well-intentioned one anyway. (Other dads like those at DadCentric agree.)
Considering that he is the illegitimate son of a whore who died during birth and an uncompassionate father who never accepted him as a son, Don could have turned out worse as a parent. Instead, Don wants to avoid the sins of his father, who beat Don regularly. Take for instance the episode, “Three Sundays,” when Don and Betty argue over his reluctance to punish Bobby. Frustrated by his wife’s haranguing, Don slings Bobby’s toy across the room and sends him to bed. “Are you happy?” he yells at Betty. Later he apologizes to Bobby, demonstrating a rare vulnerability in Don. When Bobby asks if Don’s dad yelled at him, Don nods and then hugs Bobby at his suggestion that Don needs a new daddy.
This is not an isolated example of Don’s love for his children. He attends Sally’s school functions and takes her to work with him. He’s understanding of her fear of the dark and promises a nightlight (provided she keeps her room clean). He gets up in the middle of the night to rock baby Eugene. “I’ve done it before,” he reminds Betty when she walks in offering to take over. Plus, he wants the kids in the divorce. And, yes, it could be out of retribution, but I contend it’s because he doesn’t want them growing up being ignored by Betty. Okay, yeah, he was playing “Sputnik” with his daughter’s teacher, and that warrants consequences. Regardless, Don puts forth the effort to be a real dad in a period when being a good father was judged on lesser criteria.
As I listen to my parents talk about growing up in the 50s and 60s, their stories are laced with a sense that the standards for fatherhood (and those of a husband) boiled down to the ability to hold down a steady job and put a roof over the family’s head. So, screaming at my mother and smashing plates because the dishes weren’t cleaned, as her father did on a regular basis, or in my dad’s case, dodging the bullets fired at him by his drunken father were perfectly acceptable behaviors because my grandfathers were admirable for putting food on the table and clothes on my parent’s backs. While I’m sure everyone’s childhood experiences in that era were not that extreme, the mentality of fatherhood being measured predominantly on a man’s role as a provider was commonly held to.
The mentality of fatherhood being measured predominantly on a man’s role as a provider was commonly held to. With parents, and especially fathers, being as involved in their children’s lives as they are today, this mindset seems absurd. Yet it once was the norm, which is why Don deserves at least a little credit. Lucky for me, my parents, like Don, determined not to raise their children as they had been. Even though they were left without a healthy functioning example on which to pattern their child-rearing, they muddled through it doing the best they could with what they did know. Walking in their shoes, I now can appreciate what it must have taken.
With no model of his own, Don is in a similar situation, and despite his best intentions as a father, there are instances when he appears lost. A poignant example of this occurs in the season finale when he finds Sally waiting for him, asleep in the spare bedroom Don has been banished to. Don sits down in the chair, a confused expression on his face as he contemplates what is best for his children as the family is about to be broken up. With nothing to say, Don does the only thing he can think of: Rather than carry Sally to her room, he crawls into bed next to her.
Having been in that exact same position at one point in my life, I recognized the look on Don’s face. I could feel the confusion in his gut, and the loss of a clear-cut path to take. As I relived those feelings reenacted by Don’s character in a fictional story set almost five decades ago, it sparked an ironic thought. In this modern age when mothers and fathers consider themselves more enlightened than those of previous generations; where an unlimited amount of advice is a mere mouse click away and teams of experts wax eloquent about the newest insights into child development, sometimes it’s not enough. Sometimes there are moments when we parents realize that, whether it’s the 1960s or the 2060s, one truth spans the history of raising children: we don’t have all the answers, and sometimes we’re just doing the best we can.