Extensive tribute has been paid to television's standard bearers of domestic bliss. I refer to the perfect nuclear families depicted on series like Ozzie and Harriet (1952-66) and The Donna Reed Show (1958-66), in which Father worked but was always home before dark, Mother preened in an apron, arranging everyone's lives while neglecting her own, and the kids were largely respectful, fun-loving and happy to be at home.
Equally significant was the impact of early childhood literature, specifically the tool which taught my entire generation to read -- The Dick and Jane reading primer series, lovingly remembered in a wonderful book, Growing Up With Dick and Jane: Learning and Living the American Dream. Images of the family with no last name who speak exclusively in cheerful monosyllables are juxtaposed against a 30-years popular history of the times, helping to explain the lasting appeal of those nostalgic images in the midst of profound social change.
What 40-something woman in America is not still mesmerized by that image of Mother -- no name, just plain Mother -- happily keeping house while her chubby, well-dressed brood romp in the velvet grass outside where it never snows? Mother was slim, her hair always done. When she left the house, she dressed in jaunty suits, nylons and high heels. She always wore a hat. She never became frustrated when Father came home and whipped the kids up into a frenzy before dinner.
I was raised on these images. I loved them partly because they reflected, to some degree, the middle-class suburban life of my family, but more importantly, because they idealized and glamorized that narrow '50s, early '60s existence. As a divorced mother who stumbled through the next three decades largely in a state of conflict over work and home, feminist ideals and madonna complex, duty and fulfillment, I now recognize the subversiveness of those images.
Why do most of us who grew up in that time continue to feel guilty about work and home conflicts? Why do we blame ourselves when our children have a bad day? Why do we continue to feel that we will never measure up as mothers? For most of us, it is not because our extended families were perfect role models. Ours was not the first generation of divorce, of single parenting, of not enough money and not enough time. And from the late '60s on, we recognized the frustrations of the "feminine mystique" and the limitations of a purely domestic life.
But even as we pursued our college educations, shared housework and child-rearing with spouses, entered the work force, and liberated our households from the tyranny of perfection, we still kept in the back of our minds that image of Mother -- waving out the upstairs window of the white frame house, serving up cookies, dressed in a form-fitting shirtwaist dress and white sandals, tending the flower beds.
We wanted our children to grow up speaking their minds, but we wanted them to be rosy and cheerful, like Dick and Jane. We wanted our husbands to stimulate us sexually and intellectually, but we also wanted them to come home early and mow the lawn, like Father. We wanted careers and lives in the world at large, but we dreamed of serving dinner every night around the dining room table, cheerful and beautiful, like Mother.
Our daughters have watched us leave home, have seen us in tears when things fall apart, have been on the receiving end of our confusion and ill-placed wrath, have parented us. Perhaps theirs is the best training for motherhood in a world that has now resigned Donna Reed and June Cleaver to the role of kitsch queens on Nick at Nite.
Dick, Jane, Sally, Spot, Mother and Father deserve to be remembered -- if only to remind us of the way things never were and never will be.
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