Everybody is talking about ABC’s wildly popular, darkly comedic soap opera, “Desperate Housewives”. And while I originally tuned in expecting to despise Hollywood’s skewed depiction of marriage and motherhood in suburbia, I have been pleasantly surprised and entertained by the misadventures on Wisteria Lane.
The retro-housewives on Wisteria Lane are portrayed by a variety of super-beautiful, super-slim, and super-sexy actresses. So right off you know — they aren’t your typical housewives. Bree Van De Camp (Marcia Cross) is the symbol of intensive mothering, a living, breathing Stepford Wife. But that’s NOT a good thing. Bree is a neurotic joke, a scarier Martha Stewart.
Lynette Scavo (Felicity Huffman) represents the woman who opted out of her high-powered career to stay home with her four loathsome monsters. She’s the woman I most identify with. And honestly, it makes me almost sick to watch her struggle to control her offspring and her emotions. I find myself wondering what keeps this woman from putting a bullet in her brain.
Gabrielle Solis (Eva Longoria) is the bored wealthy trophy wife who leads an excessive, yet empty, shallow life. I believe she’s here mainly to attract young male viewers. Gabrielle’s naughty romance with the hunky teenaged gardener is the standard stuff of soap operas, but still it’s a nice change of pace to have female fantasies explored on primetime for a change.
Susan Mayer (Teri Hatcher) represents the most normal, and well-adjusted of the group. And unlike the others, she is a divorced single mother and the only one in the group who has a “real job.” Susan is a children’s illustrator, but we haven’t seen her do anything remotely related to work since the series began. Vying for the attention of her mysterious, yet amazingly attractive, neighbor (Mike Delfino), and humiliating herself seem to take up most of Susan’s time.
Creator Marc Cherry, told Newsweek, “I wanted to write something about choices we make in life and what happens when that doesn’t go well.” Cherry was inspired to create the series by his own mother, who gave up a career as an opera singer to raise three children. He explains the women of Wisteria Lane by saying, “All these women have made some kind of choice in their life and are in various stages of regretting it. That’s where the desperation comes from.”
Of course, Cherry isn’t the first person to shine a spotlight onto the glitzy façade of suburban life. In the very beginning, there was “Peyton Place”, the 1960s soap opera about a small New England town, and the secrets and scandals of its inhabitants. In the 1980s, primetime soaps like “Dynasty” and “Dallas” ignored us boring, regular folks and focused on the double dealings and sexual exploits of the super rich. Only “Knots Landing” (my personal favorite) would remain anchored in the imaginary suburban cul-de-sac where women not only drove the neighborhood carpools — they also ruled the corporate boardrooms.
A couple of years ago, my family and I went to the mall and posed for the family portrait that now hangs on the wall in our living room in our suburban, New Jersey home. I love and treasure this portrait of us: all dressed-up and smiling, we appear to be a perfect, happy family without a worry. And I think sometimes that this is how we must appear to the rest of the world. Are others jealous of this ridiculously easy and good life we are leading? How can life possibly get any better than this?
And yet, sometimes I look at that same portrait, and I ask myself, “Who are these people?” The photograph really only provides a small snapshot into our lives. It is, after all, just a frozen moment — a visual reminder that life is made up a series of such moments. But at times, when life is more hectic and out-of-control, I look at the perfection of the family portrait, and I feel like a fraud, as if I am not really living the life I pretend to be living.
Here’s what you don’t see reflected in the smiles of my family portrait. By the time my son was two, and my daughter was four, I was plagued by depression, debilitating migraines, mood swings, and serious self-doubt. By choice, I had given up my career in independent filmmaking to stay home as a full-time mother. And I was failing rather miserably at it. I felt isolated and lonely, even though I rarely had a minute alone without my children. I was burnt out, overwhelmed by the never-ending laundry, chores, and other menial tasks of running a household and raising small children. I was angry at my children for their neediness, which I felt stood in the way of my own fulfillment. And I was jealous of my husband who continued his life seemingly unabated.
I had everything I ever wanted — a supportive, sensitive husband, two beautiful healthy children, a modest home in an affluent suburban community, and the financial freedom to buy anything or almost everything I desired. What right did I have to complain? And what the hell was wrong with me?
After staying home for a while, the walls of my house seemed as if they were closing in around me. And I began to feel trapped, a slave to two demanding, needy children. Part of me wanted to run away and hide from it all — even my own babies. And another part of me just wanted to know that I had the option of running away — if I wanted to.
This all explains why I identify with Lynette Scavo, an ambitious woman who was competent, successful, and controlled in her life prior to motherhood, but now snaps like a raging lunatic at her adorable, but rambunctious kiddies. I’ve been there — too many times. I’ve grabbed my toddlers too hard at the end of a long day, at the end of a long week, in what was most likely a very long month. I’ve screamed, I’ve cried, and I’ve had my share of irrational mommy tantrums. At times, my rage was so out-of-control that I even scared myself. And I eventually found myself teetering on the edge, wondering if I wasn’t about to fall into an abyss.
In a recent episode of “Desperate Housewives,” Lynette’s unstable house of cards finally came tumbling down. Unable to sleep, and suffering from Ritalin withdrawal, Lynette began fantasizing about suicide. In desperation, she ran from the house, telling her neighbor, Susan, to watch the kids. When Susan and Bree found her later, alone in a field, Lynette confessed all of her guilty secrets to them. Trying to make her feel better, Susan and Bree then confided their own mommy mishaps, and told her that everybody has a tough time with babies. And then Lynette reacted the same way I had reacted when my therapist told me that I wasn’t alone in struggling with motherhood: “Then why don’t we ever talk about it?”
If Lynette Scavo were a mother in my neighborhood, I would talk to her about what it’s like to be a stay-at-home mom to toddlers. I would also give her the name of my therapist and encourage her to get some relief from her full-time childcare duties. And I would listen to her complain, and then I’d tell her some of my own complaints. Because like Lynette, I understand the value in sharing our maternal struggles. In fact, two years ago, I created the website, The Philosophical Mother, out of my own desperate need to reach out and connect with other mothers who understood what I was going through and were honest about their own experiences.
I think that Lynette, much like myself, was unprepared for the complexity of motherhood and the identity crisis it would trigger inside. But besides the toughness of it all, I was also unprepared for the absoluteness of my love for my children, a love so deep that it practically consumed me whole. I still don’t completely understand why women continue to allow ourselves to be submerged beneath the needs of everyone else. But I do know that we do it out of love, and out of a instinctual need so deeply ingrained in our DNA, that it is difficult to separate ourselves from it.
I’m amazed that the television public is fascinated with the lives of a group of fictional suburban housewives. Perhaps “Desperate Housewives” is appealing because it offers a fun weekly escape, a simple guilty pleasure. It is original, fresh, and daring in a time when network TV has become increasingly formulaic and lame. And whether it was Cherry’s intention or not, I find it remarkable that amidst the nastiness, unsolved mysteries, and dirty laundry, “Desperate Housewives” has provided several of the most realistic and memorable moments of maternal desperation that I have ever seen depicted on television.
Not that anyone will ever confuse the fictional suburbs with its non-fictional counterparts. I assure you that most of the women in my neighborhood do not resemble the exaggerated characters of Wisteria Lane. However, just like our fictional counterparts, our lives are not picture perfect. And yes, beneath our smiles and behind our fences, we all really DO have a little dirty laundry.