Some Draper Thoughts

Over this past summer, I watched Mad Men. While the series did end on a far more optimistic note than the 1960s did themselves, the show is ultimately a tragedy in the Aristotelian sense. we are moved toward pity for the characters, especially Don Draper, and through this, we can experience a catharsis.

In particular, I resonated with the female characters. Joan Harris showed me a professional woman’s path full of sexual harassment…something I’ve been protected from by industry standards and Equal Rights laws (and perhaps also my Throne of Privilege). Peggy Olson showed me a woman who was willing to overcome social norms and pursue her authentic self. Betty Draper gave me cause to look in the mirror of my own relationship to my mother, thus prompting all this recent work on Demeter and Persephone, a myth that has underscored so much of my identify formation.

***Some spoilers about Mad Men are ahead.***

At the end of the series, we find out that Betty is dying of advanced lung cancer. Her daughter, Sally, has to carry the burden of this looming death in the special way that only a daughter can. But it’s even more upsetting that she’s a teenager when it comes to light. My own mother died from complications with COPD, also a decaying lung disease, when I was 16. She was 54. Really, this is my primary reference for what aging looks like. She spent her “middle age” growing progressively sicker, and I spent my youth struggling with the constant battle between my innate daughterly-duty of taking care of her and rebelling against the whole thing. I’ve had to find Demeter entirely as a Persephone, alone and without the veiled mother longing for my return.

Being the same age that Betty was in the show, her character provides a helpful lens for dissecting the Demeter-Persephone balance that I’m missing. It’s difficult for me to read the books of the women who came before, because they frame their experiences and myths according to a narrative that doesn’t align with my Millennial upbringing. I’ve been fed a narrative that women as they age should do everything they can to maintain their beauty and youth until they no longer can deny the inevitability of their age. In other words, I’m supposed to go from young to old overnight without the journey in between. That narrative is missing. Betty’s narrative helps provide some context, except for the fact that she dies young.

Betty Draper doesn’t fully become an emotional mother until the opportunity presents itself for her to impart her wisdom on her daughter, but Betty and Sally’s relationship struggles underneath the weight of Betty’s own challenging relationship with her dead mother, one that also struggled to nurture and develop a healthy space for daughter to develop her identity. As Sally exerts her identity, Betty struggles with her rebellion and independence, blaming Don for not being a stronger authoritative figure for Sally. There’s a childishness in Betty’s mothering technique that isn’t resolved until she finally embraces her role as a mother.

Mything Motherhood

The reason I’ve been offline for awhile is, perhaps not coincidentally, the same thing that I’m working on now: motherhood. My daughter’s birthday, marking her early mid-single digit years, isn’t too far away. Meanwhile, I’ve felt compelled to work on a couple research projects that explore motherhood from a mythic perspective. I’ve done the rumination about motherhood from a cultural perspective, and it really isn’t helping. My experience has led me to conclude that American culture, for the most part, fundamentally hates mothers and children. We’ve turned pregnancy and birth into a medical condition. We no longer provide a reliable, affordable system that allows mothers to stay at home with their tiny children. For those fortunate enough to stay at home for the first years before school, we make it impossible for her to either find self-family balance and/or to return to the workforce. And think of it: how many of our celebrated pop culture warrior she-roes aren’t actually mothers. (Someday I’ll share my thoughts on why revering Wonder Woman is actually not helping).

My own journey into motherhood certainly hasn’t been easy, but that’s a story for a completely different forum. What’s brought me into the work is the fact that the myth of Demeter and Persephone keeps making a return. I explored Persephone during my first myth class at Pacifica with Christine Downing. I explored Persephone again a couple years late in a film class at Pacifica with Ginette Paris. Demeter and Persephone recently came up when I wrote a guest blog on Carol Pearson’s blog, and I’ve taught the myth a couple of times when applicable in my classes. But it wasn’t until my most recent rereading of the Homeric Hymn that I finally realized…I had the wrong perspective about Persephone.

Neil Gaiman mentioned in his piece, “What the [Very Bad Swearword] is a Children’s Book, Anyway?” (included in his excellent collection, View from the Cheap Seats, which I highly recommend to anyone who calls herself a writer), that a well-written kids book will reveal more (especially about sex) as the reader ages and becomes more experienced. I’ve long identified with Persephone, but it wasn’t until I started relating to Demeter that I was better able to recognize that additional layer of the story that Gaiman describes. I also read Ovid’s version for the first time immediately after the Homeric Hymn, reinforcing that this story is definitely more complex than I’d realized.

So here’s what I’m working on: I’ve taken a fascination recently in the moment that a girl shifts from embodying the archetypal energies of Persephone¬† into a woman embracing those of Demeter. It’s not a matter of biology, as Joseph Campbell would have be believe–I don’t have the citation handy, but he once mentioned that girls enter womanhood as a matter of biology. Just because a woman has a baby, doesn’t make her a mother. Some women remain stunted as Persephone mothers, and I blame this perspective on a culture that refuses to allow a woman to age. Rather, a culture that refuses to allow women to have an archetypal container through middle age.

This is what makes Demeter’s story so attractive, as well described by my wonderful friend, Rebekah Lovejoy, in a guest blog on Carol Pearson’s website. I’ve reached the front end of middle age, and I find myself distancing further away from my youth. I currently have a job that mostly resembles stable, and I’m a mother. A working mother. An early, middle-aged working mother.

I hear the call of Demeter and her mysteries of womanhood. And she is telling me to write.