‘Desperate Housewives’ got motherhood right—even all these years later


I got totally hooked on Desperate Housewives shortly after it premiered. The show had pretty much everything: Romance, mystery, epic drama, a healthy dose of comedy and a keen focus on female friendships. Women drove the action and I loved that.

But Desperate Housewives had something else, something I didn’t pick up on or realize the importance of when I watched as a 20-something: A really nuanced, smart and honest depiction of motherhood.

Fast forward a few years and I’m rewatching the show, only this time I’m doing so as a married mother of two… and let me tell you, it all hits so differently this time around.

If you need a refresher, the show is set in a lovely suburban neighborhood and centers around the lives of four women. All of them have very different relationships to motherhood.

There’s Bree, who tries so hard to be the perfect mom and wife, only to have her two children rebel in some heartbreaking ways. Susan, who desperately tries to hold it together as a single mom, but often finds herself being taken care of by her overachieving daughter (a very Lorelai and Rory dynamic, if you will). Gabrielle, who doesn’t want kids… even though her husband very much does. And Lynette, who has reluctantly stepped away from her thriving career to be a stay-at-home mom to her kids.

What’s so refreshing about Desperate Housewives is that it shows a whole spectrum of choices and approaches where motherhood is concerned… and it pulls back the curtain on the idea that there’s no right or wrong way to do it. It makes no attempt to conceal the reality of motherhood: That there’s no way to be perfect. That there will always be guilt and regrets and ‘what-ifs’. That all we can really do is love hard and try our best.

And we need to support fellow moms, even if their choices don’t line up with ours, while we’re at it. In the world of Desperate Housewives, a very traditional stay-at-home mom (think gourmet dinners every night, a perpetually spotless home, never a hair out of place) can be best friends with a woman who doesn’t seem entirely fulfilled by her role as a mom, who has dishes piled high in the sink and rumpled clothes and dreams of getting back to her career. They don’t do motherhood the same way, but they can also accept each other’s positions… and sure, there’s some judgement and some line-crossing that occurs (I told you it was realistic!), but the friendships manage to move beyond that.

Desperate Housewives also gets into the incredible pain and pressure that can come with motherhood. There are several scenes where Bree’s children turn on her for reasons beyond her control. When I first watched it, I didn’t quite grasp how true to life those scenes felt. I get it now—because sometimes in order to protect our children, we need to do things that make them think we’re the enemy.

Her experiences will ring especially true for stay-at-home moms who know what it’s like to make motherhood your life’s work… and understand how much pressure that involves, and how badly it stings when your efforts go unnoticed. Bree’s storyline was crafted before social media became what it is now, but it makes a very relevant point: That even the families who look so perfect to the outside world have their issues.

There are also scenes where Lynette, who eventually goes back to work full-time, misses out on her kids’ special moments—in one particular scene, she’s completely frazzled while fielding a work call and bringing home groceries. She leaves her child in the car outside her home… and honestly? If you watch that scene unfold as a person who doesn’t have kids, you would probably judge her for that. Now I understand how the perfect storm of sleep deprivation and competing priorities and unrelenting pressure can drive a person to make that kind of mistake. When you watch that scene (and so many others) as a mother, you can feel every ounce of Lynette’s guilt and shame.

Other moms will see themselves in Susan, whose storylines will resonate deeply with single mothers. We get to watch her wade into new relationships while raising her children; we get to see all the messiness that can arise when you’re trying to stay close (but not too close) with an ex who is the father of your children. We see how sometimes, mothers have to sacrifice the relationships they would love to nurture in favor of protecting their kids.

And then there’s Gabrielle, a gorgeous, unabashedly self-absorbed former model who (spoiler alert!) doesn’t want kids, but eventually becomes a mother of two. Not many shows are willing to go there: To show that not every woman sees herself as a mother… even the ones who eventually do have children and love them with all their might. We see how motherhood takes some of her sparkle away, but makes her a more selfless, solid person. We see how much she loves her daughters, but we also see that she does it in her own way… and doesn’t try to hard the fact that sometimes she misses her old life.

So kudos to Desperate Housewives for showing us the complicated, messy, painful realities of motherhood. For showing us it doesn’t always look the same way. For celebrating the incredible pressure mothers work through every single day. For making it abundantly clear that no mom is perfect. For depicting how our roles as mothers affect everything in our lives—our careers, our friendships, our love lives and our identities.

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