Midge Maisel can do it all. She tells jokes. She cooks brisket. She charms the pants off everyone, from crotchety club owners to her fellow shopgirls to seminal 1960s urbanist Jane Jacobs. And she seamlessly juggles the affections of not one but two well-to-do, smoldering Jewish men (three, if you count Lenny Bruce).
But one thing she cannot do — or, perhaps more accurately, one thing she has no interest in doing — is parent.
As the title character of Amazon’s The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, Midge (played by Rachel Brosnahan) has two children under the age of 4, Ethan and Esther. While Esther is seen only a handful of times on the show, Ethan will make an occasional appearance irritating Midge’s irascible father Abe (Tony Shalhoub) or displaying creepy, oddly adult-like behavior, à la Mad Men’s Glen Bishop. But aside from these brief appearances, Midge’s children rarely factor into the universe of Mrs. Maisel at all. When Midge is performing at sticky-floored downtown nightclubs or doing impromptu (and frankly, extremely annoying) gigs at housewarming parties, Ethan and Esther are elsewhere — though exactly where, we don’t know, because the show rarely addresses the question of who is taking care of them.
This wasn’t always the case. In its first season, Mrs. Maisel took a few cursory stabs at explaining the absence of Midge’s kids: Whenever Midge had to go to a gig, she would leave them with her mother Rose (Marin Hinkle) or a kindly older neighbor. In season two, however, the show’s writers apparently abandoned any attempts at exposition, sending Midge and Abe and Rose gallivanting to Paris with an offhanded reference to Esther and Ethan being with a “babysitter.” (What kind of babysitter watches two kids under 4 for a week? And where can I find them?)
Additionally, we rarely, if ever, see Midge and her ex-husband Joel (Michael Zegers) negotiating child care logistics, or trying to figure out who will watch the children when — even though, as any parent will tell you, this subject comprises 85 percent of discussions between parents of small children.
Some critics have responded to Midge’s hands-off maternal style by essentially accusing her of being a bad mom. (Writer Jordana Horn, herself a single mother of six children, went so far as to refer to Midge as such in an op-ed for Kveller.) Other critics have argued that Midge’s lack of interest in her children is essentially a product of her era. “It’s possible [that creator Amy Sherman-Palladino is] making a point about casual Boomer attitudes toward raising children, modern helicopter parenting, or both,” Sophie Gilbert writes at the Atlantic.
And to an extent, this “sign of the times” argument makes sense. In the 1950s and ’60s, parents typically took a much more laissez-faire approach to parenting. In fact, the medical establishment had previously actively discouraged parents from spending too much time with their kids, warning them that showing too much affection would impair their children’s ability to become productive members of society. As a result, parents 50 years ago spent about half as much time with their children as parents do now.
That said, the argument that Midge’s so-called “icebox” parenting is typical of the time period only makes sense if the show is intended to be an accurate reflection of those times — and as many critics have pointed out, it is unsuccessful in this regard. While the show has been applauded for its sumptuous period costumes and vivid recreations of 1950s New York City, it’s also been criticized for its anachronistic dialogue, as well as its whitewashing of the complex racial politics of the time. (There are, in fact, few prominent characters of color on the show, even though 23.6 percent of the population of New York City at the time was African-American.)
Mrs. Maisel appears to want to recreate the style and glamor of the midcentury-modern era (and, in so doing, appeal to the nostalgia of those who lived during that time), while largely ignoring its repressive political and social dynamics. “In Mrs. Maisel’s New York, there is no racism or poverty,” Megan Reynolds writes for Jezebel, adding that the show “casts the past in a warm, golden light, artfully erasing the bad.”
Acknowledging the lives of marginalized figures of the time period — people of color, poor people, even Midge’s kids, left to their own devices in a sun-drenched classic four on the Upper West Side — does not work in service of the show’s singular focus on Midge and its narrative as a female empowerment fantasy. But what does it say about this female empowerment fantasy that it makes no room for children? And what does it say about Midge herself, this ostensibly marvelous multitasking heroine, that she doesn’t even attempt to make that room for them?
Midge’s kids don’t really fit into her new life
Nowhere is Midge’s lack of interest in her kids more apparent than in the final episode of the second season, when Midge is offered the opportunity to accompany a famous singer on a European tour. She immediately jumps at the offer, though her joy is momentarily put on hiatus when she remembers that she’s fielding a marriage proposal from her dreamy doctor boyfriend Benjamin (Zachary Levi). Midge realizes she can’t wed Benjamin and pursue her dream as a comic: “I can’t go back to Jell-O molds. There won’t be three [babies] before 30 for me,” she says. To be truly successful, she must be alone, a realization that’s reinforced by a performance of Lenny Bruce’s iconic standup act “All Alone.”
The problem is that Midge is not — and can never be — all alone. She may not want to go back to making Jell-O molds, but she does already have two children before 30, who recede into the background so often as to register as little more than a passing blur.
Midge’s indifference toward her children is particularly striking in contrast to another sitcom mom and beloved Amy Sherman-Palladino heroine, Lorelai Gilmore of Gilmore Girls. On that earlier series, Lorelai took a more traditional approach to mothering, reorganizing her entire life around that of her teenage daughter Rory. In fact, the show actively framed Lorelai’s decision to become a teenage mother and pursue a quiet, domestic life as an escape plan, a more satisfying alternative to the Ivy League degree and society matron role she had been encouraged to pursue since birth. Viewers are intended to view Lorelai’s humble life as a small-town innkeeper and her close, borderline obsessive relationship with her daughter as aspirational, and are never really prodded to ask how much she has given up to get there.
Were Mrs. Maisel a different show, the tension between Midge’s ambivalence about motherhood and adhering to the cultural pressures of her era would make for a fascinating dramatic arc. At the beginning of season one, the series even hinted that it might head in that direction: During one of Midge’s first standup sets, she asked herself, “What if I wasn’t supposed to be a mother? What if I picked the wrong profession?” while joking that she couldn’t pick her kids out of a lineup.
That line remains one of Mrs. Maisel’s rawest, most revelatory moments, not to mention a key joke in one of Midge’s funniest sets. But Mrs. Maisel chooses not to show Midge wrestling with these feelings in subsequent episodes. Indeed, it doesn’t really address her feelings about her role as a mother at all, because in its view of 1950s New York, the demands of motherhood are ultimately incompatible with the quest to find your own voice.
Whether that’s actually true, or whether Midge is a “bad” or “good” mom, is ultimately beside the point. But the show’s singular focus on Midge’s journey of self-fulfillment, and its insistence that there’s no room for her children on this journey, proves that in The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, this is Midge’s world. Everyone else, up to and including her children, is just living in it.